“Wake” is a weekly foreign policy broadcast produced by Talk Media News and hosted by Luke Vargas from U.N. Headquarters in New York.
The following is a complete transcript of Episode 23, “Sizing Up Israel’s Global ‘Charm Offensive.’”
Luke Vargas: Welcome to Wake, where we explore how events overseas affect our shores. I’m your host Luke Vargas, here for a dip into the world of foreign policy.
“When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the U.N. General Assembly last month he said Israel’s global standing has never been higher:
“After 70 years, the world is embracing Israel, and Israel is embracing the world.”
Netanyahu said relations with the U.S. are at new highs, and that in the past year he’d visited six continents to improve Israel’s diplomatic ties. Relations with Egypt are on the mend, and there’s even talk of secret diplomatic channels opening with Saudi Arabia.
This week on Wake we’re looking at the state of Israel’s foreign relations and exploring the true impact of what some have called Netanyahu’s global “charm offensive.” Stay with us –
Thanks for joining us. We’re coming to you today from United Nations headquarters in New York.
In the Summer of 2016, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held up a map at a cabinet meeting. It was a map of the world, with each country in one of four colors.
In black were Israel’s “overtly hostile [enemies]” – Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, of course Iran and then North Korea.
Blue was for countries with close relationships to Israel – thank the U.S. and Canada, Australia, the U.K., most of Europe.
In Green were countries with no special relations – that’s a good part of the world – big countries like Brazil or the Philippines, Mexico, a lot of Africa, and interestingly, some countries like Egypt that Israel was at war with in the 20th century, and Saudi Arabia, a country with which Israel has no formal relations. We’ll get to that in a bit.
But the final color on the map was red – red for countries with newly-upgraded or improving relations – places where Israeli influence is on the rise. You’ve got clusters in South America, including Colombia and Argentina. There’s a big swath of red in east Africa, from Ethiopia to Kenya to Tanzania. Turkey is red. India, China and Russia are red, so are Japan and South Korea.
Add up just those red countries and you’ve got 3.5 billion people. Add in the U.S., the other countries with close ties to Israel, and it begins to look like Israel is sitting pretty.
And yet, Israeli actions are still being condemned on the world stage. The Palestinian issue does not seem to be going away, and it seems hard to believe a few years of diplomatic outreach can change all of that. Let’s find out.
We’ve got two guests with us today in Israel, both calling in from the suburbs of Tel Aviv.
First is Chuck Freilich, a former Israeli deputy national security advisor and a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center. He’s also the author of the forthcoming book, “Israeli National Security: A New Strategy for an Era of Change.” You can find that book in bookstores next March.
Chuck, thanks so much for being with us.
Chuck Freilich: Thank you.
Luke Vargas: And also with us is Ben Caspit, a veteran columnist following Israeli politics and the rise of Benjamin Netanyahu. He’s the author of the new book, “The Netanyahu Years,” which I highly recommend to try and get inside the mind of Israel’s Prime Minister.
Ben, welcome to “Wake.” We’re glad to have you.
Ben Caspit: Thanks for having me.
Luke Vargas: Chuck, I was just talking about that 2016 map, which I thought was really a neat insight into Netanyahu’s world view. But that was a year ago, and Netanyahu says he’s been all over the world since then, so walk us through the ways Israeli relations have changed or improved over that time.
Chuck Freilich: Okay, sure. First let me just say, by the way, that I also have Ben’s new book on my desk. I, unfortunately, have not had a chance to read it yet, but it’s next on the list and it looks great. So I look forward to it.
Ben Caspit: I am done here!
Chuck Freilich: Now let me try and answer your question, Luke. I think we have to address what Netanyahu has said on two levels. One is, let’s say, diplomatic reality and the other is his political interests, and obviously he has political interests in presenting what is a positive change and maybe somewhat over accentuating it, and maybe also using it to distract attention from his legal problems and, let’s say, areas where his policies have been less successful, such as in promoting the peace process with the Palestinians.
But the reality is that there is a significant in Israel’s international standing in the last couple of years. Many of the listeners may not know that many country in the world, in the third world, severed relations with Israel in the wake of the ‘67 and ‘73 wars, largely because of Arab oil pressure at the time. And with the exception of Egypt and Jordan, no other Arab countries have made peace with Israel.
And what we’ve seen in the last couple of years is, first of all, a really important change, and that is that a number of Sunni Arab countries are holding, let’s say, quiet talks with Israel today that are low-level contacts. And that’s a dramatic change from the past. We’re nowhere near formal diplomatic relations yet, but that’s a big change in its own right.
And then we see a variety of countries – you mentioned in Africa, South America and elsewhere who’ve have come to understand something that the U.S., Russia, China, India, the European countries all understood for decades, and that is that you can have a very good and very beneficial bilateral relationship with Israel, even if there are disagreements on the West Bank issue.
Luke Vargas: Ben, your new book is in many ways a character study of Benjamin Netanyahu. How does this global charm offensive fit into his leadership style?
Ben Caspit: We call him the magician. If we are talking about his skills, I think Benjamin Netanyahu is the best. By the way, his English is a lot more impressive than his Hebrew. And he’s almost – when you talk to him, when you meet him, when you listen to him – he’s almost irresistible.
