Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Israel, the Palestinians and the "Tide of History"

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Eran Lerman


I've heard people in Australia, including people of former prominence, offering the suggestion that if you do not run with the pack on a pro-Palestinian agenda, you're running against the tide of history.

The exact opposite is the case.

In reality, Israel is now running through a fairly incredible sequence of diplomatic achievements which are part of a broader pattern.

To list the kinds of things that have been happening, a good starting point would be Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's visits to Singapore and then Australia, which were excellent, followed by his participation in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) summit in Liberia, as the only non-African leader invited, which is pretty striking.

Then - and this is particularly relevant to Australia given its large Greek population - what's happening between Israel, Greece and Cyprus is remarkable. If you remember, some 25 or 30 years ago under Andreas Papandreou, Greece was practically the twenty-third country of the Arab League. Nowadays, under the leadership of Alexis Tsipras - the most left-wing European politician in power - side-by-side with Nicos Anastasiades of Cyprus, who is right-of-centre, and Netanyahu, they are building together something which is, by now, no longer an accident.

The third tripartite summit was in Salonica on June 15 - and they have planned a fourth. We're basically witnessing the emergence of a geopolitical building block as part of, what I would call, a new eastern Mediterranean architecture - something I'll elaborate on shortly.

Next came Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit, representing the largest democracy in the world and soon to be the largest nation on earth, population-wise. Modi spent three days side-by-side with Netanyahu. Leaving aside the booming business in security cooperation, on every one of Modi's "colour revolutions" - on milk on the table and water in the fields, and high-tech - he said he needs Israel with him.

From there, Netanyahu went to France, where Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron - the linchpin of European unity - gave a powerful speech castigating anti-Zionism as a form of antisemitism, which is remarkable. Not, as the United Nations once resolved, Zionism is racism, but anti-Zionism is racism.
And from there, in July, the Prime Minister flew to Budapest to be the fifth participant in the Visegrad group, also known as the V4 - that's Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary.

In October, there will be the Africa-Israel Summit in Togo which is being billed as a framework for "the leaders of the trade, security and diplomatic sectors of Africa and Israel to meet, network and collaborate."

This all followed Trump's first presidential overseas visit to Saudi Arabia and Israel - where he said the same things in both places, and both countries were very comfortable with his message.

A new eastern Mediterranean architecture?

Israel's potentially game-changing tripartite relationship with Greece and Cyprus makes sense when you consider that the tendency to place Israel in the "Middle East" is itself merely a relic of the British empire.

The Middle East was basically Mesopotamia and Persia, or Iraq and Iran as we call them now. This ordering of the world, quaint as it is, is irrelevant.

I would argue that where Israel now belongs, strategically speaking is far better defined as the eastern Mediterranean.

The Mediterranean is a much more relevant template for us, for several reasons. First of all, there is a cultural underpinning, including music, food and the strong influence of the Jews of North Africa in Israeli society.

Then there's energy - gas and probably also oil in the eastern Mediterranean basin. The Israeli and Cypriot Exclusive Economic Zones border each other. Italy is very much interested in Egyptian gas in the eastern Mediterranean; while southern Europe would much rather have us supply their energy needs than the Russians.

It extends into the defence sphere as well. In March, there was a major military exercise in Greece, in which the Israeli Air Force participated side by side with Arab air-forces. Then you had our commando brigade training in Cyprus.

Finally, on the level of identity politics, if you talk Middle East, you basically are singling Israel out as the only democratic, Western-oriented country in a landscape of Arab and Muslim nations. If you talk Mediterranean, you're talking about a mosaic of identities. The landscape is a multicultural one that has Jews and Arabs, and also Greeks and Turks, despite their bloody past. And then you have the French and the Spanish and sub-groups such as the Corsicans and the Catalans, and the Berbers of North Africa.

This multicultural landscape in the Mediterranean is far more congenial to our claim to be an organic part of that kind of landscape.

This is the future.

Why Israel is increasing its global importance

In addition to the hard work being put in by Israeli professionals, diplomats and the security establishment, and diaspora Jewish organisations including AIJAC, there are four underlying factors behind Israel's rising global importance.

Point number one is that, in the internal struggle of cognitive communities in government around the world, the value placed on the advice of soldiers and the intelligence officers (once shunted aside in favour of lawyers, economists and diplomats) is now rising because there is a real enemy out there. I need not tell Australians about this - especially after recent events in Sydney. And that community, almost by definition, tends to be attentive to Israeli concerns and Israeli views. Because there's an understanding of what we're up against and what we need to do.

Second point: We have very real things to offer to these communities and to other countries generally: economically, in terms of technological development - water, for example, Israel leads the world in water recycling. And, in addition, there are the military dimensions - counter-terrorism certainly, but most significantly, looking down the road, cyber. Cyberdefence is the key to our ability to sustain the e-commerce universe that we live in. You cannot drive a car - not even an autonomous car - an ordinary car, without having to think that maybe somebody can sit and play with my car computer, from a distance. It has been done. Cyber-defence is absolutely central to the future, and Israel stands at the very core of capacities in this.

Another example - looking now at the current situation in North Korea - there are our achievements in missile defence. We are the only country which not only deployed but used missile defence in battle, with absolutely spectacular results, and I'm not only talking about the Iron Dome. We used an Arrow missile this year to shoot down a Syrian ground-to-air missile. The in-between layer of missile defence technology, David's Sling, is now coming on line.

There is a contribution that we can make, and people are beating a path to our door.

Third point: This queue at our door no longer has to look back with trepidation at how the Saudis and other Arab nations will react, because we and the Saudis are on the same side. We saw this over the Temple Mount incident when Palestinians recently rioted over Israeli plans to install metal detectors after the murder of two policemen by terrorists who smuggled weapons into the holy site. There was not a word coming out of Saudi Arabia officially on these momentous events. On the contrary, privately, there were Saudis going out and telling the Palestinians that since this reeks of Qatari meddling, they would have none of it, and this is an internal Israeli issue. Now, can you imagine that slap in the face from the masters of Mecca and Medina.

We also see this about this issue of the threats posed by Iran. Our list of enemies is exactly the same. There's no daylight between our strategic perspectives and those of the Gulf monarchies nowadays.

Fourth point: We have also managed to handle our Palestinian relationship - conflict management, not yet conflict resolution - in a successful way against the background of this wave of violence that began in October 2015. I think we've managed to create a situation where we can draw a clear distinction between the bad guys and the rest of the population and service the needs of the rest of the population while going after the bad guys. The Palestinians themselves have given us credit. Their Prime Minister, Rami Hamdallah, recently said he appreciates the fact that the IDF has been able to avoid going after the Palestinian population at large but to pinpoint the bad guys and go after them. It annoys elements of the Israeli hard right who want to see us act much more aggressively. They're wrong.

These four elements put together go a long way towards explaining this transformation in our international standing. Quite frankly, it is the anti-Israel BDS movement and their likes who are marginalised and left behind by the real tides of history - while Israel weaves its new relations with the likes of Southeast Asia, India, across Africa, much of Eastern Europe, and even Russia for various reasons.

Col. (res.) Dr. Eran Lerman is former Deputy National Security Adviser to Israel's Prime Minister and is currently Senior Associate at the Begin-Sadat Centre (BESA) for Strategic Studies. He recently visited Australia as a guest of AIJAC and the above is a rapporteur's summary of his remarks in Melbourne on Aug. 13.

 

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