Eight years ago, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak warned that Israel would face a diplomatic tsunami unless it re-engaged in the long stalemated peace talks with the Palestinians. Later on, Tzipi Livni also warned during an election campaign against Israel’s impending diplomatic isolation. Recently, however, we are hearing from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel’s diplomacy is actually flourishing and it now enjoys unprecedented international standing.
Israel’s warm relationship with the US administration, the enhanced alliances in the Eastern Mediterranean, and burgeoning relations with Gulf States could bolster these claims. However, missing from this rosy picture are the stagnated peace process with the Palestinians, the inability to resolve the festering conflict with Hamas in Gaza, tensions with the EU, crises with Russia and Turkey, difficulties with key Jewish communities, troubling embraces of illiberal leaders from Hungary, Brazil, the Philippines, Italy, and more.
It will be up to the next Israeli government to reevaluate and provide alternatives to Israel’s current foreign policy, to the values guiding it, and to the status of those government agencies tasked with implementing it. Should the next foreign minister – assuming a fulltime minister will be appointed, unlike after the 2015 elections – will have interest in promoting a pro-peace, multi-regional, internationalist, modern and inclusive Israeli foreign policy, he or she should take the following steps during the first 100 days in office:
First on the agenda is launching a process to advance peace with the Palestinian Authority (PA) based on previous agreements and international resolutions, in accordance with the accepted parameters of a two-state solution. Such a move could be launched with a public statement of intent regarding the final goal of the negotiations as proof of seriousness, a meeting with PA President Mahmoud Abbas and the creation of a bilateral channel for talks (with an initial clandestine component). Israel should also support the establishment of an updated multilateral mechanism to support the peace process, as an improvement to the existing Quartet, in which specific European and Middle Eastern countries will also take part. While advancing such an initiative, the next Israeli government must recognize the need for a renewed political unity between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, as the current split poses a major obstacle on the way to a two-state solution.
The second step to follow the first should be leveraging the move vis-à-vis the Palestinians to realize the unfulfilled regional potential. Israel has been presented with unique opportunities in recent years to significantly upgrade its standing in the Middle East, in the Mediterranean and in Europe, most of which remain unrealized due to the freeze in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Progress with the Palestinians would enable the next government to take relations with Arab countries to the next level, making them more public and diverse, rather than focusing mostly on behind-the-scenes security coordination. It would also revive regional incentives for peace that previous Israeli governments wrongly ignored – the Arab Peace Initiative and the EU’s proposal of a Special Privileged Partnership, and enable the leveraging of economic cooperation in the Mediterranean to affect change in the diplomatic, civil and security spheres. Finally, it would remove significant obstacles to upgrading Israel’s relationship with the EU.
The third measure is strengthening the democratic component in Israel’s foreign relations. In recent years, the Israeli government eroded basic principles of Israeli democracy. Along with the repercussions of these actions on Israeli society, they have also had an impact on the state’s foreign relations. The next foreign minister will have to prioritize relations and alliances with democratic states, even those critical of Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians. As a rule, Israel must recognize the legitimacy of criticism and conduct dialogue with those voicing it rather than seeking to undermine them. The new foreign minister will have to pull back from Israel’s rapprochement with far-right elements in Europe, some of them tainted by antisemitism. Instead of lashing out at the EU and joining forces with European member states seeking to divide and weaken it, Israel must regard the EU as a partner – both in practical terms and from a value-based perspective. Rather than inviting Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to Jerusalem, after the European Parliament elections in May Israel should invite whoever replaces Federica Mogherini as the EU’s foreign policy chief.
An effective foreign policy requires a strong and well-functioning foreign ministry and recognition of diplomacy as a central instrument in advancing national security. Thus, the fourth move required of the new foreign minister will be to formulate a national foreign policy paradigm, bring the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) to the forefront of core foreign policy issues, upgrade the standing of the Foreign Service vis-à-vis the defense establishment, and restore to the MFA responsibilities delegated to other government bodies in recent years. The minister will also have to work with the Knesset to increase its focus on foreign policy issues (first and foremost by its Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee), and advance internal structural reforms within the MFA. Last but by no means least, the new foreign minister will have to raise public awareness of the importance of diplomacy and of the MFA’s role in implementing it.
The upcoming general elections provide an opportunity to change course in Israel’s foreign policy, towards an empowered Foreign Service, better ties with the Middle East and Europe, and progress in the quest for Israeli-Palestinian peace. A full plate awaits Israel’s next foreign minister.
Dr. Nimrod Goren is head of the Mitvim Institute and a lecturer at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.