Since its independence, Israel’s foreign policy had to cope with changes to the international balance of power in an attempt to find the most relevant superpower to rely on. The strategic alliance with the US, which was forged over the years, sufficed Israel’s search and to this day constitutes the dominant feature in Israel’s foreign policy. However, the recent changes in the international arena demanded an appropriate response by Israeli foreign policymakers to wisely maneuver between the emerging powers, alongside its continued reliance on the US.
The US weakens and converges inward
The important recent change on the world stage was the American decision to reduce its international involvement and withdraw from its leadership position. This trend was evident in the past but gained momentum under Trump, who tended to adopt features of isolationism and who seemed to reject the burden of global leadership. Meanwhile, the international vacuum left by the US was filled by rival powers, chiefly Russia and China, pursuing a return to the multi-polar world order.
China’s global rise began before Obama took office, who respectively pivoted his foreign policy priority towards Asia, but it was Trump who lined-up China and the US on a collision path. Although economic in nature, Trump’s policy had far-reaching political and strategical implications. Meanwhile, Russia exploited the US absence in some areas to return its position to the days of yore. This is evident in the Middle East, more dominantly in Syria but also in Egypt and the Gulf.
What also allowed the illiberal powers to thrive was the EU’s economic and political decline, due to difficulties reaching the necessary consensus among the fragmented member-states to adopt a foreign policy, to the rise of populist leaders and to Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. Additionally, the decline of America’s global standing and Trump’s heedless behavior in the multilateral arena, weakened international institutions built upon mutual values of cooperation and solidarity.
Geopolitical changes reshaping Middle East alliances
The events of the Arab Spring, which mostly failed to promote democracy, and the Arab world’s weakening as a collective, fractured the regional standings of most Arab countries and allowed Iran and Turkey to amplify their influence. Iran’s adoption of an aggressive regional policy in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, paved the way for most Sunni states to form an axis with Israel to curb Iran’s influence.
Although Turkey was not as successful in exploiting the Arab countries’ weakening, it remains an influential actor in several scenes and an important country that cannot be ignored. This is true in the Eastern Mediterranean, which attracted increasing global interests, and currently encompasses a battleground between Turkey and other countries but also a fascinating fertile ground for a weave of regional cooperation.
In light of the dramatic changes, the Palestinian cause was pushed aside and the Abraham Accords marked a paradigm shift for some Arab countries, no longer requiring a substantial advancement in the Israel-Palestinian peace process as a precursor for normalization.
Israel shows impressive political maneuvering skills
Israel internalized the regional developments and demonstrated considerable maneuverability in addressing them. It exploited the Arab world’s weakening and the Iranian threat, which also threatened the Gulf states, to improve relations with the Gulf states and even establish formal relations with some. The dialogue with Saudi Arabia has strengthened and at times was even publicly expressed. Simultaneously, Israel tightened its dialogue with Qatar, despite the bad blood between Qatar and the Gulf states, and institutionalized Qatar’s financial support for Hamas to prevent deterioration and preserve the status quo in the Gaza strip.
On the Syrian front, Israel established effective coordination with Russia which was essential after the US decided to withdraw its forces. With Egypt’s Al-Sisi, Israel established a close relationship based on mutual interests, despite the absence of normalization which stands out against the backdrop of Israel’s warming relations with the Gulf states and Morocco. In the Eastern Mediterranean, the establishment of an innovative framework for regional cooperation in the form of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, illustrates how much can be achieved with regional cooperation and the close relationships with Greece and Cyprus. Israel also tightened its economic relations with China, but it still needs to navigate the thin line between encouraging Chinese investments and American pressure.
Albeit, the Israeli government exploited the dramatic regional changes to distance the two-state solution, instead of advancing peace with its Palestinian neighbors.
Is there a vision alongside pragmatism?
The question is if Israel’s conduct infers a substantial, paradigmatic shift, or merely a successful “maneuvering skills” as it did before. It seems like it is too early to call Israel’s moves as a paradigmatic shift and much relies on how Israel conducts its relationship with the Biden administration. The entire international arena is gearing up for the new administration, the lion’s share, that of democracies of course, in a clear sigh of relief. Israel’s intimate alignment with the Trump administration and its clear stance on the Republican side, caused considerable damage to Israel’s position in American politics and internationally. The closeness and comfort that Israel felt with the outgoing president and his doctrine, and the publicity Israel gave it, severely damaged the value alignment that Israel shares with the Western-liberal countries, as well as with key parts of the Jewish community in the US. Now, Israel will be required to maneuver and change direction again.
On the Iranian nuclear issue, most central for Israel, the erosion of America’s global standing and its withdrawal from the nuclear agreement, with Israel’s clear encouragement, raise many questions about Israel’s political sage in recent years. The international community is now required to renegotiate on an improved deal with Iran, which increased uranium enrichment levels, signaling a rigid bargaining position despite its difficult economic situation due to sanctions and the pandemic. A renewed and united international front against Iran will better serve Israel’s interests, than the sweeping opposition it has expressed to the previous negotiations between the powers with Iran.
The repression of the Palestinian issue and the ongoing creeping annexation do not eliminate the necessity for a solution to the conflict, rather they only distance it. It is precisely the improved regional and international circumstances in recent years, including some Arab countries’ inclination to promote normalization before resolving the conflict, or significantly advancing towards a solution, which should have been exploited by Israel to advance the peace process. Israel could have leveraged the improved regional understanding of its position to secure its interests, including security arrangements, territorial exchanges, or the refugee issue.
In recent years, Israel successfully adapted to the regional and international dramatic changes. But it is important that Israel’s sense of self-confidence, partially understood, will not delude Israeli decision-makers of Israel’s ‘natural size’. Israel should not be tricked into pursuing convenient policy goals and praiseworthy maneuverability, and instead, articulate a long-term vision based on peace agreements and regional cooperation.