Netanyahu’s surprise visit to Oman at the end of October 2018 raised a lot of eyebrows. It took place after a 20-year hiatus, when the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was at its height and when Oman, a state close to Iran, had to calculate its moves carefully so as not to antagonize its neighbor by opening venues to its archenemy Israel. In order to understand this unique development one has to analyze it against the background of Israel’s foreign-relations strategy in the last 70 years of its existence.
Throughout Israel’s history the Jewish and Israeli leadership had to maneuver among four concentric circles: The inner circle—the Palestinians; the core Arab countries, which included Syria, Jordan, and Egypt; the periphery, made of Arab countries, non-Arab Muslim countries, and non-Arab non-Muslim countries; and lastly the international arena. This situation forced the Jewish state to change strategies and alliances moving from one circle to the other. The secret of its success was its unique leadership, which demonstrated flexibility, maneuverability, and ingenuity in its foreign-policy approach, mobilizing support or changing partners according to changing circumstances. An important asset was that Israel kept taking initiatives whenever the opportunity presented itself. Israeli foreign relations can be roughly divided into three main phases: The first (1947-1979) marks Israel’s isolation; the second (1979-2010) designates the big breakthrough; and the last (2010 onward) the building of new bridges.
The first and most important challenge was gaining recognition for statehood in May 1949, and at that stage the international circle was the most critical. Thus, engaging the two superpowers was a main Israeli strategy that assisted it in gaining independence. It was almost miraculous that Jewish activists managed to gain the support of both the Soviet Union and the United States for the establishment of a Jewish state at a time when these powers were already in the throes of the Cold War. Indeed, the Soviet Union was the first state to recognize Israel de jure on May 17, 1948, followed by the United States months later on Jan. 31, 1949.
The international circle was as critical during the War of Independence, which erupted immediately after Israel’s declaration of independence on May 14, 1948. Concurrently with the diplomatic battle at the United Nations, the military combat for independence was raging unabatedly with the Palestinians and the core Arab countries. This war was won after many ups and downs and thanks to Zionists’ ability to marshal the needed weapons from different countries and smuggle them to Israel under very difficult circumstances.
Israel’s victory on both the diplomatic and military fronts left it nonetheless isolated in its immediate neighborhood. Hence it had to devise strategies for bypassing these two hostile circles by engaging the third one. This is indeed what stood behind what Israel termed the doctrine of “the peripheral alliance” which in fact was not a real alliance but tacit understanding for cooperation with certain partners. This idea was floated shortly after the War of Independence but came to fruition at the end of the 1950s and early ’60s.
The partners for this Israeli endeavor were non-Arab states, including Turkey and Iran, and some minorities such as the Kurds in Iraq and the Maronites in Lebanon. The common denominators for these relations were that the partners were united by their threat perception of certain Arab countries at a certain time. However, all these partners overall had greater interests with the Arab world than with Israel, hence the need to keep ties clandestine, which turned those ties fragile and fluid. Indeed, the covert relations began to unravel in the mid-1970s when partners began disengaging from it one after the other. First were the Kurds in 1975, then Iran in 1979, then the Maronites in 1982, and Turkey in between. Despite their fragility when they existed, the relations did grant Israel a kind of leverage vis-a-vis its close neighborhood.
Concurrently with the unraveling of the “peripheral alliance,” a new opening was made with Arab partners marking the second stage in Israeli efforts to reach out to its close neighborhood. It might not be a mere coincidence that the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt was signed just one month after the establishment of the Islamic Republic in Iran in February 1979. This pioneering move was followed some 15 years later by the 1993 Oslo agreement with the Palestinians and the 1994 peace treaty with Jordan. During the 1990s there were even attempts to reach a peace agreement with Syria which failed. Thus, except for Lebanon (with which Israel engaged in two wars in 1982 and 1996) the two first circles were reshaping their relations with Israel.
Ideological, economic and strategic developments are at the background of this shift: The slow death of pan-Arabism and the concomitant fragmentation of the Arab world; the eight-year Iraqi-Iranian war, which shifted the focus to the Gulf and to another enemy; the realization that Israel was too strong to be wiped from the map as Arab countries were hoping; the widening rift between Sunni and Shia Islam and finally the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.
