Monday, January 5, 2009
Israel not without friends
The growth of powerful radical Islamist forces has scared a lot of countries. One could (falsely) romanticise the PLO as a progressive national liberation movement. But Hamas, Hizbullah and their patron, Iran, even Muslim countries would agree, are a harder sell.
It’s easy to be misled by elements of Western media and academia that seem to prefer terrorists and radical Islamists to Israel. The diplomatic balance sheet from Israel’s standpoint is quite good, pretty remarkably good, better than it has been for a very long time.
Of course, I have to add quickly that there are real problems, disagreements, and specific frictions. I’ll come to that in a moment. But first the good news:
Countries with which Israel has great relations: Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, South Korea, the United States, and also those of the European Union and Nato. Moreover, there is a long list of former Soviet Bloc states which understand the difference between a democratic state defending itself and a bunch of ideologically driven, dictatorship-worshipping terrorists. They include the new EU chair, the Czech Republic, and a dozen others, of which Azerbaijan, Georgia, Lithuania and Poland can stand as examples. And last but not least most of sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Countries with which Israel has good relations: China, Russia, and Turkey. See details below.
Non-Muslim, countries with which Israel has bad relations: Colombia, North Korea, Norway, Spain, and Sweden. Perhaps you can come up with a few others. Nominations are open.
This description is accurate and should be acknowledged. Please do so.
Now, on to the small print. Friendly countries often have criticisms, for example, they may urge a ceasefire in the Gaza war or show some pressure regarding settlements. Such diplomatic initiatives may make headlines but really don’t amount to much in real terms. Israel’s vital interests are not threatened by such things.
Friends can disagree; a lot of these actions are publicity stunts or attempts to show the countries in question have ‘balanced’ policies. Regarding what is important —— things like normal relations, trade (including military-related equipment), basic support, sanctions against extremist enemies —— these relationships deliver.
Some of these positive relationships depend on which Government is in power —— obviously in France and Italy —— and that’s part of the point. These Governments were elected and thus reflect public opinion. Obviously, Israel was not an important issue in these choices but the results show large elements of policy-making elites are friendly and public opinion isn’t demanding leaders hostile to that country.
In France, the Government of Mr Francois Sarkozy replaced that of the notably less friendly Jacque Chirac. The relationship with the new President has been a good one. While Mr Sarkozy’s soft policy toward Lebanon and Syria have disappointed me —— not to mention the Lebanese moderates who he has failed to back against the Tehran-Damascus axis —— they are not in sharp conflict with Israeli policies. His recent foray into pushing a poorly conceived ceasefire in Gaza indicate his impulsive interventionism (France must act as a great power), but unquestionably his is the most friendly to Israel Government in France over the last half-century.
With China, Israel has a good bilateral relationship though Chinese policies are often problematic. Beijing’s goals, however, in such activities as its arms’ sales (reportedly Chinese-made rockets sold to Iran and then given to Hamas have been fired at Israel) or its reluctance to support sanctions against Iran, include profit-making, a desperate need for oil, and fear that international pressure might be turned against China some day.
China, like many of the other countries mentioned above, has a much friendlier policy partly due to the breaking of the myth that it was impossible to have good relations with both Israel and the Arab world. In part, this was always untrue; in part, changes in the international system —— the Cold War’s end, the peace process, etc —— made it easier to do. Israel’s technological wealth, its impressive military performance, and its influence with the US, among other factors, also helped fuel such shifts.
In addition, the growth of powerful radical Islamist forces has scared a lot of countries. One could (falsely) romanticise the PLO as a progressive national liberation movement. Iran, Hamas, and Hizbullah are a harder sell.
Two other important Israeli relationships are more complex than the rest. Turkey has an Islamist-rooted Government which portrays itself as a Centre-Right party. Many of its instincts are anti-Israel but its performance is not. There are four reasons for this: A policy of friendship with Israel is used to prove the party isn’t Islamist; the party has taken in centrists and conservatives who are pro-Israel; good economic links are mutually beneficial; and, the military —— whose interests cannot be forgotten —— wants a strong alliance. Like other countries, Turkey also knows that cooperation with Israel is necessary for Turkey to play an important diplomatic role in the region. Turkey’s brokering of Israel-Syria negotiations proves it.
Finally, Russia. Again, like Turkey, there are key diplomatic and economic considerations. The Russians benefit from a balanced policy which allows them to maintain good relations with Israel, Syria, and Iran simultaneously. Of course, that is also a problem for Israel, since Moscow sells weapons to Syria, paid for by Iran, which are also passed to Hizbullah. Yet Russia also limits friction by limiting arms sales and supporting some degree of sanctions.
In all these cases, then, Israel’s relations are quite reasonably good. That’s a remarkable balance sheet whose positive elements should not be underestimated.
– The writer is director of the Gloria Center, Jerusalem, and editor of Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal. He is the author of The Israel-Arab Reader and The Truth About Syria.