The end of 2018 has been a troubled period for the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In his ten-year period serving as head of government (previously holding the position from 1996 to 1999), Netanyahu faced several crises, on both a political and a military level. However, it is not easy to track back to a such heavy political challenges coming from internal and external fronts. Internal troubles include corruption investigations on the Prime Minister himself, his family and his close political circle. The political difficulties with his government forced Netanyahu to handle the resignations of his ministries (Avigdor Liberman, the Ministry of Defense, for all) and hold an extraordinary number of interim cabinet posts at the same time (defense, foreign affairs, health and immigration portfolios). This political instability pushed the Israeli Prime Minister to call for snap election in April. Netanyahu’s electoral success reaffirmed his leadership in the political arena and as it is going to become the longest-serving Prime Minister in Israeli history.
Netanyahu ‘s outward looking
Netanyahu’s government has been unprecedentedly proactive in the second half of 2018. This is due to the increasing tensions in the Middle East and, in particular, to the role Israel would like to play in the future balance in the region. The Syrian war is been approaching its conclusion and the outcomes are shaping the diplomatic relations in the short and medium terms. The Syrian government is regaining the control of its territory and its international recognition, but the main winning regional actor emerging from the war is Iran. The Israeli government considers the increased influence of the Islamic Republic a capital threat to its security and has been working extensively to create a new network of alliances in order to contain and isolate Tehran.
This analysis will focus on the Israeli foreign policy in the second half of 2018 and, in particular, on the diplomatic relations the Israeli government tried to establish or renovate. The aim is to clarify the grand strategy guiding Netanyahu’s government by underlining some key elements that could explain why this represents a major shift in Israeli foreign policy.
The future in the Middle East: new enemies, new allies
In order to better understand why the Israeli government has been so proactive in the diplomatic field lately, it is to be analyzed the balance of powers resulted from the Syrian conflict. The main consequence of the war, which seems to be coming to an end, is that Bashar Al-Assad, president of the Syrian Arab Republic, has managed to keep the power and to regain legitimate ambitions on the future of the country. This outcome has created a “Shia corridor” from Tehran to Damascus, which strategically reinforces Iran’s role in the Levant. Iran influence in Syria has dramatically increased both in terms of military presence and political power. Furthermore, the 8-month-long stalemate in the Lebanese politics – stemming from the inability to swiftly form a new government – has helped Hezbollah, the Iran-backed party that has as its primary goal to fight Israel, gain more bargaining power.
The new scenario is at odds with the Israel foreign policy strategy and, even though the Assad family was considered a “reliable enemy” before the war, exacerbated tension with Tehran is today perceived as the first threat to national security. In order to counter Iranian presence in its neighborhood, Israel has constantly intensified its military operations in the last year, which sometimes escalated into direct confrontation. While the Israel air force directly targeted Iranian objectives in Syria, in Lebanon and in the Gaza strip, it respectively struck Iranian allies, Hezbollah and Hamas. However, as the Israeli government is aware that military power has to be supported by an effective diplomatic effort, it has acted accordingly. Considering Iran as the main enemy allowed Netanyahu to almost totally shift the focus of its discourse from the ancient Israel-Palestine dichotomy to a new anti-Iran perspective. This shift provided the Israeli government the key to engage in a dialogue with some of those actors that (for cultural, religious or political reasons) considered themselves traditional defenders of the Palestinians’ cause and, therefore, natural enemies of the Jewish state.
The recent developments of Israeli foreign relations show an impressive attention paid to those regional actors that do not have diplomatic ties with Israel. A significant example is the relation with Saudi Arabia, which is involved in a proxy conflict with Iran in Yemen. If Riyadh has – at least officially – always supported the Palestinian cause and called for a withdrawal from the occupied territories, Saudi new elites are much more sensitive to the new Israeli strategy that aims at isolating Iran, their common enemy.
