Israel central to changing Middle East dynamic
By Josh Block
November 30, 2018
Click here to read the full article in The Hill
Before resigning as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations in 2010, Gabriela Shalev shared with reporters a bleak assessment: “Israel is the most isolated, lonely country in the world.” Fast-forward eight years and Israel’s standing in the world appears to be at a high point. From India to China, Latin America and Eastern Europe, and most recently Africa and the Arabian Gulf, the Jewish state has achieved a string of extraordinary diplomatic breakthroughs.
Benjamin Netanyahu was the first sitting Israeli prime minister to visit Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Liberia. On Sunday, the president of Chad, Idriss Déby, arrived in Israel for a surprise visit and said he hoped for a “new chapter” in ties between the two countries. The Muslim-majority African state and Israel have not had diplomatic relations for 46 years.
Déby’s visit underscores Israel’s wider effort to forge ties with nations in the region that share its security concerns. These include Sudan, which joined Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in cutting diplomatic ties with Iran in early 2016, and other central African Muslim states such as Niger and Mali.
Israel’s charm offensive also has extended to Eastern Europe and Latin America. The leaders of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Albania and Serbia have made official visits to Israel. Kosovo has lobbied Israel to recognize it as a sovereign state. On Tuesday, Czech President Milos Zeman opened a “Czech House” cultural center in Jerusalem, a move described as “the first step with the intention to relocate the Embassy of the Czech Republic.”
The United States and Guatemala have relocated their embassies to Jerusalem, and Israel is in contact with several countries seriously considering following in their footsteps, including Brazil.
Netanyahu also became the first sitting Israeli prime minister to visit Latin America when he visited Argentina, Colombia and Mexico in September 2017. His office confirmed he has plans to visit Colombia, Honduras, Chile and Guatemala soon.
In the Middle East, Iran’s hegemonic venture has ratcheted up the stakes in ways that produced once-in-a-generation opportunities. In the span of just one month, a series of events unfolded that make rapprochement between Israel and the Gulf a real possibility. Oman called for the recognition of Israel after Netanyahu’s historic visit to Muscat. Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem, was played for the first time in the United Arab Emirates at a judo tournament. Bahrain, Netanyahu’s office said, is the next destination.
Israel’s transportation and intelligence minister, Israel Katz, recently presented an initiative, “Tracks for Regional Peace,” to link Haifa’s seaport to Jordan’s rail network, which in turn would be linked with that of other Sunni Arab states.
The odds are in Israel’s favor of continuing to win over former adversaries. With shifting Arab alliances, many in the Muslim world are warming to normalization with Israel. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States reportedly all have given the green light to the White House plan for an Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Meanwhile, Iran’s currency is in free fall and Iranians are coming to realize that the mullah regime’s foreign adventurism has wrecked the economy. The old rallying cries vilifying Israel as a “cancerous tumor” that “must vanish from the pages of history” are starting to lose their appeal. Instead, protesters demonstrate against Tehran’s regional proxy wars and aggression.
Israel still has many battles to fight, including at the United Nations. But it appears, eight years after Shalev lamented Israel’s isolation in the world, that the Jewish state has forged unprecedented relationships with countries that once were off limits. Now, perhaps, it is Israel’s adversaries who risk isolation.
Joshua S. Block is CEO and president of The Israel Project. He is a former Clinton administration official and spokesman at the State Department’s USAID. He got his start on Capitol Hill in the office of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and was a spokesman for the Clinton/Gore and Gore/Lieberman presidential campaigns. Follow him on Twitter@JoshBlockDC.