Israel’s Foreign Policy — Altruism, Self-Interest, An Exercise in Futility, or None of the Above?

The age-old debate, whether Israel and the Jewish communities are doing too much for others, at the expense of helping our own, creeps back to the forefront every time there is some international disaster where Israel is usually the first to send its teams, such as the humanitarian tour de force IsraAid. The argument goes something like this:

a.) there is poverty and unresolved internal issues; so why waste money elsewhere?

b) Jews are always sticking their necks out for random, unrelated causes, losing sight of their own identity, assimilating, and becoming nothing more than mouthpieces for assorted political parties, movements, and hashtag campaigns.

c) Neither the Jewish Diaspora nor Israel get much out of their do-good policy. The countries they help, such as Haiti, still go on to vote in support of anti-Israeli resolutions at the UN. Many countries still refuse to go anywhere near even vital money-saving technologies Israel produces simply because they will become ostracized by everyone else the moment they even show up to a relevant meeting.

d) If it’s altruism, it’s misguided. If it’s self-interest, it has failed.

e.) All these countries see Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the obstacle to normalization, and will not move to improve relations until it is resolved, so we are at an impasse.

f) There is no point in working on relationship-building measures with the populations, as long as anti-Israel regimes are in control, because the people have no power to help Israel in any way, and so precious resources are being wasted.

These concerns are understandable, but fail to take a number of issues into consideration. Worse, they lump together unrelated issues – Israel’s foreign policy, and agendas and personal proclivities of assorted private groups and Jewish individuals. Not everything is a giant Zionist conspiracy, and, believe it or not, Israel’s government, when sending IsraAid to Nepal or Japan, does not coordinate with Jewish leftists in the U.S. donating to some specific social justice charity. Let’s begin unraveling the myths and misconceptions by agreeing on the fundamentals – that any country will have foreign policy and interests, regardless of whatever seemingly unrelated internal challenges it faces.  A specific portion of the budget will go on to meet these interests.

Whether or not that portion of the budget should be going to social welfare programs inside the country is up to the policymakers, but if the policy shows some measure of effectiveness in meeting its goal, it is fair to try to meet multiple goals, rather than to dump all the money into social welfare programs, while leaving nothing for other considerations. I think this one we can all agree on (unless we are complete isolationists, pacifists, and so forth, but even then just because we choose to withdraw from the world, which Israel in particular simply cannot afford, that does not mean that the world will withdraw from us, which again is particularly true in Israel’s case.)

So now the question is, what are the goals of Israel’s foreign policy? Are they worthy of monetary allocation vis-a-vis other programming? And are they being met effectively?

Focusing on alliances and relationship-building we can see that Israel has effectively branched out in many directions. It has peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan (a very decent relationship with the governments of both countries right now), and growing trade and defense ties with China, South Korea, Japan, India, Singapore, and Russia, in addition to a proliferation of largely energy-related investment and positive working relations in Africa. Those familiar with Israel’s history, will recall the “periphery” strategy, described in much greater depth in Yossi Alpher’s eponymous book, of aligning with ethnic and religious minorities in the region, as well as outlying countries, such as Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Morocco. That strategy persisted into the 1960 and 70s, when the Islamic Revolution ended Israel’s relationship with Iran, Kurds have faded into the background, and relationships elsewhere went awry. The ties with the Druze outside the country, as well as the Lebanese Maronites misfired badly, and for a while, Israel took a step back from pursuing those relationships. Even at the time these alliances were at their peak form, they were intelligence-directed ad hoc general policies, rather than strategies specific to any one course of action. The general intent of this policy was to make Israel appear less of an outsider in the region and to capitalize on aligning with non-Arab, non-Muslim or more “neutral” countries and their reciprocal need for protection from the majoritarian forces in the region. Morocco, for instance, was one of the central players in assuring the success of the Egypt peace treaty; and Iran, likewise, had played a role in facing of the attacks by the Arab states.

Although some of the key players had changed, the policy is quickly making a comeback. However, it appears that other issues are being taken into consideration. The Kurds, for instance, are in a far more strategically important position now than they have ever been. The relationship with Morocco has been continuous and growing stronger. The relationship with Ethiopia is marked by the upcoming evacuation of the remaining Ethiopian Jews, which actually is not attracting much attention in Ethiopia; however, in general, the ties are growing. The ties with the Druze on Syrian border are returning to the table for discussion, not only as an issue of humanitarian concern for family members of Israeli Druze, but as a strategic group on an important border, with a reputation for being fierce fighters, albeit small in numbers, who stand to be important allies against invading external forces, and who may play a key role in any future safe zones in Syria. Still, there has been a shift in intent with respect to growing these relationship. First, they are about growing bilateral relationships, rather than one-sided humanitarian aid. Without going into too much detail about the wisdom of allowing Al-Nusra-Front affiliates and others to receive treatment in Israeli hospitals, suffice it to say that the gesture was aimed less at influencing the international opinion, which rarely cares for any of Israel’s actions that are not directly related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and more towards sending a message to relevant players in the vicinity.

Similarly, coalition building with the Gulf States in response to the threat of the growing Iranian hegemony is not entirely antithetical to other considerations. Those human rights activists who have criticized Israel for building ties with Saudi Arabia, in spite of its abysmal human rights records, fail to take into account that unlike the Islamic Republic of Iran, Saudi Arabia has been in fact taking very modest steps inside the country and as such a strong partnership in other areas may leave room for a possibility of behind-the-scene cooperation on other fronts as well. The cautious behind the scenes approach Israel has been taking with respect to Arab countries is precisely the sort of measure that can indeed lead to stronger and real relationships down the line.

