Opinion |

Israel’s First 100 Days of a Different Foreign Policy

Yair Lapid
Yair Lapid
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, left, and his Moroccan counterpart, Nasser Bourita, exchanging signed cooperation agreements in Rabat on Wednesday.
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, left, and his Moroccan counterpart, Nasser Bourita, exchanging signed cooperation agreements in Rabat on Wednesday. Credit: Mosa'ab Elshamy / AP
Yair Lapid
Yair Lapid

For about a decade, Israeli foreign policy was mired in the morose idea that the international community is a Darwinist environment. The only alliances Israel could rely on were based on economic or security interests; there was no place for a dialogue based on shared values or friendship between peoples. Instead of an active, positive foreign policy, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government adopted a policy of pessimistic suspicion.

In the domestic arena, pessimism as a worldview brought Israeli society to the brink of collapse. In the international arena, it caused the last few governments to neglect the vital work of building alliances based on values. And this happened at the very moment when global crises – the banking crisis, radical Islam, the climate crisis and the coronavirus crisis – made the international community realize there’s no such thing anymore as local problems. All problems, big and small, ultimately become global.

Pessimism in diplomacy is a mistake. Even worse, it’s a lazy mistake. The claim that “they’re all antisemitic and there’s no point” was simply an excuse for a government that was busy with other things and stopped making an effort in the international arena. It’s impossible to go for years with no foreign minister (or one denied any power), to close diplomatic offices abroad, slash the ministry’s budget over and over, leave dozens of embassies unstaffed, ignore the deep changes in American and European societies and then whine that they don’t understand us.

The results of this neglect and pessimism were both swift and severe. Ever since Netanyahu’s unsuccessful speech to the U.S. Congress in 2015, Israel has lost its ability to mobilize the world on the Iranian issue. Antisemitism statistics are the worst they’ve been in decades. Sympathy for Israel among younger Americans and Democratic voters is at an all-time low. International organizations routinely pass anti-Israel resolutions.

The cumulative damage is especially evident in our relationship with the United States. Nobody disputes that Israel’s biggest diplomatic (and security) asset is its strategic relationship with America. This relationship isn’t based on interests but on values.

America’s founders, like Zionism’s, sought to create a utopian society based on liberty. The Americans looked at us and saw something of themselves. But instead of nurturing this connection, in recent years we’ve opened a rift with the Democratic Party – which represents more than half the American population – and with a significant part of the most important Jewish community in the world.

But this deterioration can be halted. American and European college students aren’t demonstrating against us because of “interests” but because of moral and public-diplomacy failures here. Some of the members of Congress who vote against us do so because nobody ever explained our side of the story to them.

We could just continue getting angry, but we have a better idea – let’s change things. It will take time and effort, but led by a powerful, modernized Foreign Ministry, Israel’s standing overseas can be dramatically improved.

Even in the short time we’ve had, it has become clear that things can be done differently. For instance, Israel used to accept our “cold peace” with Egypt and Jordan as a decree of fate. But the new government, which was only formed in June, decided to challenge this view.

In three months of intensive work, the peace has become warm. New trade and similar agreements were signed, public meetings between leaders were held and cooperation was improved greatly. And all this happened without Israel having to concede a single vital national interest.

Yes, we have plenty of enemies, but we also have friends – many and powerful ones. Against all the damage that has been done in recent years, there is a long tradition of sympathy for Israel. Joe Biden, Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, Narendra Modi, Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, Australia’s Scott Morrison, Jordan’s King Abdullah, the United Arab Emirates’ Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed and Morocco’s King Hassan are just part of the list of declared friends of Israel.

The European Union is about to sign with us another wide-ranging economic/technology pact, Horizon Europe, which will last until 2027. In East Asia, countries such as Japan and South Korea have no history of antisemitism, and the potential for economic ties is infinite. The list of China’s investments in Israel is one of the most impressive I’ve seen.

When you look west, the situation is getting immeasurably better. With Greece and Cyprus, our “Hellenic alliance” has been renewed, and we’re now extending it to the Balkans, as it has been extended to our new friends in the Gulf. We’re forging links with Morocco, something that until not long ago was only a dream.

Israel recently obtained observer status in the African Union despite the undisguised rage of certain Arab League countries. Senegal’s charismatic foreign minister, Aissata Tall Sall, has told me in a long and friendly conversation that she will do whatever she can for Israel in Africa.

Of course, there are issues where Israel isn’t willing to back down, even if it means causing palpable damage to our foreign relations. We need to do everything – including public disagreements with our closest friends – to expose the true nature of the Iranian regime and its malicious plans to obtain nuclear weapons. We won’t hesitate to fight in Gaza if Hamas continues to fire rockets at our citizens. But none of this obviates our need to build a strong system of alliances and friendly relations.

We must create a diplomatic umbrella to protect us on rainy days. Accepting responsibility, being open to ideas, making decisions based on facts (even when they’re unpleasant), clearly understanding how others see us, being willing to accept criticism, avoiding self-pity and observing human rights – these aren’t political burdens but values that we believe in. A foreign policy that’s optimistic, open-minded and ready for dialogue isn’t a price we have to pay, it’s an asset we’re building in our relationship with the world.

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