Coronavirus crisis opens opportunity for shifting Israeli foreign policy

Op-eds / Strengthening Israel's Foreign Policy

At present, there is no end in sight for the novel coronavirus crisis and we do not know its repercussions for the future. Despite this, it is not too soon to start thinking about possible lessons and insights for Israeli foreign policy on the day after.

For now, the takeaways are contradictory. On the one hand, states are closing their borders and turning inward, as mandated by health considerations. On the other hand, cooperation between states will clearly be necessary in order to overcome the unprecedented crisis in the health, economic and diplomatic arenas.

We are witnessing the rise of more conservative and populist regimes in various states in recent years, and even in some which have adopted racist overtones. The coronavirus outbreak could buttress their argument that unsupervised open borders result not only in uncontrolled immigration, but also in epidemics.

An understandably frightened public might support seclusion and isolationist trends. The immediate challenge on the day after will require a balance between what appear to be two polar positions – the version of globalization as we know it versus the veering toward separation and isolationism.

Israel is facing that challenge all the more forcefully given the trends of recent years. Its foreign policy has been marked by increased isolationism, an emphasis on threats – whether existential or merely serious attempts to block international diplomatic initiatives and a deep sense that “the world is against us” or that “the world does not fully understand the threats we face.”

The coronavirus crisis is a strategic crossroads for renewed solidarity, initiatives and cooperation in the regional and international arena. It therefore constitutes an opportunity for a shift in Israel’s foreign policy, which should be based on several layers.

1. Supporting others – Israel has achieved admirable progress in various fields. It is important to share the unique knowledge we have amassed and developed with neighboring states and with those further away. There is no need to keep boasting of Israel as a “start-up nation.” Instead, Israel should significantly expand its investment in foreign aid.

2. Highlighting opportunities alongside threats – The world appears to have internalized the “threat list” that Israel skillfully presented. Without making light of them, the array of opportunities presented in terms of joint interests with regional states in recent years should also be emphasized. There are numerous options for cooperation between Israel and its neighbors, not only in response to threats but also in taking advantage of opportunities in environmental protection, water, health, immigration and energy, to name a few. The immigration crisis, for example, requires a joint effort to stabilize the situation, but also provides an opportunity for joint plans to address understandable concerns and help create a supportive rather than a threatening and argumentative climate.

3. Regional cooperation – Recent years have presented Israel with increased potential for regional cooperation. Israel took constructive steps to take advantage of this potential, but they must be deepened and extended to the broader region. While the Arab Spring did not generate the hoped-for democratization, it did create a more conducive foundation for cooperation between Israel and key Arab states, as well as a sense of a shared fate vis-à-vis a variety of challenges.

4. Conducting an open dialogue with the Palestinians – Current events have underscored the necessity for tighter coordination and cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. It is very important to take advantage of the opportunity offered by the COVID-19 crisis to return to a format of broader dialogue – empathetic and deep – between the sides. Its outset is in facing the ongoing crisis; its aftermath is in examining ways to break through the impasse in the peace process.

5. Good neighborly relations with Europe – In recent years, Israel has focused on the criticism voiced by Brussels against its policies. The Israeli government took a confrontational approach toward the EU and regarded its weaknesses (prompted by economic, diplomatic and social challenges) as an opportunity. Israel must realize that the geographic, economic and cultural realities linking it to Europe are an asset and not a liability. Moreover, good relations with the EU do not contradict Israel’s strategic relationship with the US, even if they appeared to do so for a short while.

6. A foreign policy based on initiatives and vision – Perhaps most importantly, Israel must replace its defensive and blocking posture with a foreign policy that is proactive and that of an internationalist. Israel should present a vision of its own for regional cooperation and coexistence, based on positive common denominators, rather than being reactive and relying on negatives. By its very nature, the road to realizing a vision is difficult, but a vision-led foreign policy can contribute to a constructive and less threatening atmosphere, resulting in charging the regional climate with positive energies, with or without natural gas.

The writer is a policy fellow at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policy and a former ambassador to Cyprus.

(originally published in the Jerusalem Post)

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