What was the long term impact of this shift on Israel? The threat of conventional war that might have involved a coalition of several Arab countries has died out since the last war in 1973. Instead the new Israeli threat perceptions became that of an unconventional war by Iran or by nonstate actors such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Islamic State. On the other hand Israel’s peace treaty with the two Arab countries, Egypt and Jordan, remained a cold peace. These states accepted Israel as a fait accompli but rejected the conception of normalization (tatbi’) with it. In this sense the term nonbelligerence might be more appropriate than “peace” for describing the quality of relations. Indeed, the peace treaty did not lead to normalization between the peoples of Israel and those of Arab countries but remained mainly on the governmental level, which made them fragile and unpredictable. Also these relations were confined mainly to security issues and did not include the wide range of social, cultural, political, and day to-day exchanges and activities as can be observed for example in the peaceful relations between Germany and other European countries after World War II.
Another stage in Israel’s foreign-policy strategy took place at the turn of the millennium. Israel had to reshuffle its policies because of the tectonic changes that have taken place in the region such as the rise of radical Islam in its Shia and Sunni variants; the so-called Arab Spring, with all its socio-political ramifications; and the disintegration of state systems in certain Arab countries. All these changes granted Israel the opportunity to upgrade its role in the region. The relationship that Israel initiated this time cannot be termed as peripheral alliances but rather relations with countries farther afield that in the past were quite unimaginable. The wide range of partners included Arab and non-Arab, Muslim and non-Muslim countries, both in Europe as well as in Asia.
Thus by 2010, the deep change had manifested itself in the stance of Israel’s non-Arab “phantom” allies, namely Iran and Turkey, which had veered toward political Islam, thus deepening the gap between them and the Jewish state on the ideological and political levels. Iran, once an important ally, has emerged since the 1980s as Israel’s most formidable enemy while Turkey became a serious rival by 2010.
On the other hand, Arab and Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf countries, alongside Azerbaijan, became Israel’s new phantom partners in the farther arena. Relations with these states remained mostly covert. Israel also strengthened relations with non-Muslim countries such as Cyprus, Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania, with which relations flourished openly. Israel managed to present itself as a strong, reliable, but not menacing country. Similarly, Israel’s image of having strong influence in and on Washington has always been an important incentive for engaging with it.
On the whole, Israel’s ability to enlarge the scope of its foreign relations assisted it in balancing poor relations with the Palestinians, which, shortly after a hiatus in the aftermath of the Oslo agreement, reverted back to a state of violence. Linked to this is the drastic change in position of Arab countries that had engaged Israel in several rounds of warfare. Each became deeply embroiled in its own domestic problems. Some countries, like Syria or Iraq, struggled for their very survival, thus changing drastically their threat perception of Israel. To some Arab countries, Iran, the Islamic State, and Muslim extremists appeared more threatening than Israel. Moreover, some countries, such as Egypt, Jordan, and Qatar, became intermediary and instrumental in the peace process between Israel and the Palestinian entity. So while the core Arab countries acted in tandem in the war against Israel in 1947-49, now some Arab countries are cooperating with Israel to reach a solution to the Palestinian issue rather than eliminating Israel.
Netanyahu’s visit to Oman is a case in point. It put into relief the open legitimacy granted to Israel, the deepening relations with Arab Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, and the commonality of interests for containing Iran. Most important are the strategic relations that Israel has developed in the last few years with Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s Egypt against the background of their common interests in containing Shia Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic State, as well as Hamas in Gaza. This commonality of interests goes a long way to explain Egypt’s unique role in mediating between Israel and the Palestinians.
Israeli leaders adopted a similar international strategy to the one they had adopted 70 years earlier, namely finding a fine balance between the two powers: the United States and Russia. Relations with the United States reached their zenith with the advent of President Donald Trump’s administration in 2017, thanks in large part to the special relations that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had developed with him. More challenging were relations with Russia. When upheavals swamped some Arab countries, the most threatening for Israel was the Syrian case where regional and international forces were deeply involved in the situation. In this very inflammatory situation Israel managed to turn Russia into an ally of sort and thus avert spillover effects.
Within 70 years, Israel has made giant steps for escaping from the “splendid isolation” that characterized its position in the early years of the state. Nowadays Israel boasts of relations spreading far and wide. Internationally it has fostered relations with most leading world countries including the United States, Russia, the European Union, China, India, and Japan. Regionally it has managed to develop covert and overt relations with Muslim and non-Muslim countries in its neighborhood. Still, for all of this success, Israel’s Arab partners have not accepted it into their midst as a natural member of the Middle East, condemning the Jewish state to ongoing endeavors for entering the club.
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Professor Ofra Bengio is senior research associate at the Moshe Center, Tel Aviv University and the author of several books, including The Turkish-Israeli Relationship: Changing Ties of Middle Eastern Outsiders.