Nineteen years after Israel’s observer status at the African Union was ended during the Second Intifada, Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has announced that the symbolic status is being restored. This is an important moment for Israel, not only because Israel has repaired relations with dozens of African countries but also because it comes amid a flurry of activity for Israel’s foreign relations. Lapid has been speaking about a new era in relations with the European Union, Morocco, the Gulf, Sudan and many countries.
Israel’s new relations with countries such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, were a cornerstone of the Trump administration’s push for the Abraham Accords last year. Former Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin (Bibi) NetanyahuMORE, in power for more than a decade, was widely seen as playing a key role in cultivating these new ties. However, while Netanyahu’s attempt to position Israel as a world leader in defense technology and one of the strongest countries in the Middle East definitely improved Israel’s position on some fronts, public meetings with Arab leaders were rare. This is because Netanyahu had a rocky relationship with the Kingdom of Jordan and also appeared to even use the new UAE ties as a planned campaign stop in an election season.
Netanyahu’s doctrine while in office perhaps can be summed up in an August 2018 statement he made, claiming “the weak crumble, are slaughtered and are erased from history while the strong, for good or for ill, survive. The strong are respected.” This policy, combined with investments in technology, air defense and cyber, made Israel a strong country, but when it came to the finer aspects of diplomacy Netanyahu often preferred private talks to public ceremonies that could showcase Israel’s relationships. For example, in 2014 reports said that Netanyahu and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi spoke frequently, but met publicly only in 2017.
Public statements and meetings matter. The new Israeli government — which combines parties from the right to the far-left and includes an Arab political party in the coalition — has received positive gestures from across the Middle East. Turkey’s president, who often bashes Israel, called Israel’s new president, Isaac Herzog, and they spoke for 40 minutes on July 12. Bahrain’s crown prince congratulated Israel’s new government, and Lapid met his Bahraini counterpart in Rome on June 27. Lapid also met Egypt’s foreign minister on July 11, after meeting with his Jordanian counterpart on July 8. Lapid flew to the UAE to open Israel’s new embassy and said he intends to travel to Morocco soon.
“It's been too long. There is a new government, a new energy — let’s have a new start,” he said at a recent EU Foreign Affairs Council meeting. The numerous high-level meetings and statements such as this illustrate how Israel has created new relationships and is cementing them with the important work that public diplomatic meetings bring. For many years, Israel went without these kinds of meetings — Netanyahu even assumed the role of his own foreign minister, gutting the foreign ministry and delaying dozens of key diplomatic appointments.
Clipping the wings of the foreign ministry left Israel without key ambassadors and diplomats. That means that while Israel was able to renew ties with Chad and Guinea and open ties with Sudan during Netanyahu’s time in office, it rarely built upon the new ties. Netanyahu even went to Oman in 2018, but little came out of that surprise visit. The hope that it might lead to Oman playing a growing role in welcoming Israel didn’t pan out.
This failure to build on ties shows that peace through strength was one of the myths of the Netanyahu administration’s ability to foster Israel’s acceptance in the region. Normalization is one thing, but having public meetings and Israeli diplomats on the ground and Arab leaders visiting Israel sends a message to the public across the Middle East. Private or secret phone calls don’t do that.
The new Israeli government has brought hope for new relationships between Israel and other countries, including Jordan. However, that government would be wise to learn from some of the unfulfilled promises of the Netanyahu era. Many countries want ties with Israel, but they also want Israel to take seriously the need to resolve tensions with the Palestinians. Whether it is Oman, the UAE or other countries, the Palestinian issue matters. Seeing a new government reach out to take concrete steps in the right direction is important.
Seth J. Frantzman is the author of “Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machines, Artificial Intelligence and the Battle for the Future” (Bombardier Books, 2001). He writes for Defense News and The Jerusalem Post, covering the Middle East. His previous book, “After ISIS,” focused on the defeat of ISIS and geopolitical competition in the region. Follow him on Twitter @sfrantzman.