Israel's Emerging Mideast Foreign Policy

The 16th annual Herzliya Conference a prestigious gathering that attracts senior Israeli and international leaders in government, economics, and academia, has just wrapped up in Israel. Strategic assessments are given by politicians, diplomats, business and military leaders who analyze Israel’s national, regional, and global concerns. 

On June 15, 2016, the second day of the Tel Aviv gathering, Israeli ambassador Dr. Dore Gold, who serves as the Director General of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), gave a speech on Israel’s foreign policy objectives.

Claiming that rumors are unfounded about Israel having no foreign policy and being isolated among the nations, Gold stated that the real issue is the political crossroads both Israel and Middle East countries are forced to face in an unstable region.

"We need to have a new strategy for the future. Despite the chaos, Israel is very much aware, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is very much aware, that new elements of order are emerging.”

According to Gold, one of Israel’s key interests is retaining and building its relationship with the U.S., a strategic ally of the Jewish State.

The disagreement over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, which Israel fought against in the U.S. Congress, was a low point in American-Israel relations. Finalized in July 2015 by the P5+1 nations (China, France, Russia, the UK, U.S., and Germany), the Iran deal became a sticking point between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama.

At the Herzliya Conference, Gold wanted to move on from the Iran Nuclear Deal. “Beyond that, Israel is moving in several areas that are important and worth mentioning for those who are still uncertain whether we have a foreign policy.”

Acknowledging that Netanyahu holds both the office of prime minister and foreign minister in this current Israeli government coalition, Gold wanted to make sure that the international community understood Israel is fulfilling its responsibilities in the diplomatic world

"We are trying and we are effectively building a new policy towards the global community,” Gold declared.

The most significant part of Israel’s current foreign policy framework has been the public acknowledgement of behind-the-scenes negotiations with the Arab world.

While at one time, negotiations with Arab states were secret, Gold professes that now it is different. “It is no secret that there is a strategic convergence between Israel and many of the Sunni Arab countries”

On his foreign policy trips abroad, Gold sits in negotiations with other director generals of foreign ministries. On one occasion, he brought up 13 talking points that his staff at the MFA prepared for him on paper. In the middle of explaining these points, one leader shared that those talking points were the same ones he had received from his staff. Gold sees this as part of Israel’s new ties with Arab states.

For those who have pressed Israel to consider solving the Israeli-Palestinian issue first, before reaching out to the Arab world, Gold had this to say: "In fact, on both papers, the Palestinian issue was not the number one issue. It was pretty close to the bottom. But, we have to realize that isn't, any more, the currency in which you build ties in much of the Arab World, the Sunni World."

Gold did admit that the Palestinian issue is important to public opinion and would continue to be one that Israel looks to solve. But, the focus for Israel now is warming ties with moderate Arab leaders. Many of the countries to the east in this region have fears about the rise in Iranian power. The JCPOA was supposed to lead to a change in Iranian behavior, but so far, Iran has been more belligerent towards the Jewish State.

Moreover, Iran is gaining ground in Sunni countries, often trying to manipulate and take advantage of Shia forces in those nations. But, in the case of the Yemen war, a number of countries, including Egypt, showed an interest in strengthening ties with Saudi Arabia. This resulted in a deal between Egypt and Saudi Arabia in the Red Sea area.

While Gold would not give any details, reports indicate that Israel secretly met with Saudi Arabia for six years in backchannel negotiations that required a changing of Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt. Two small islands that were in the hands of Egypt but apparently were originally part of Saudi sovereignty, were transferred to Saudi Arabia this year. The fact that the Saudis accepted the international treaty between Israel and Egypt, and, that the Saudis became an integral part of that treaty because they acquired the islands was a positive, unexpected outcome for Israel.

Upon Israel’s insistence, these islands will remain demilitarized, which the Saudi’s agreed to in the deal. This advancement in relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia has coincided with Israel establishing deeper relations with Gulf nations. Trust is building. It is another sign of a convergence between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

For years, Netanyahu hinted about this discreet diplomacy. While the Obama administration has taken a lesser leadership role in the Middle East and moving towards a nuclear accommodation with Shiite Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states have formed Sunni alliances with Jordan and Egypt. Israel has come into that orbit because it can provide a military umbrella against Iranian aggression.

Meanwhile, despite the fact that some people think international ties are frozen for the Israeli government, Gold offers deeper revelation: “Well, under the ice, there is a lot of hot water moving! And, we hope that we will be able to use the new relations in the Arab world, combined with many of our new relations in Asia and Africa, to build better relations in the situation for us and even our Palestinian neighbors".

This is the thinking of the current Netanyahu government, which is different than the thinking of Israel’s past governments going back 20-30 years. At the time of the Oslo Accords, signed in 1993, the thought was that if the Palestinian issue was solved it would be followed by peace in the Arab world. Gold says that has now changed. “Increasingly, we are becoming convinced it is the exact opposite. It is a different order we have to create.”

Back in 2002, Saudi Arabia offered Israel the Arab Peace Initiative. It called for Israel to withdraw to the 1967 borders, share joint control of Jerusalem with the Palestinians, and allow an unspecified number of Palestinians to return and live in Israel. The peace plan also called for Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights. Today, there is no leadership in Syria that Israel could effectively negotiate with regarding the Golan Heights, and Netanyahu has publicly stated that the Golan will remain in Israel’s hands forever. Because Syria has disintegrated as a nation state, the Arab Peace Initiative is out of date. Arab leaders have said it is a “take it or leave it” plan, but they also realize it must be updated to reflect the current changes in the Middle East.

While Gold did not refer to that specific plan at the Herzliya gathering, he did assure international leaders that Israel wants to explore every avenue of peace. Gold guaranteed that when Israel sees a great strategic moment emerging, “We will exploit every effort. We will turn over every rock to make sure we bring a safer Middle East to the state of Israel.”