Earlier this month, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned of “Israel’s growing isolation” in the region. He suggested Israel act to reverse this troubling trend by engaging with Turkey, Egypt and Jordan. Along with general perceptions of increasing regional isolation, opposition figures within Israel often proclaim Israel’s state of isolation in the international community. These claims routinely follow public reprimands from European or American leaders. With that being said, judging Israel’s international stance on populist public statements is misleading, because they do not accurately represent the Jewish state’s diplomatic standing.
With respect to the United States, quarrels over settlements and various peace process issues have strained relations on the official level. However, the U.S.-Israel relationship remains secure. Certainly, Israel’s diplomatic relationship with America was tested and mistrust lingers, yet strong bilateral agreements and military exercises continue. Furthermore, beyond the halls of Washington, American public opinion remains favorable toward Israel. Elsewhere on the continent, Canadian-Israeli ties are stronger than ever, with Ottawa as one of Jerusalem’s chief defenders in the public arena.
Israel’s affiliation with the European Union has never been easy. Recent reports of a possible E.U.-led United Nations Security Council censure of Israeli activity in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) furthered impressions of Israel’s isolation. Nonetheless, European states did not campaign in favor of the Palestinian Authority’s recent bid for U.N. recognition and many actively discouraged it. Although more criticism originates from western European capitals than praise, bilateral relations, economic agreements and defense contracts remain intact. With much of the attention awarded to statements from Berlin, Paris, Brussels and London, many overlook Israel’s strengthening ties with Cyprus, Greece, Italy and Eastern Europe. Improved Israeli relations with southern European countries, fostered above all by a more antagonistic Turkey, highlight that machtpolitik and strategic concerns still dictate bilateral relations. These countries see Turkey as a threat to their regional interests, especially in reference to newly discovered Mediterranean oil fields. For southern European states, Israel is a regional and strategic ally that can help protect their interests.
Despite a variety of strong and weak Israeli relationships within the European Union, the organization is relatively weak. E.U. member states independently and collectively lack the political, economic and military strength to have a real impact on Israel’s strategic environment. Europe is important diplomatically, however, in terms of power politics other regions are of greater significance.
Asia is rapidly becoming one of the more powerful regions within the international system. Israel’s relationships with eastern powers China, India, Russia, Japan and South Korea are lucrative and robust. In India, Israel is conducting training for the country’s frontier anti-terror units and increasing sales of weaponry to the Asian power. As the geopolitical balance of power shifts eastward, strong Israeli ties with these countries must not be overlooked. These relationships are not without troubles, most notably with Russia and China over issues such as Iran. However, Beijing and Moscow’s increasingly autonomous foreign policy is meant to maximize Russian and Chinese influence on specific issues. Their policies act to counter Western, mainly U.S., foreign policy influence. Thus, despite Russian and Chinese objections to Israeli security concerns, their activity does not denote general hostility and greater cooperation on other issues can ensue. Elsewhere, Israel’s relationships with former Soviet Azerbaijan and Georgia are robust with Azerbaijan emerging as an important economic and strategic partner in the region.
In the Middle East, Israel’s relationships with Egypt, Jordan and Turkey are indeed in dire straits. These are dangerous developments, yet they have more to do with domestic and regional ideological and political trends than with Israeli policies vis-à-vis Palestinian Arabs. The chaos and instability gripping the region today is illuminating historical tribal, religious and ethnic disputes in the Middle East. Due to these transnational disputes, most, if not all regional Arab and Muslim states, find themselves mired in a myriad of conflicts. Moreover, the touted Turkish president’s “zero problems” foreign policy has collapsed in light of crises with Cyprus, Israel, Iran, Syria, Greece and now France. Elsewhere in the region, the troubling developments in Jordan and Egypt are beyond Israel’s control. Israel’s deteriorating relationships with Jordan and Egypt are dangerous, as both countries have peace deals with Israel. Even so, Israeli meddling in such a fractious environment is unwise. While the Muslim world battles historical disputes, Israel is seemingly left out. However, for the time being, Israel’s seclusion in the Middle East is a convenience.
Examining Israel’s position within a strategic paradigm illustrates that Israel is not isolated. Israel’s burgeoning ties with Asia are crucial. Maintaining its strong relationship with the United States and simultaneously increasing ties with Asian states is a major diplomatic achievement for Israel. More practically, Israeli prowess in hi-tech, defense technology, along with the massive energy discoveries off Haifa, will only increase the Jewish state’s attractiveness in Asia.
The doom and gloom reports of Israeli isolation are unwarranted. Israel’s relationships with all major international players remain intact and secure. Given the international communities’ obsession on this conflict, public criticism of Israel will undoubtedly take place. With that being said, one must look at the criticizing country’s ability to act on it. Israel is not isolated internationally. Additionally, increased Israeli seclusion from regional turmoil is preferred. In the end, being isolated from the myriad of tribulations resulting from the so-called “Arab Spring” is a good thing.
(Danny Brode, a Pittsburgh native and graduate of Duquesne University, is a Middle East analyst living in Israel. His blog can be read at thejewishchronicle.net.)