By STEVE LEIBOWITZ
(JNS.org) — 2018 is viewed by many experts as a banner year for Israeli diplomacy, including major achievements and enhanced international reach. At the same time, analysts say the Jewish state is facing political pushback and some significant challenges as the calendar year comes to an end.
Most memorable on the list of 2018 diplomatic developments was the U.S. President Donald Trump-driven opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, and his pullout from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, goals long championed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and both of which happened in May. The past year also brought about a series of improved bilateral relationships with key nations on several continents. In his role as foreign minister, Netanyahu worked to expand Israel’s circle of allies, driven by the prospect of trade deals, political support in international forums and shared opposition to Tehran’s nuclear plans and regional aggression.
The U.S. embassy in Jerusalem opened on May 14, following Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital a year earlier. U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman described the embassy opening as “a demonstration to the world that the U.S. stands with its allies” and “does not flinch from its enemies.” According to Friedman, “the world now sees Israel through a new lens. Diplomatic and strategic relationships that were unthinkable a decade ago are emerging in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and South America.”
Since the U.S. move, Israel claims that it is in discussion with about 10 countries about moving its embassies to Jerusalem. So far, only Guatemala has followed Washington’s lead. Paraguay pledged to do so, but later reversed course. However, other Latin American countries such as Brazil under pro-Israel President Jair Bolsonaro and Honduras are planning moves. Col. (Ret.) Miri Eisin, an expert in geopolitics and former adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office, told JNS, “The U.S. embassy move is this year’s most significant development. It’s had a certain ripple effect with a variety of countries now considering their positions and sharpening its views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Trump fulfilled a campaign promise by withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, also in May, imposing two sets of renewed American sanctions on Iran—one in early August and one in early November. While most of the world continues to support the Iran deal, U.S. sanctions are having an impact on an already faltering Iranian economy, especially its oil exports. The sanctions have been less painful than they might have been since Washington granted waivers to eight countries, including China, India and Japan. Ambassador Yoram Ettinger from the Ariel Center for Policy Research told JNS, “Most significant in 2018 is President Trump’s willingness to confront the Iranian nuclear program, as well as its regional aggression. This has great strategic benefit for Israel.”
In March, Trump signed the Taylor Force Act. Named in memory of a 28-year-old visiting graduate student and U.S. veteran murdered in Tel Aviv by a Palestinian terrorist, the bill forced a halt in American aid to the Palestinian Authority until it ceases to pay “salaries” to deceased and imprisoned terrorists and their families. “This bill demonstrates the enhancement or mutually beneficial U.S.-Israel relations,” said Ettinger.
It’s “another example is the change in attitude of the U.S. towards the United Nations as a whole, including an end in funding UNWRA, which is a source of Palestinian hate education,” he added.
The past year witnessed burgeoning ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis still do not recognize the Jewish state, but there have been reports of secret coordination between top security officials in Jerusalem and Riyadh amid shared concern over Iran’s regional aggression and nuclear program. The path to stronger ties may have suffered some setbacks after the murder of Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul. Two top Saudi officials implicated in the murder were reportedly key figures in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s efforts for warmer ties with Israel.
Netanyahu’s breakthrough diplomatic travels in 2018 included an official visit to the Arabian Gulf Sultanate of Oman, where he held talks with Sultan Qaboos Bin Said. The two countries have no formal diplomatic ties, and it was the first meeting of its kind since post-Oslo in 1996. Also significant was Chadian President Idriss Déby’s historic visit to Israel, with Netanyahu planning to visit the central African country next year, at which time the two nations expected to declare a renewal of diplomatic ties.
Other landmark meetings strengthening economic ties with leaders from China, Japan and India. Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan visited Israel, as did Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Netanyahu met with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi in Delhi, leading to a joint declaration of the “dawn of a new era” in bilateral relations.
‘Israel must restore deterrence, improve civilian readiness’
The year comes to an end with the surprise announcement by Trump that U.S. troops will be withdrawn from Syria. It’s still too early to say how the development will play out, but it brought initial alarm from Netanyahu and Israeli supporters in Washington, who fear that the move can undo positive accomplishments in the Middle East. Ettinger told JNS, “The latest development with Syria could be problematic in providing tailwind to Israel’s enemies, including Iran, Syria and ISIS, and it appears to throw Kurdish allies under the bus. I hope there are things going on behind the scenes that we might not be aware of.”
Middle East analyst Amotz Asa-El told JNS, “In terms of what we have done on our own volition, it was an impressive year. Inventive moves by Netanyahu, including high-profile summits with Eastern European, South American and African leaders, and the signing of the Israel-Italy-Greece-Cyprus deal on a gas pipeline to Europe are important examples.”
At the same time, Asa-El points out, “beyond Israel’s control is the crisis following the Khashoggi assassination and developments that could follow the U.S. decision to withdraw from Syria.”
Not all analysts were impressed with Israel’s diplomatic achievements. Ambassador David Baker from the Jerusalem Center for Policy Studies told JNS that “the diplomatic year has not been particularly significant, and had routine ups and downs. There has been no major success on the peace front. While there has been some progress in relations between Israel and moderate Arab states in the region, these have been overshadowed by the deterioration with the Palestinians and developments on the Syrian and Lebanese fronts.”
Looking towards the future, David Weinberg from the Jewish Institute for Strategic Studies told JNS that “Israel must do more to restore deterrence and improve civilian readiness because war is coming. In the meantime, we must take the diplomatic gains and translate them into real political [clout] when it’s most needed.”