Israeli opposition politicians frequently bemoan what they say is Israel’s poor–and worsening–global standing. One such politician, head of the Yesh Atid party in the Knesset, Yair Lapid, even claimed that Israel’s current global standing is the worst that it’s ever been.
As someone who lives in Israel and takes part in political discussions around the dinner (or breakfast or lunch) table, I can attest that this view is shared by a sizable part of Israel’s citizenry, even though it has no basis in history or fact.
As part of the research I conducted in the writing of The Dead Sister and The Auschwitz Violinist (soon to be published), both of which take place in the first three years of Israel’s existence, I read a number of newspapers of the time. They included frequent and detailed reports of Israel’s shaky relations with other countries and the harsh challenges the fledgling country faced in the international arena. Compared to those years, Israel is enjoying a veritable golden age in the sphere of foreign relations.
Don’t believe me? Let’s do a quick historical comparison by focusing on various areas of the world and their relations with Israel.
The Arab and Muslim World
Soon after Israel became independent, the entire Arab world declared a complete and utter boycott of the new country and made it difficult for foreign companies to do business with or in it. There was a long list of products that could not be sold in Arab countries if they were also sold in Israel. These included automobiles, beverages, food items, cosmetics, and many other products.
I still recall that when I was a boy, one of the most popular car models in Israel was Subaru. The reason was simple: they were the only, or one of the only, Asian car manufacturers who sold their cars in Israel. The rest buckled under Arab pressure and effectively boycotted the Jewish State.
Today, I know of no car manufacturer or other major vendor who would publicly boycott Israel (in its entirety, some do not conduct business beyond Israel’s recognized borders, in the Golan Heights and West Bank). And the Arabs, though they may still formally maintain their longstanding boycott, generally don’t make a fuss about it.
When Israel was founded, it had no diplomatic relations with any Arab nation. Today it has a nominal, though not actual, peace with two of its neighbors, Egypt and Jordan, and a variety of covert avenues of cooperation with other Arab and Muslim nations.
While Arab dislike of Israel is still rampant, there is a marked thawing in the upper echelons of power toward Israel. It appears that some Arab leaders have come to the correct conclusion that their conflict with Israel serves little purpose and brings nothing but harm to their own countries.
Looking at the Muslim world beyond the Arab countries, one sees further signs of improvement. Israel’s mutually-beneficial relations with Turkey are such that even the personal animosity of Turkish President, Erdogan could not sever them. Israel also has ties with some of the former Soviet republics, now independent Muslim nations. Some of these ties are extensive, commercially and militarily.
Israel’s past international isolation went far beyond the Arab and Muslim world. It was not until the 1990s that China and India established formal diplomatic relations with Israel. Since then, trade between Israel and the two Asian giants has grown tremendously.
India, in particular, has grown considerably warmer toward Israel. There is extensive military trade and cooperation between the two nations; Israelis by their many thousands visit India; and Indians, on average, have a highly favorable view toward Israel.
China is generally cooler toward Israel, but this had not stopped trade from blossoming.
Israel formed formal relations with Japan and South Korea much earlier than with China and India, but trade used to be minimal. Now it is booming. Korean and Japanese businessman and politicians have visited Israel and there is little doubt that Israel’s ties with these two important nations have grown stronger. The same can be said of Israel’s relations with other Far East nations.
Eastern Europe and Russia
Israel did have formal relations with the Soviet Union and its client states in Eastern Europe in its early years, but those relations were severed in 1967, when Israel defeated the Arabs in the Six Day War.
Today, following the collapse of the Communist bloc, Israel has friendly relations with all the countries in Eastern Europe.
And while Russia still sells weapons to Israel’s enemies, its attitude toward Israel has improved by leaps and bounds. Israeli leaders have visited Russia several times in recent years, and Vladimir Putin has visited Israel. Putin and Netanyahu seems to understand and respect each other and know how to work together.
When Russia became more heavily involved in the war in Syria, Israeli and Russian diplomats and officers sat together to ensure that neither country’s vital interests would suffer as a result of the other’s actions. Russia is not a friend of Israel, but it is no longer the enemy it was during the Cold War.
African countries have generally been cool toward Israel, especially since the 1970s. Part of the reason is Israel’s support of Apartheid South Africa; another part is simple numbers. There are more Arabs than Jews and Israelis, and they have more countries and a bigger economic and diplomatic pull.
However, a warming of relations seems to be in the works. Recently, PM Netanyahu visited a number of countries in Africa and met with several African leaders. Trade is growing. The fight against Islamic terrorism which rages in several hot spots in Africa has led to even greater cooperation with Israel.
When Netanyahu recently boasted in front of an incredulous UN General Assembly that in the near future the automatic majority against Israel in the UN will be a thing of the past, he had his eye on Africa.
South and Central America
Relations with South and Central America are not as rosy as Israel would want. There have been various sour notes over the past few years, with some countries, such as Venezuela, behaving in an outright hostile manner toward Israel. The general sentiment is not a positive one, which is a reversal of what it was during Israel’s early years. However, it is not virulent. Generally speaking, when the socialists is in power, relations suffer. When right-wingers are elected, things improve.
The United States of America is Israel’s greatest ally and provider of military and diplomatic aid. Notwithstanding the tension between Netanyahu and Obama, and between Netanyahu’s government and the Democratic Party as a whole, the level of American support for Israel far exceeds that which was given during Israel’s early years.
Back then, The US maintained a weapons embargo on Israel. Now it sells Israel advanced weapons systems. Back then, the US was pressuring Israel to cede the Negev (southern part of Israel) to the Arabs and to admit a large number of Arab refugees. David Ben Gurion refused, and no such demand is made today. Back then, the general public in America was indifferent to Israel; now it is largely supportive.
There are people in America who are hostile to Israel, and there will be challenges to Israel in the future regarding public opinion in the US. But in the foreseeable future, Israel is likely to continue to enjoy a level of support in America which it could only dream of when it was founded.
Canada, Australia and New Zealand
These three countries are largely supportive of Israel, at about the same level as they were in the past.
The one area of the world which Israel does see diminishing support is in Europe. When Israel was founded the prime minister of Belgium announced he would gladly fight side by side with the Jews against the Arabs. Such a sentiment is unlikely to be voiced today by any national leader. After the Six Day War, Israel enjoyed a massive wave of support in Western Europe. Today the situation is different.
There is open hostility toward Israel in several western European countries. Sweden is a prime example.
A part of the British public is also hostile toward Israel. The Labour Party in Britain is led by a group of politicians which seem to view Israel with nothing but contempt. Some even hold policies that would bring the Jewish State to its end. However, relations with Great Britain used to be worse. British officers actively fought against Israel in its war of independence. The commanding officer of the Jordanian Legion was a British officer. This would be unthinkable today.
Israel’s relations with western European nations are likely to remain troublesome, mainly due to the changing demographics of Europe. As Muslims become a larger proportion of western Europe’s population, and as political parties seek to woe these new voters, the policies and positions taken toward Israel will likely be more negative. Whether this would change should Israel relinquish its hold on the West Bank is unclear. The sentiment in Europe may remain negative and new demands on Israel may be made.
Israel’s international standing is not stellar, and there are worrying signs for the future, but it is far better than it was for much of the country’s existence. Mr. Netanyahu could do a better job of getting along with and earning the trust of world leaders, and his government could modify some of its positions to better accommodate world opinion, but that still doesn’t change the fact that Israel is enjoying good relations with many countries. It also has varied opportunities for further improvement if it plays its cards right. Whether it will do so remains an open question.