Monday, 4 February 2013

Israel's network of friends

As Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, stood before the UN General Assembly last November and asked them to upgrade Palestine to a “non-member observer state”, 41 nations withstood the intense pressure of world opinion in favour of the bid, and abstained. The world’s media concentrated on the fact that 138 members voted for the upgrade, but the 41 abstentions represent something of diplomatic triumph for Israel.

No one disputes that Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, had an acute mind and the capacity to think strategically, attributes abundantly apparent in the foreign policy strategy most closely connected to his name: the Alliance of the Periphery, or the Periphery Doctrine. This concept, born out of the circumstances of the 1950s, called for Israel to develop close strategic alliances with non-Arab Muslim states in order to counteract the united opposition of Arab states to Israel’s very existence.

As conceived by Ben Gurion, the policy was directed primarily towards Turkey and pre-revolutionary Iran. In 1950 Turkey and Iran became the first and, for a long time, the only Muslim states to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, and for many years Israel enjoyed long, close and fruitful relationships, involving extensive military and industrial cooperation, with both. These mutually beneficial arrangements served as a counter-weight to the pressure of enmity generated by the largely hostile Arab nations surrounding the fledgling Israel.

Israel's basic strategic need in this respect has not changed in the past sixty years. Geographically, Israel is still a tiny island of Western democratic values set in a sea of enemies, many bent on obliterating it by whatever means. Driven by these circumstances, successive Israeli governments have developed an expanded version of the Periphery Doctrine, which has worked reasonably well.

With an eye on non-Arab countries with significant Muslim populations, Israel has gone a long way towards achieving normal relations with nations like Ethiopia, Nigeria and India. Then, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Israel managed to gain the friendship of newly-independent Muslim republics of Central Asia such as Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. The president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Massoud Barzani, went so far in 2006 as to say: “It is not a crime to have relations with Israel.”

But times change. The accession of Recep Tayyip Erdogan as Turkish prime minister in 2003 brought with it a sharp deterioration in relations with Israel. Rooted as he is in hard-line Islamism, Erdogan immediately began courting favour with the Muslim world, and support for the extremist terrorist organisations Hamas and Hezbollah began to dominate Turkey’s approach to foreign affairs. Naturally enough, Israel’s reaction was to extend the periphery doctrine concept, namely to seek − and, indeed, achieve − a closer relationship with Turkey’s long-standing opponent, Greece.

In pursuit of this wider interpretation of the doctrine Israel, building on the growth of its high-tech economy, has succeeded in the past decade in improving relations with a variety of countries including Korea, Singapore, and most notably, China and India.

How does the periphery doctrine look at present?

Israel was quick off the mark when the new, mainly Arab Muslim, republic of South Sudan proclaimed its independence in July 2011. Israel immediately recognised the new state and offered economic help. Before the end of the month Israel and South Sudan had sealed full diplomatic relations.

Perhaps the delicate refurbishing of relations with Indonesia best exemplifies how the alliance of the periphery has been nurtured and developed. During the past year, after five years of sensitive deliberations, Indonesia agreed a sort of informal upgrade in its relations with Israel. It agreed to open a consulate in Ramallah, headed by a diplomat with the rank of ambassador, who will also unofficially serve as his country’s ambassador for contacts with Israel. The move represents a de facto upgrading of relations between Israel and the world’s most populous Muslim country. Formally Indonesia presents the move as a demonstration of its support for Palestinian independence. In fact, while the ambassador-ranked diplomat will be accredited to the Palestinian Authority, a significant portion of his work will be in dealings with Israel, and the office will fulfill substantial diplomatic duties as well as consular responsibilities. Meanwhile Israel and Indonesia quietly maintain trade, security and other relations, including tourism.

As for continental Africa, Israel has run extensive foreign aid and educational programs, sending in experts in agriculture, water management and health care. As a result it has built up some excellent working relationships – Angola, Cameroon and Eritrea, for example − though Ethiopia is perhaps its best partner. Fractured relations with Ghana were restored in 2009 following a state visit by the then Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Liberman, and diplomatic relations were resumed in September 2011.

But South Africa – an obvious target for the Periphery Doctrine − represents one of its major failures. A tide of delegitimisation seems about to overwhelm Israel in South Africa, and so far Israel has been unable to stem it. The ruling African National Congress party (ANC) has just adopted a policy of supporting anti-Israel boycotts, divestments and sanctions. This situation demands immediate attention from the new Israeli government before the leading state on the African continent sets itself up as Israel’s leading non-Arab opponent.

Nor will South Africa’s opposition to Israel necessarily be confined to its own government. South Africa is a leading member of the African Union (AU), whose summit conference has just ended, and its ANC representatives are in a position to cast a baleful influence on AU policies. It is of some comfort to Israel, perhaps, that at the summit the three-year chairmanship of the AU passed not to South Africa, as was at one time expected, but to Ethiopia, with whom − thanks to the Periphery Doctrine − Israel enjoys good relations.

Ben Gurion was far from infallible, but in his Periphery Doctrine – as in his advice to young Israelis of his day (“Go south, young man”) − time has surely proved that his instincts were sound.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 24 April 2013:

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