Israel’s diplomatic achievements at 75
May 2, 2023 | Amotz Asa-El
David Ben-Gurion had hardly finished reading out Israel’s Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948, when armoured columns invaded the newborn state from three sides, while warplanes bombarded Tel Aviv and artillery shelled Jerusalem.
The Middle East conflict, which for the previous three years had been largely diplomatic, had thus transformed into a military contest that would unsettle not only the Jewish state and its neighbours, but, for decades, the international system itself.
Even so, the intense diplomatic and strategic contest that accompanied the UN Partition Resolution of Nov. 29, 1947, and Israel’s establishment half a year later, amounted to a war in its own right. Now, as the war against Israel’s international legitimacy turns 75, Jerusalem’s gains in this struggle have been massive, yet complete victory remains elusive. And there are some unpredicted challenges to existing ties.
The newborn state’s precarious diplomatic future was laid bare already at its birth, during the UN vote to divide British Mandate Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. The plan’s adoption, after a yes vote by 33 states, sparked euphoria throughout the Jewish world and beyond. However, 23 of the UN’s 56 member nations at the time failed to back the plan, with ten abstaining and 13 voting against it – almost all the latter because they rejected any Jewish sovereignty anywhere in their ancestral homeland.
A look at the diplomatic map faced by the young state illustrates the fact that the rejectionists could be divided into four different groups. The first was the Arab bloc, which at the time consisted of six UN members, and the second was the rest of the wider Muslim-majority world, represented in the partition vote by Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey and Iran.
Beyond these sprawled newly independent India, whose negative vote can be seen as a harbinger of the role it would seek during the Cold War, as co-founder of the future Nonaligned Bloc. Finally, a fourth type of opponent was represented by Greece, which opposed Israel’s establishment out of fear of jeopardising its specific national interests, including important diaspora communities, in the Arab world.
While this opening situation was difficult enough, it was later aggravated dramatically when the Soviet Union turned anti-Israel, after having voted for Israel’s establishment along with all the UN’s other Communist members, except Yugoslavia.
The Eastern bloc’s change of attitude began soon after the War of Independence, when Moscow realised Israel would not join the Soviet orbit. Things got worse by the mid-1950s when Moscow became the main weapons supplier of all of Israel’s enemies except Jordan. This trend reached its height in 1967, when the entire Communist Bloc (except Romania) severed all diplomatic ties with Israel in the wake of the Six-Day War.
Meanwhile, beyond Moscow’s immediate sphere of influence, China became even more hostile towards Israel. India also maintained its anti-Israeli attitude, refusing to exchange ambassadors with Jerusalem, though it did let Israel open a consulate in what is now Mumbai.
Finally, Arab efforts to isolate Israel registered their biggest successes in 1974, when all African countries save four severed diplomatic ties with Israel in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War.
The siege against Israel thus reached its climax that year.
Cracks began to appear in the diplomatic blockade in 1979, when Egypt and Israel signed a peace agreement and exchanged ambassadors. The Egyptian move failed to affect the rest of the Arab bloc or the Muslim world. However, it did help inspire the restoration of sub-Saharan Africa’s relations with Israel, as governments across that continent asserted that if Egypt could have an ambassador in Israel, then so could they.
That trend began in 1983 with Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), and eventually spread in all directions, from Kenya to Uganda to Nigeria and Senegal.
A few years later, the Eastern bloc collapsed and the Soviet Union broke up. By 1992 all of Central and Eastern Europe, from Lithuania to Albania, had established full diplomatic ties with Israel.
The transformation of the international system, and the radical change of Israel’s place within it, immediately impacted the outer circle of anti-Israeli diplomacy. China and India both established full diplomatic ties with Israel in 1992, a year after Mongolia and a year before Vietnam.
