Bibi's Embrace of Asia Is Misguided

The prime minister wants to do business with Asia but he also seems intent on rejecting Europe and half of America at the same time.

David Rosenberg
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Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe touches the Western Wall during a visit to the Old City of Jerusalem January 19, 2015.Credit: Reuters
David Rosenberg

Saul Steinberg’s iconic New Yorker cover, popularly known as “View of the World from Ninth Avenue,” shows the planet as seen by an ethnocentric New Yorker. In the foreground are 9th and 10th Avenues, depicted in detail with buildings, cars, stores and pedestrians. Beyond is the Hudson River and a strip of brown labeled “Jersey,” followed by the rest of the United States, a barren landscape broken up by a few rocks and names of cities like Chicago and Las Vegas. On the horizon lies the Pacific Ocean and then three lumps titled China, Japan and Russia.

How would Steinberg draw “View of the World from Netanyahu’s Office?”

Looking west, Tel Aviv would be a brown strip like Jersey, an irrelevant place where people don’t vote for the Likud. Beyond that would be the Mediterranean and Europe, represented by a European Union official perusing a copy of Der Sturmer while a Muslim looks on. On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean would be the U.S., a large Capitol building sporting a welcome mat at its entrance and a White House with a "No Trespassing!" sign.

New York, Miami and Los Angeles would fill out the rest of the U.S., followed by the Pacific - and then Asia, a brilliant sun rising out of the west (a little artistic license, please) shining rays of growing trade and investment and no-guilt diplomacy back toward Jerusalem.

The view from Bibi's office

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe in Japan, May 2014.Credit: AFP

Less artfully than Steinberg portrayed a New Yorker’s view of the world, Bibi illustrated this worldview three weeks ago, ahead of the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Israel.

Netanyahu spoke about Israel’s “opening to eastern markets” and “a wave of Islamization, anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism” sweeping over Western Europe. We have no choice, he said, but to diversify our political and economic portfolio to make it less heavily weighted toward Europe and more toward Asia.

Netanyahu didn’t mention America, but his actions of the last few weeks have spoken for him: Globally, a pivot to Asia and in the U.S. a pivot to the Republican Party.

Now for some art criticism.

The image of a Europe, a place where anti-Semitism is staging a revival helped by growing numbers of Muslim migrants, is cartoonish. The anti-Semitism of the street has certainly grown in everything from spray-painted swastikas to terror attacks, but the phenomenon is limited mainly to the continent’s largely powerless Muslim minority.

The anti-Israel boycott movement is stronger in Europe than anywhere, but again its strength is mainly among Muslims and the far left. In the corridors of business and political power in Brussels and London and Berlin, Europe has a problem with Israel, but the problem isn’t due to European anti-Semitism. Rather, it is expectations that a democratic, Western country will meet certain human rights standards, which vis a vis the Palestinians, Israel does not.

For Israelis on the right, it’s easier to dismiss any criticism as anti-Semitism and go on with business as usual. That is a dangerous game, that risks Israeli-European relations because of an ideologically inspired illusion.

Israel is not under diplomatic or economic attack from Europe ( just ask Russia and Iran, who know what it means when the West wants to make a point with boycotts and sanctions). Israel’s trade with Europe has grown in the past three years, faster than it has with Asia or the U.S. and still accounts for a far bigger share of our imports and exports than the two others. The reality is that official Europe treats Israel with kid gloves and business Europe wants to do business. The continent is still Israel’s friend.

Dangerous games

In Washington, Bibi is playing a different kind of dangerous game.

It’s bad enough to dis the president of the United States. it is far worse to become a participant in the poisonous partisan politics playing out in America.

Over the decades Israel has enjoyed support from both Democrats and Republicans, enabling it to maintain strong relations in the White House and in Congress, no matter which party was in control. Placing Israel firmly in the Republican camp leaves the Democrats – a party which, by the way, is the favorite of American Jews – on the outside. It threatens to put us on one side of an ideological divide like the common core educational standards or the Keystone pipeline rather than a friendship that everyone can agree on.

And what about that sun rising over Asia? The pivot toward Asia that Netanyahu spoke about isn’t a new or private initiative, nor is it being pursued unilaterally by Israel.

As much as Israel wants to reach out to Asia, Asia wants to reach out to Israel. Abe’s visit, the first by a Japanese premier in nine years, was only the latest example of high-level diplomacy. Netanyahu met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the United Nations General Assembly in September, the first such meeting in a decade. Chinese investors have been putting money into Israeli startups and Chinese universities forming tie-ups with their Israeli counterparts. India has become a big and very public buyer of Israeli defense equipment. Now Japan is joining them. With less fanfare, Israel has stepped up relations with middling powers, like Vietnam and the Philippines.

Win-win and winning more situations

Asia, and especially China, is becoming Israel’s business partner, ready and willing to engage in win-win situations (although naturally it would like to win more).

But Asia certainly not a lover like America, ready to stand by our side matter what the political cost. Unlike America and Europe, Asia has no natural affinity (two self-made democracies infused by religious idealism) or historic guilt (over anti-Semitism and the Holocaust) to deepen its relations with Israel. There are no Jews in Beijing, no Chinatown in Tel Aviv to provide a personal connection.

A tally of UN votes should provide a good indicator of China’s attitude: It routinely supports resolutions hostile to Israel.

Unlike Europe, Beijing doesn’t lecture other countries about human rights. But it does retain that old Maoist infatuation with national liberation movements and therefore sympathizes with the Palestinian struggle.

In the world of innovation-driven economies, Israel’s technology prowess both in civilian and defense segments is a valuable resource. China, India, Korea and Japan all want a piece of the action, and there is no reason why Israel shouldn’t provide it.

But energy, which is the chief asset the Arab world and Iran enjoy, still trumps it. Asian countries, most notably China and Japan, want to build advanced and competitive industries over the long term, a goal Israel can help them achieve, but they need oil right now and without interruption.

Bibi’s error is not in expanding relations with Asia, but in rejecting Europe and the half or more of America who isn’t Republican. Most Israelis don’t share in this faulty worldview, but we will all pay for it.

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