Analysis

Netanyahu Takes Pride in Israel's Warming Diplomatic Ties, but UN Vote Teaches a Lesson in Humility

The prime minister's many statements over the past two years about a purported dramatic change in the world's attitude toward Israel did not pass the test of reality

The results of a vote to declare U.S. President Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital 'null and void' are posted in the UN General Assembly, December 21, 2017.
Manuel Elias/Bloomberg

The more time that passed before the defeat in the UN General Assembly, the more the tune changed in Jerusalem over the expected outcome.

To really understand Israel and the Middle East - subscribe to Haaretz

At first Israel tried to persuade as many countries as possible to vote against the resolution, but when outright American threats to cut aid to them did not dramatically alter the situation, the main effort focused on persuading leaders to at least abstain or suddenly head off early for Christmas vacation and absent themselves from the chamber. And if that didn’t work, at least let them tone down the volume of their speeches during the debate.

After the vote, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his foreign minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, responded accordingly: “Israel rejects the UN resolution and expresses its satisfaction at the large number of countries that did not vote for the resolution.” Rejoicing over the abstentions, celebrating the absences.

The main disappointment in Israel was with the countries that have enhanced bilateral relations in recent years, especially those that share a particularly conservative worldview with the Netanyahu government. For example, India – whose prime minister, Narendra Modi, visited Israel in July, a tour that was memorable mainly for the pastoral photographs of him and Netanyahu embracing and wading in the waves – voted for the resolution against Israel and the United States. “A kindred soul,” Netanyahu called Modi during his visit. But with a reciprocal visit coming in the middle of next month, India would not budge from its refusal to abstain.

>> Israel rejects UN decision on Jerusalem, thanks Trump for unequivocal support of Jerusalem ■ FULL TEXT: UN resolution rejecting Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital ■ Trump, take note: The top 10 countries receiving U.S. aid – and how they voted on Jerusalem >>

Other significant disappointments came from Greece and Cyprus, with whom a natural gas accord was signed just recently. Russia and China, whom Netanyahu praises abundantly for their warming ties with Israel, voted again, as usual, for the Palestinian position.

An Israeli diplomat said the main takeaway from this episode might be a “lesson in humility.” Netanyahu’s many statements over the past two years about a purported dramatic change in the world’s attitude to Israel now look different, to say the least, in light of the voting board in New York, where 128 glowing green squares appeared to the sound of thunderous applause that echoed in the chamber when the results became known.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Olga Beach, October 9, 2017.
Kobi Gideon / GPO

But there were also modest compensations. Six countries broke the European Union consensus and acceded to Israel’s pressure to abstain. Hungary and its leader Victor Orban led the rebellion, joined by the Czech Republic, whose prime minister was lobbied by Netanyahu before the vote, and by Poland, whose position in Europe is weak now in any case, as well as by Croatia, Latvia and Romania. Austria and Lithuania, which are also considered friendly to Israel, voted in favor of the resolution. And at any rate, the East European abstention, as the Czech representative explained from the rostrum, was a weak one: “We don’t oppose the European Union’s position on the issue of Jerusalem [maintaining the 1967 lines], but we are abstaining because we don’t think that the vote this evening will advance peace.”

The Foreign Ministry’s reserved its dimmest view for “classical Europe.” Germany, for example. Some African countries, where Israel is investing major efforts, abstained (for example Rwanda and South Sudan) or were absent (such as Kenya) while one, Togo, even voted against the resolution. It was also interesting to note the abstention of Argentina, where Netanyahu also visited this year. However, the bottom line, if we scrutinize Netanyahu’s trips this year, and there were many – 59 days abroad – there is no evidence that these visits paid off Thursday in the UN General Assembly.

Compared to the results of previous significant votes, for example in 2012 on upgrading the Palestinians to observer status, there is some improvement as far as the government is concerned: Then, 138 countries voted yes; this time “only” 128 did so. But this time it wasn’t only support for Israel that was being tested – it was mainly support for the United States that was on the line. Because U.S. President Donald Trump and his ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, had not hesitated to make outright threats in recent days (“to take names”) and to seek revenge for “yes” votes by cutting off those countries’ U.S. aid, the small green squares on the board marked not only the clear support of most countries for a two-state solution within the 1967 borders, but also an increasing lack of confidence in the Trump administration as a fair mediator in the conflict and in Trump himself as the leader of a world power.