The Soviet Union’s downfall also triggered a transition in Israel’s relations with the Muslim world, as six post-Soviet, Muslim-majority countries established diplomatic ties with Israel. Adding to Jerusalem’s existing relations with Nigeria and Turkey, Israeli diplomacy could view these gains as tempering the effects of the loss of ties with Iran in the wake of the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
Overall, within a decade of its return to Africa in the early 1980s, Israel sent ambassadors to more than 50 new destinations. The siege which reached its peak in 1974 had come undone. Even Israeli diplomacy’s most crucial frontier, the Arab world, began to join the trend, as the 1993 Oslo Accords inspired some of the Arab rapprochement that the peace with Egypt had failed to spark.
The 1994 peace agreement with Jordan was followed by formal visits of Israeli ministers to Morocco, Tunisia, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, and the establishment of diplomatic missions, if not full embassies, in some of these lands.
Publicly, these relations appeared shaky, as highlighted by the closure of Israel’s missions in Tunisia and Morocco following the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. However, unofficially, the Arab world, particularly its richer countries, continued to develop trade with Israel. That trend was redoubled following the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020, after which Israel sent full ambassadors to the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco, and began a dialogue intended to lead to the same result with Sudan.
Today, with about half the Arab world’s population living in countries that recognise Israel, and only 22 of the UN’s 193 members still refusing to establish diplomatic relations, Israel’s diplomatic goals are radically different from what they were in 1948.
However, formidable challenges do remain.
The first of “three” frontiers that still challenge Israeli diplomacy is the broader Muslim world.
While relations with countries like Azerbaijan and Nigeria are smooth and even intimate, the most populous Muslim-majority country, Indonesia, still refuses to establish ties with Israel, even after the Abraham Accords – despite hopes expressed in both Jerusalem and Washington that Jakarta could soon change course.
Diplomats believe that if and when Indonesia begins to openly engage in dialogue with Israel, other Muslim-majority countries, like Pakistan and Bangladesh (though probably not Malaysia, where anti-Zionism often shading into antisemitism plays an ongoing role in national politics) could follow Jakarta’s example.
The second diplomatic frontier sprawls across the Middle East and can be divided into three parts: Iran, whose hostility under the ayatollahs is ideological, strategic, endemic and active, along with proxy states like Syria; moderate Arab governments that unofficially engage with Israel, like Saudi Arabia and Oman, or are candidates for such engagement, like Kuwait; and other states which are radical either by their own choice, like Algeria, or by someone else’s choice, like Lebanon.
The third frontier lies between the West Bank and Gaza, where Palestinian hostility to Israel’s right to exist remains as common and vocal as it was back in 1947 when the Arab world rejected the UN’s proposal to create a Palestinian state in the Holy Land alongside a Jewish state.
Cracking each of these three remaining fronts will be Israeli diplomacy’s overarching challenge for the foreseeable future.
Yet, in addition to these challenges, in recent months, Israeli diplomacy has also faced some new ones suddenly emanating from some of the Jewish state’s closest friends.
As opposition to the Netanyahu Government’s judicial reform proposals repeatedly sent hundreds of thousands to the streets to protest what they see as an attempt to disempower the judiciary, Western leaders responded by deploying language Israeli leaders had rarely heard previously.
US President Joe Biden said publicly he does not intend to invite PM Binyamin Netanyahu to visit Washington “in the near term,” and stated that Netanyahu and his Government “cannot continue down this road.”
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak did host Netanyahu, but refrained from appearing with him in front of the cameras after hosting him at 10 Downing Street. Sunak “stressed the importance of upholding the democratic values that underpin our relationship,” his office said.
French President Emmanuel Macron was undiplomatically blunt, warning Netanyahu that if his Government’s plan passes, Paris should conclude that Israel has broken away “from a common conception of democracy.”
Collectively, the statements by these three key Western leaders suggest that while Israeli diplomacy continues to pursue new frontiers, Jerusalem’s natural allies are warning it not to neglect its position among the democracies that have recognised, hailed, supplied and collaborated with the Jewish state throughout the last 75 years – even when almost everyone else ostracised it.