Netanyahu: secret visits and regional allies
Furthermore, the Israeli government paid a great deal of attention to manage the relations with regional powers, rather than global powers. This cannot be explained only by the fact that Trump administration is reluctant to engage in the Syrian field to contrast Iranian influence or by the fact that the European Union decided to honor the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (commonly known as the Iranian nuclear deal). This signals that the Israeli government cannot count on the unconditional support of its historical allies. Netanyahu is aware of it, thus if Israel wants to play an hegemonic role in reshaping the future dynamics of the Middle East, it has to create its own network of regional allies, which should be ready to support it against Tehran. When the Syrian war is completely over and all the regional powers have to acknowledge the outcome of the conflict, the Israeli government will not rely on his old network of historical allies but will face the (diplomatic or military) challenge with the support of its new allies.
The secret visit Netanyahu paid to Oman at the end of October 2018 represents the epitome of this new strategy. Oman, in fact, plays an important role of mediator because of its peculiar religious status in the Muslim world that ensures its neutrality. When at the end of October Netanyahu decided to accept the invitation of the Omani Sultan Qaboos, he showed that Israel will look for its own strategic partners among Arab countries. The importance of Oman in Netanyahu’s vision cannot be underestimated. The Gulf country historically has been in good relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran and could constitute a crucial ally in Israeli strategy aiming at isolating Tehran. Moreover, the visit to Muscat could be seen as a further unofficial (and controversial) rapprochement with Riyadh: Oman does not recognize Israel and the potential establishment of diplomatic ties with the Sultanate could pave the way to a future normalization with other Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
Beyond the Middle East: Netanyahu and the African bet
The Israeli Prime Minister did not only focus on the Arab world, but he turned his attention on the African front as well. In November 2018, the President of Chad, Idriss Deby, was the first head of state of the African country to visit Israel since its foundation. The meeting focused on security and defense, as Israel has provided Chad with weapons and know-how in the last decades despite a rather cold political relations between the two countries.
A good example of this renewed strategy is the recent developments of bilateral relations with Sudan: a Muslim-majority African state, which has historically been close to Palestine and hostile to Israel, and which has recently been shaken by a soft coup that ousted the 30-year rule of the President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir. At the end of last year, Netanyahu’s diplomacy managed to obtain the right for Israeli airlines to overfly Sudanese airspace en route to South America. This move appeared to be a signal of mutual overture leaving the door open for a potential normalization between the two formally enemies. The Israeli diplomatic efforts toward Sudan can be seen as strategic if one considers – beyond the economic advantages for both parts – that the African country severed its relations with Iran in 2017 and developed closer ties Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Netanyahu’s government, therefore, seized the opportunity to build a new potential alliance with a country that was once perceived as a major threat and today can be considered a strategic partner to reduce Tehran’s influence.
Mali and Niger are among other African states that reportedly are interested in improving their relations with Israel. Both Muslim-majority countries have currently no diplomatic relations with Israel and in the past supported Palestinians in international disputes. Obviously, there is a strong economic component that encourages African states to develop bilateral relations with Israel. This strategy toward important African states reveals Netanyahu’s ambitious plans of playing a key role not only in the Middle East area, but of expanding its influence beyond its traditional scope in search of new potential (not only economic) partners. These relations are possible – at least partly – because of the Israeli government has lately put more emphasis on countering the Iranian influence than on the dichotomy with Palestinian political actors.
This diplomatic shift does not mean that the Palestinian issue is not representing anymore one of the strategic priorities for the Israeli government. However, it seems clear that an increased portion of the Israeli foreign agenda is focused on reducing Iranian sphere of influence, which makes of the Palestinian issue a secondary geopolitical target. This does not exclude that Netanyahu’s approach to both Iran and Palestine is complementary: one can also argue that the more Israel focuses its foreign policy on Iran, the more the Palestinian cause is likely to be forgotten.
Iran as the main threat to Israeli security
By analyzing the latest developments of Israeli foreign relations in the second part of 2018, one can recognize an increased effort to create new alliances in the Middle East and its proximity. The main targets of this strategy include historical enemies, both in the Arab region and in Africa. At the core of the new relations Netanyahu’s government is trying to establish, a major shift has been identified: Iran and its increased influence are presented as the primary threat to Israel national security and all the new established bilateral relations aim at isolating Tehran. This led to a larger number of potential allies, which were historically involved in defending Palestinians and now see Iran as a common enemy.
Alessandro di Renzo
M.A. in International Relations – Université Libre de Bruxelles
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