February 22, 2024
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February 22, 2024
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Israel Among the Nations

Highlighting: “Israel 2048: The Rejuvenated State” by Michael Oren. The Toby Press. 2023. English, Hebrew, Arabic. Paperback. 330 pages. ISBN-13: 978-9655263527.

(Courtesy of Koren) The Zionist movement launched by Herzl was essentially a foreign policy initiative aimed at sultans and kaisers and other world leaders. It drew on a tradition as old as Judaism itself and our forebears’ need to navigate between warring empires. The covenant between God and the Jewish people incorporates concepts and language from ancient treaties. The Bible itself can be seen as a primer for how—and how not—to conduct foreign affairs.

This legacy was harnessed by Israel’s founders to secure recognition and legitimacy for the Jewish state and, after its establishment, help ensure its survival. Like our ancestors in the Bible, Israeli leaders had to steer carefully between hostile blocs and maintain strategic alliances. In recent years, the effort to destroy Israel has morphed from an exclusively military to a largely legal campaign designed to delegitimize the Jewish state and strangle it with sanctions. Why then should Israel downplay the importance—and often dismiss—the role of foreign relations?

The reason is the presence of a parallel tradition, one of Zionist distaste for the Diasporic court (shtatlan) Jew combined with the premium Israelis place on self-reliance. The school of thought was best summarized by David Ben-Gurion’s famous quip, “Umm Shmum” (roughly “The United Nations—who cares?”) When, as ambassador to the United States, I first informed IDF and Mossad commanders of the campaign to boycott and sanction Israel, their reaction was, “No worry. The main thing is that we remain strong.” As if tanks and planes could defend the state from a popular movement seeking to pass laws denying us, first, the right to use those armaments, and later the right to exist.

In the contest between the two traditions, the biblical regard for foreign policy and the current contempt, the latter has won out. The foreign ministry has been stripped of many of its responsibilities and its budget repeatedly slashed. Much of Israel’s foreign policy is today conducted through the National Security Council, the IDF, and the Mossad, by individuals lacking any diplomatic background. Norway, with none of the legal and diplomatic challenges Israel faces, spends twelve times as much on its foreign relations. The Palestinian Authority maintains 120 legations abroad. Israel has 96, with several of those slated for closure.

Ironically, the decision to cut back on Israel’s representation abroad comes at a time of unprecedented international interest in expanding ties with the Jewish state. Once, in the years after Israel’s twenty-fifth anniversary, the country was completely isolated. No peace with Jordan and Egypt, unremitting hostility from China, India, the twelve-nation Soviet Bloc, and embassies in only five of the twenty-four African capitals. Relations with most of Central and South America were strained at best. Today, fifty years later, all of those countries, plus the four Arab signatories to the Abraham Accords, are closely linked with Israel. Never before has our diplomatic portfolio been more diversified. Never before has our foreign policy horizon been wider. And yet, at the same time, rarely has there been a more urgent need for an effective, creative, and activist Israeli diplomacy.

The reason is that now, as in millennia past, Israel must navigate between empires. With the United States—Israel’s preeminent ally virtually since its founding—withdrawing from the Middle East and elsewhere in the world, and other powers rushing to fill the vacuum, Israel finds itself facing new superpower challenges. Far beyond the hazards posed by Russian forces stationed near our northern border, there is the looming challenge of China.

This is the China that has built some thirty-five ports around the world, including at the entrance to the Red Sea, and is reportedly planning to construct two on the Persian Gulf. The same China now dominates Africa economically while rapidly expanding its global naval outreach. Analysts also predict that China, alone, has the ability to rebuild Syria, a project estimated to cost some $300 billion. And this is the China that has modernized Israel’s two major ports, laid Tel Aviv’s subway system, and undertaken dozens of major construction projects countrywide. The skylines of virtually all Israeli cities are marked with cranes bearing Chinese signs. Less visible are Chinese takeovers of Israeli high-tech companies and the opening of Chinese cultural and technological centers at Israeli universities.

China is certainly not a hostile country—anti-Semitism is essentially unknown there—but it is increasingly regarded as such by the United States. American officials have repeatedly warned their Israeli counterparts that, if China rebuilds Haifa port, the U.S. Sixth Fleet will no longer pay ports-of-call visits there. Washington has repeatedly worked to prevent the sale of Israeli military technology to China, to the point of triggering diplomatic crises with Jerusalem. Our ally’s position is that Israel cannot have its American pie and Chinese rice cake, too. Ultimately, we must choose.

And so, Israel must navigate. It must counterbalance its strategic, economic, and ideological links with America with its burgeoning interests with China, to take stock of America’s retreat from the Middle East with China’s very rapid entry, and to grapple with China’s close relations with Iran, North Korea, and other enemy states. All the while, Israel must not lose sight of the parallel foreign policy goal of preserving our right to defend ourselves and, beyond that, our right to exist as a sovereign Jewish state.

The means for ensuring those rights are discussed elsewhere in this piece (see, “AState of Security”), but it bears repeating that failure to address the very real threat posed daily to Israel’s legitimacy could seriously endanger our security and ultimately even our existence. That threat must be fought by all possible means, including, of course, foreign policy. And foreign policy was and will remain the principal purview of the foreign ministry.

Yet it is precisely that ministry whose budget and responsibilities have been so radically reduced. Reversing this trend requires better educating Israelis about the impact of foreign affairs on their daily lives. Diplomacy is not merely the poor stepchild of security, they must learn, but an essential tool for safeguarding their homes and prosperity. Diplomats do not “sip cocktails,” as the popular myth holds, but work long hours for little pay and even risk their lives to represent and defend Israel in an often-hostile world. They provide the time and space necessary for our soldiers to fight and defend them from legal repercussions.

The foreign ministry must also be reformed. An institution infamous for inefficiency and mindless bureaucracy, it must be streamlined and modernized. Gone must be the days when diplomats could exchange some 120 cables to purchase—this actually happened—a teakettle. So, too, the ministry must be purged of the cronyism that consistently led to inappropriate and even damaging postings abroad and chronic leaks to the press. Early in my term in Washington, I briefed several foreign ministry departments, including the most classified unit, and read everything I said in the next day’s newspapers. Israel’s ambassador to the United States never spoke to the foreign ministry again for the next five years!

Generally, the ministry must be made to reflect twenty-first-century realities. No longer can the embassy in Washington have a full-time diplomat in charge of international organizations, but not a single political attaché analyzing elections in America. No longer can a mid-level diplomat serve as Israel’s sole liaison to 1.4 billion Christians. The old division of departments according to geography (Asian Desk, European Desk) no longer corresponds to a world linked by the internet and economic globalization. Ambassadors and their staffs must be chosen solely on their qualifications, by a committee free of foreign ministry influence, and instantly dismissed for leaks. The ministry, in short, must be deconstructed and rebuilt in ways that can regain the public’s confidence.

The road turn restoring the foreign ministry to the exalted position it held in the early years of the state, and, more broadly, reviving the Jewish people’s respect for diplomacy, is long and challenging. It is a path that must be taken, if Israel is to position itself successfully in the twenty-first-century world, navigating between competing powers, and defending itself against delegitimization. Israel can be a light unto nations but only by projecting and protecting the beam.

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