Home >Opinion >Is Israel a pariah? Not according to its new friends

Many activists celebrate “Israel Apartheid Week" by agitating against the Jewish state at a rally or perhaps a roundtable discussion. This year, Dore Gold, the director general of Israel’s foreign ministry, marked the occasion on 10 March by visiting the government that replaced the apartheid regime in South Africa.

The symbolism is delicious. Here is a top diplomat from a country compared by its foes to the regime of P.W. Botha meeting in Pretoria with diplomats who helped to bring that regime down. Gold made sure to visit Nelson Mandela’s home in Soweto, which is now a museum, in case the point was missed.

And yet many activists on both sides of this issue have been missing this point. First there is the movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel, known as BDS. One of its founders, Omar Barghouti, wrote in January that a meeting of an Israeli Knesset committee to combat BDS revealed an “Israeli fear of isolation." In the absence of a peace process, BDS appears to have momentum as more and more academic associations, student governments and churches sign on to the campaign.

Then there is the counter-BDS movement. Earlier this month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced he would divest his state’s funds from businesses that engaged in the boycott of Israel, and even individuals who advocate for such boycotts. Other states are now considering similar laws and prominent Jewish philanthropists are funding efforts to BDS the BDS movement, so to speak.

Both sides of this fight give the impression that Israel is becoming a pariah. And yet BDS has failed as both an economic and diplomatic weapon. Consider that since 2006, when the movement began, Israel’s gross domestic product has nearly doubled, going from a little over $154 billion to $299 billion for 2015.

Israel is also warming ties with countries all over the world, even as Europe and the US are increasing the pressure over Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Let’s start with Africa. Next month, Benjamin Netanyahu will be the first Israeli prime minister since Yitzhak Rabin to travel to African capitals for meetings with the leaders of Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda. Netanyahu’s visit to Uganda is particularly significant because his brother was killed in Israel’s raid on Entebbe in that country 40 years ago to free hostages kidnapped by German and Palestinian Marxists. Back then, Uganda’s government gave refuge to terrorists; today it seeks Israel’s help in fighting them.

Israel under Netanyahu is also expanding links with China, now the country’s third-largest trading partner. Gold told me this week at his Foreign Ministry office that it’s almost impossible to get a seat these days on the El Al flight from Tel Aviv to Beijing. A similar story can be told about Israel’s relationship with India, whose Narendra Modi is expected to be the first Indian prime minister ever to visit Israel later this year. As the Israelis increase defense trade with India, it has also begun to end some of its historic support for the Palestinians at the United Nations.

Then there is Russia. Netanyahu has met with President Vladimir Putin four times in the last year. He has also worked out a deal, according to senior officials who spoke to me on background, in which Russia will allow Israeli jets to target members of the terrorist group Hezbollah operating in Syria, where Russians now control the air space.

“The prime minister is cognitive of the fact that the United States is the number one ally," Gold told me. “But the relationship with Putin has vastly improved. Instead of being in conflict with him like we were, we are now making sure there is a line open to him."

Finally, Israel is repairing and enhancing relationships in the Middle East. In 2011, Turkey downgraded its ties following Israel’s raid on a flotilla trying to breach the naval blockade of Gaza. This month, Turkey’s foreign minister announced that his country was one or two meetings away from normalizing the relationship again.

There is also much secret diplomacy between Israel and the Gulf monarchies. Israel has had such contacts with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates since the height of the peace process in the 1990s. But Gold told me there was an important difference between Israel’s Arab diplomacy today and during the peace process years.

In the 1990s, Israel was allowed to open trade missions and begin contacts with Arab states because a process was in place to create a Palestinian state. During the second intifada of 2000-05, these openings closed. Now, Gold says, his diplomacy with the Arab states resembles the dynamics that created the predecessor of the European Union after the end of World War II.

“The European Union was formed because of a mutual threat from Soviet armored divisions," Gold said. Today, he argued, the Middle East faces the twin threats of Iran and the Islamic State, which “creates a lot of mutual interests between Israel and the Arab states."

Not everyone is convinced on this last point. In April, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy hosted a rare public conversation between retired Israeli general, Yaacov Amidror, and former a Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Turki al-Faisal. Despite the cordial environment, the Saudi prince made it clear that there would be no formal recognition of Israel until there was a just peace with the Palestinians.

Edward Djerejian, a former senior US diplomat who now directs the James A. Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, agrees. “The Palestinian issue remains a central political issue that deters Israel’s full integration in the region," he told me.

Nonetheless, the flow of diplomacy in the region is reversing. In the 1990s, Europe tried to persuade Israel’s Arab neighbours to accept it. Today, Israel quietly collaborates with its Arab neighbours as European states threaten to distance themselves over the Palestinian issue.

This is why so many Israelis worry, despite the new outreach to India, China, Russia and the Arab states. Yair Lapid, the leader of a major centrist party here, this year said his country had never been as isolated as it is today.

Ksenia Svetlova, a former journalist and Labour Party member of Knesset who serves on its foreign affairs committee, stressed this point as well. She told me she was more concerned with how Europe and America viewed Israel than she was with Turkey, Russia or Saudi Arabia. “We can have great tactical relations with non-democratic countries, Egypt is the proof," she said. “But the true bond will always be with other countries that act like us and share our values."

Put another way, Israel’s new friends are no substitute for its old ones.

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