Every year since 1948, Israelis have expected the upcoming year to be “a critical juncture,” “a fateful year” or, to be practical, “a year of major decisions.” While this pretentious terminology is conducive to domestic political expediency, grandstanding and fundraising for Israeli causes throughout the Jewish world, it’s seldom accurate.
When a year turns out to be an inflection point, or at least significant, we only realize this retroactively. To gain support and respect, politicians notify the public about the excruciatingly difficult decisions they need to make. But they very rarely make those decisions and are prone to procrastinate and sanctify the status quo.
The year 2022 will be no different, and Israeli foreign policy will resemble the bland, unimaginative, more-of-the-same version of 2021: “Iran is an existential threat.” This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and actually it’s a sign of normalcy. It’s just that since Israel is in the Middle East, unforeseen crises tend to happen, on a bigger scale and shorter timetable than anything that was predicted.
The basic assumption is that 2022 will be a year still heavily dominated by COVID and its economic repercussions. But events in and around Iran, Ukraine and Ethiopia suggest that however overwhelming the pandemic is, it only delays other crises, at best.
Israel traditionally has no distinct foreign policy other than the basic “comity of nations” directive. What Israel has always had is a defense and security policy to which foreign policy is wholly subjected.
You can rightly argue that most countries are like that, with a few exceptions: those privileged not to really need a defense policy. Countries consciously link foreign policy to a general defense posture and specific security interests, and the two instruments complement each other.
But the unique trajectory of Israel history – basically a permanent state of war of varying intensity for may decades – has made conventional foreign policy a subcategory of security policy. This has structural, bureaucratic, budgetary, political and cultural expressions and hasn’t changed much to this day.
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However, as Israel grew stronger as a dominant military and economic power in the region, and as a technological power, a more traditional foreign policy emerged. It wasn’t independent from an overarching defense policy, but it had distinct civilian-diplomatic characteristics.
Israel’s 2022 foreign policy will be divided into four parts: a general strategic posture, the existing agenda, various developments to closely watch out for, and the “unknown unknowns.”
Israel’s general strategic posture is defined as “ensuring Israel’s security and existence,” but in reality it’s all about Iran. Whether this emphasis is exaggerated with hysterical undertones or is an accurate reading of Iran’s intentions is a separate topic. As things stand, Israel views Iran as a potentially existential threat, and all foreign policy derives from that notion.
From Tehran to Beijing
Israel’s current agenda consists of five major items:
Iran. Will there or won’t there be a new or renewed Iranian nuclear deal in 2022? What will Iran’s regional policies look like and what effective policies can Israel craft in either a deal- or no-nuclear-deal scenario?
The Palestinians. Will 2022 be another status quo year, will relations deteriorate unexpectedly and will the new year get Israel nearer to a binational-state reality? If the two-state model is no longer viable, what is, given the demographic equilibrium of roughly 52 percent Israeli Jews and 48 percent Palestinian Arabs between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea?
The United States. As America continues disengaging gradually from the Middle East and shifting its resources to the Pacific Rim, and with both Iran and the Palestinian issue maintaining their ongoing-crisis status, will the U.S.-Israeli “unshakable alliance” remain intact or be strained? Second, how will Israel address internal political changes in the United States, particularly relations with the Democratic Party after the Netanyahu-era distancing and alienation?
China. Against the backdrop of an intensifying U.S.-Chinese rivalry and China’s expanded presence in the broader region, will Israel be caught in the middle? Will Chinese-Iranian relations further deepen after the 25-year, $400 billion “strategic partnership” agreement was signed, and will China become Iran’s strategic umbrella?
The region. Can the Abraham Accords be expanded to include Saudi Arabia?
Parallel to the prime agenda but with much lesser urgency are other developments to look out for in 2022. Under certain circumstances that may evolve, each may require Israel’s attention.
Turkey. Under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkish-Israeli relations deteriorated into open hostility. But long-term geopolitics and a confluence of shared interests suggest that a significant improvement is possible and even necessary. In 2022, Israel will be closely following Turkish politics as it positions itself for a very probable post-Erdogan era.
Russia. Russia’s general policy in the region and especially its relations with Iran will most certainly be monitored closely.
Europe. Israel has traditionally been averse to European involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, when such existed. But the European Union remains Israel’s top trading partner, taking in 65 percent of Israeli exports. On top of that, a new chancellor in Germany, Olaf Scholz, and a lesser American influence on European policy – to the limited extent that an EU policy even exists – will require Israel’s attention.
New opportunities. Although the era of Israeli diplomatic isolation is well over, there are still countries outside the region with which Israel has no diplomatic relations, notably Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan.
Take it from Rummy
The “unknown unknowns” naturally pose the greatest challenge and the highest degree of uncertainty. Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who died in June, famously uttered the clever yet confusing and amusing description of the “unknowns” of foreign and defense policy:
“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult ones.”
Any one of Israel’s foreign policy objectives can be subjected to Rumsfeld’s dictum. Iran is a “known known,” and we know we know what Iran is doing and how it conducts its regional policies. Iran’s current nuclear policy, however, is a “known unknown.” We know – incessant blabbering and occasional arrogant rhetoric aside – that we don’t really know what is Iran’s endgame strategy.
Does it want a military nuclear option, with all this entails and the inevitable pressures it will incur, or will Tehran be content with being an established “threshold state” – which arguably it already is – and use the potential threat as a shield protecting its geopolitical maneuvering?
But what are Israel’s “unknowns”? This is more an issue of imagination than a solid strategic outlook, but it’s still an integral part of foreign policy.
A political crisis in Iran that may result in belligerency in the region can upend Israel’s agenda entirely. Sudden and violent upheavals in a neighboring country such as Lebanon, Syria or Jordan could pose formidable security challenges. An unforeseen escalation in U.S.-China relations may seem far away but would undoubtedly have indirect implications on Israel.
That 2022 will resemble 2021 and be a “more of the same” year seems the logical conclusion, even if this is a bit of a lazy approach that stems more from wishful thinking than sound geopolitical analysis.
One thing is sure: “More of the same” doesn’t enshrine the status quo. On both major issues Israel is facing, the Palestinians and Iran, 'continuing the status quo' is a euphemism for kicking the can down the road and avoiding decisions.