Contrast that to the shallow alliance between the P5+1 with Iran over the nuclear deal, which was based in nothing but hopes that at some point Iran will be careful enough to slow down the threat of its nuclear proliferation and become a good place for investment. When there is no real understanding on very basic issues and no partnership, no strong long-term alliance can emerge. Temporary alliances are made all the time — but just as quickly broken.

We can surmise, then, that Israel’s policy emerges in response to real strategic issues of importance and is aimed at developing close ties that can bring about strong future relationships at some point in the future. They are not merely acts of desperation in the face of threatening geopolitical realities, nor are they outreach efforts simply for the sake of being liked. (Besides, in all these relationships, at least some of the contacts have been initiated by Israel’s counterparts). But what about actual humanitarian aid? How much of it is being offered up by the government and how much it does it come from public-private partnership? Well, the role of the humanitarian aid is elucidated by the Foreign Ministry. The use of humanitarian aid was adopted in 1958 as part of international cooperation efforts. What does international cooperation actually mean? It does not meant merely trying to make oneself look good by sucking up to weaker countries and offering them bribes in exchange for positive image. It does mean being part of a community of equals, not acting as a perpetual victim, recognizing that there is suffering outside the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and helping deal others with issues the way any good neighbor would help his neighbors in need. If your neighbor’s house burns down by fire, will you not offer a modicum of basic help?

You will likely do that, even if your neighbor is not a closer help, because that’s what people living in societies do. They help each other. Not because they expect immediate reciprocity or hope to get into the other’s good graces, but because communities are based on the idea of providing basic assistance in time of life-and-death situations and other great needs. It’s not only because helping someone in a hard life situation is the right thing to do, but because, pragmatically, countries are not isolationist, and with the except of countries which are openly hostile to Israel and deny the very fact of its existence, there is some level of cooperation with everyone.  And you build up existing relationships not by hiding out and hoping that these guys will somehow ideologically change their minds and become brave defenders of Israel, but by doing things with them, increasing your visibility, and finding common ground. That common ground often starts with humanitarian aid and general establishment of rapport and good will. Would you not prefer to building up good relations with someone who appears to be generally pleasantly and open to such things than with someone who is sulking in the corner and complaining about being hated by everyone?

That seems common sense, yet the confusion of the role of humanitarian aid is understandable. The results are not always quid pro quo, and relationship building on an international level is not based in immediate radical upgrades in relationships.  In other words,  if you send a humanitarian aid package to a country facing a natural disaster, it doesn’t mean that next week they will not vote against you at the UN. It does, however, mean, that they might be interested in cooperating on some behind-the-scenes investment effort, or be more open in granting visas to tourists, or enter negotiations about future UN-related cooperation. The results are not always visible or tangible, nor do they need to be. And they may not always be what the public would like them to be, but it doesn’t mean they are irrelevant or useless.

Sometimes good rapport builds up over time and translates into something more tangential later. Other times, it is almost immediately visible. At least two African countries had, for the first time, abstained from voting against Israel at the UN after a period of time of positive cooperation on various internal issues. And frankly no one outside observer is capable of seeing the full scope of what’s going in a situation when thousands of diplomats, staffers, and others are working on a multiplicity of tasks at the same time. You may call on one diplomat to do something and that particular person may not be all that interested in that particular issue, or concerned about that particular situation, but someone else might be more courageous or interested. The same person may prove to be open to something relevant in another scenario, which may even be almost identical to the initial request with the exception of some seemingly minor details. So I hesitate to pass judgments on the efficacy of pursuing particular courses of action with respect to foreign policy; and frankly, people who may know a few diplomats or officials, and make sweeping claims about the success of the entirely policy lines based on their personal experiences with those few people, are usually boastful ignoramuses who misrepresent reality to make themselves appear more influential and involved than they actually are.

As to the value of working with seemingly disenfranchised populations even when the governments are hostile or disinterested in cooperation, it cannot be overestimated. Why do Consulates exist? In large part, to engage in public diplomacy with interest groups and just random people, including younger generations. Clearly, they see value in working with grassroots groups, not just other diplomats and politicians. In other words, there is value for anyone to work with anyone, provided the targeted party is willing to at the very least, listen. The benefits in engaging in these seemingly hopeless efforts are multifold:

1. In democracies, younger generations eventually come to power. Best to build relationships before it’s too late and they are co-opted by hostile forces.

2. Special interest groups are frequently open to cooperation on important issues and can be useful allies in working within the system/government.

3. In non-democratic countries, governments may change in unpredictable or sudden ways, and having allies on the ground may prove invaluable.

4. There is more to foreign policy than UN resolutions. Frequently, it is the people on the ground that are most useful in getting things done.  And frequently these groups may be open to cooperation where governments are not. They can help you promote your causes, and engage the population.  In democracies, informed public that is on your side can be instrumental in bringing about changes in governments that can lead to important shifts in foreign policy.

5. The more people you know, the more powerful you are. That’s it. It’s as simple as that.

And even if the populations are generally politically powerless and downtrodden, they don’t always have to stay that way, and can be useful resources of information, and other assistance on the ground. That can be central towards the tactics of accomplishing your foreign policy goals.

Relationship building is instrumental towards successful orientation in the foreign policy world. But in the individual/private world, it also has value, as long as you know what you are trying to accomplish and are willing to make changes if you see that your approach is not working. In other words, making grandiose statements and embracing causes only if you hope that these people will like and admire you, is not a mature or effective way of living. But building bilateral and multilateral relationships based on common values, goals, and interests will increase your overall effectiveness.

About the Author
Irina Tsukerman graduated with a JD from Fordham University School of Law in 2009 and received her BA in International/Intercultural Studies and Middle East Studies from Fordham University in 2006. Her legal and advocacy work focuses on human rights and security issue, mostly in Muslim countries. She is also involved in diplomatic outreach and relationship-building among different communities.
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