Of the many formidable foreign policy questions facing Israel as it celebrates its 70th anniversary, the most auspicious is how the Jewish State should adapt to a multipolar world. The urgency to answer this question has accelerated in recent days. President Donald Trump’s decision to remove the US from the Iran deal – applauded by Israeli leadership – will, over time, force Israel to develop cooperative relationships with non-traditional partners in order to meet its regional security objectives. The White House’s desire to withdraw troops from Syria will have a similar effect. As a result, Israel’s response to the end of the American era will determine in large part its ability to protect its citizens and its sovereignty.
Israel was one of the primary beneficiaries of an interventionist US foreign policy in the XX century and the beginning of the XXI century. Since 1967, strategic cooperation with Washington was the bedrock of Israeli foreign policy and despite periods of turbulence the strategic alliance has never been so interdependent. American support for Israel played a central role in the realisation of peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, as well as the signing of the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians. Israel remains the largest recipient of US foreign aid in the world. It is a rare occasion when the US does not defend Israel at the United Nations.
Despite the controversial decision to withdraw from the JCPOA, all other evidence – from Iraq to Yemen to Syria – points to an America more interested in extricating itself from the Middle East’s troubles than resolving them. This is not a phenomenon unique to the Trump administration, rather an organised pivot of American interests and resources to other portions of the globe.
Israeli leadership has not always readjusted its expectations of the US in the post-Cold War era, but Jerusalem has been diversifying its diplomatic options for some time. Notably, Israel’s dialogue with Russia has deepened substantially over the last decade. Since the start of the Syrian civil war, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has met with Vladimir Putin over a dozen times (all in Moscow) in order to develop and maintain a deconflicting mechanism that satisfies both parties. The signing of the JCPOA between the P5+1 and Iran also encouraged security cooperation between Israel and several Sunni Arab states, most significantly Saudi Arabia. Will these arrangements evolve into a normalization process between Israel and the Arab world? There will always be a glass ceiling if there remains no progress between Israel and the Palestinians. But they reaffirm a popular notion in Israel that interests, not ideology, are the real drivers of change in the region.
New avenues of cooperation are also being explored. Benefiting from one of the most internationally recognised startup environments, Israeli officials have been able to piggyback off the accomplishments of private companies in order to expand Israel’s global outreach. Drip irrigation technology has created openings in West Africa where previously doors were shut. Recent offshore energy discoveries have generated similar opportunities. As a result, Netanyahu is the most travelled head-of-state in the country’s history, journeying as far as India, Australia, Singapore, and China, as well as taking tours of Africa and Central Asia. Israel has entered energy cooperation initiatives with Cyprus and Greece, and has signed contracts to export its natural gas to Jordan, Egypt, and the Palestinian Authority.
Some in Israel are critical of the premier for spending so much of his time outside of the country (he is currently under investigation in four separate police cases). The investment in official state visits abroad has not been matched by government investment in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its personnel. In the Israeli foreign policy decision-making process, most of Israel’s diplomatic corps and senior leadership are on the outside looking in.
And these new partnerships are no replacement for Israel’s Western allies. Regardless of how officials in Jerusalem chafe at the sound of their European counterparts critiquing Israeli policy in the Palestinian territories, it would be naïve to argue that the same officials think cooperation with a group of largely non-democratic states could be equal to the value-based relationships that have been fostered between Israel and the West over the last seven decades. Without the involvement of a committed US administration the future of Israel and the Palestinians is also uncertain. Traditionally, Israel preferred a global order managed by NATO and the US. Even if Israel is in the process of expanding its diplomatic horizons, it knows there is no substitute for America’s projection of both hard and soft power, nor the US’ historical commitment to Israel’s security.
The post-American era will trigger enormous growing pains amongst all Middle Eastern states as they search for a new regional order. However, Israel’s success has historically been associated with its ability to remain flexible and adaptive during trying times. Israeli leaders need to be prepared to make difficult decisions for the sake of regional stability. Specifically, will strategic cooperation with its Arab neighbours against Iran eventually necessitate an Israeli commitment to direct negotiations with the Palestinian Authority? What will Israel’s future look like if its non-Western partners decouple the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from their bilateral relationship with the Jewish State?
The United States is not disappearing from the global stage, nor will its support for Israel. Nonetheless, in the event that American diminution is a long-term trend in geopolitics, whom will Israel reach out to in order to maintain its basic security needs? If Israel’s brief but colourful history proves anything, it is to expect the unexpected.