His personal charisma, as I said, his superb English, his excellent verbal skills. I think nowadays he became not only Israel’s elder statesman, but maybe the region’s elder statesman and maybe one of the world’s – let’s not forget he’s here in, I think, his ninth year in a row in his office, and it’s his second term – he’s been three years in the 90’s Israel’s Prime Minister, so he’s here.
But it’s not only the charm. I think he’s able to use the situation in order to fuel this, what you called it before, Luke, the charm offensive. The events in the region, in the Middle East, the what we call the “Arab Spring,” the rise of the global terror – ISIS, Al-Qaeda – the entire Middle East around us in his flames, with the unbelievable exception of Israel, an island of peace and quiet relatively, stability, booming economy and military strength.
Now Bibi’s using the leverage of Israeli intelligence. He’s actually selling intelligence goods to the partners, to the neighbors, to other countries. And these goods are very important to our neighbors.
Two weeks ago, General Herzi Halevi, head of Israeli military intelligence, told reporters in Tel Aviv that in the last year the intelligence from Israel saved many, many lives in the western world, and not only in the western world – we’re using it also to prevent damages in our neighboring countries.
The third and last point that Bibi is using in this offensive is Israeli technology. It’s not only the startup nation and the high-tech superpower, but now talking about cyber, Israel is the leading cyber state.
20 percent of all the deals in cyber globally are done with Israeli companies and many states are standing in line in order to get access to this intelligence, to this technology, and maybe also to the renewed ties between Jerusalem and Washington. I guess we’ll talk about it later…
Luke Vargas: …we will, and I’m glad you brought up Israeli technology, which Netanyahu is very good at hyping on the world stage. At the U.N. he mentioned water purification technology, medicine and health care, intelligence software. Chuck, I’m curious, how much can Israel’s new partners, particularly in the developing world, actually give back to Israel beyond revenues for Israeli business?
Chuck Freilich: The economic benefits are obviously important and very nice to have, but I don’t think that’s the primary payback here, so to speak. I think the most important thing is warming relations, it’s establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, accepting it as a regular fully-accepted member of the international community, putting aside the decades of alienation which stem from Arab oil pressure.
And I don’t think we’re going to see dramatic changes in voting patterns, in the U.N. I’m talking, but we’ve already seen some changes.
India, for example, which was long in the pro-Soviet camp and pro-Arab camp, which was quite hostile to Israel, well it established relations some 20 years ago, and it took that long, but in the last year we saw the first change in how they vote in the U.N. on the Israeli-Palestinian issues. I think that is the most important change that we can hope for here.
Ben Caspit: If I can follow-up on what Chuck just said, I can give you a very good example of what is Netanyahu trying to do and what’s the outcome.
Last July, July 2016, he visited a historic trip to Africa – four or five states – and then he met the president of Cape Verde.
Then last month he visited another historic trip to Latin and South America – Argentina, Mexico, Colombia, Paraguay – very impressive state ceremonies everywhere, etc.
After the visit in Africa, someone from Netanyahu’s chambers leaked a small item about Cape Verde that promised that from now on they will vote with Israel, and not against Israel, in all the U.N. forums. And it took this tiny state, Cape Verde, two or three days to issue a formal denial of this item.
And you see, the main problem is that the relations and all the achievements that we are talking about are staying in the economic field, very informal, very in the shade.
And if I can quote Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Israel is the most popular mistress in the Middle East. Everyone is flirting with it but keeps it quiet. We are fed up with being the mistress. We want to be the formal wife.
I don’t think that we’re going to be that formal wife.
Luke Vargas: Ben, we’ve got to leave it right there and take a short break. We’ll be right back.
Luke Vargas: Welcome back to “Wake,” where we explore how events overseas affect our shores. I’m your host Luke Vargas at the United Nations in New York City.
We’re looking at the recent evolution of Israel’s foreign affairs today, in particular, what some call a “charm offensive” targeting countries across the far corners of the world.
Joining us today from Israel are veteran columnist Ben Caspit and Israel’s former deputy national security advisor Chuck Freilich.
Let’s listen to a clip of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at this year’s U.N. General Assembly:
In recent years, Israel has provided intelligence that has prevented dozens of major terrorist attacks around the world. We have saved countless lives. Now, you may not know this, but your governments do, and they’re working closely together with Israel to keep your countries safe and your citizens safe.
Chuck, Netanyahu there was saying that individual people might not have changed their views about Israel, but their governments have.
The U.S. has experience with this; we’ve made deals with various governments – we’ve built military bases in a country – but the people of that nation sometimes still despise us – they didn’t have a vote about what their government did behind closed doors.
Is there any evidence of actual changing perceptions about Israel around the world, or is most of this outreach targeted at heads of state and ministers and the like?
Chuck Freilich: Yeah, I tend to think you’re right. Most of the change is at the governmental level. But even there I think we have to put things in proportion.
The Prime Minister called it a revolution in Israel’s standing. Okay, he’s got his political interests in presenting this as such. It’s not that. We’re talking about an improvement. It’s an important improvement, but it has its limits.
The Saudis, for example, the other Gulf states, they’re not going to come of the closet – the mistress situation as Ben was saying before until there is either a peace agreement with the Palestinians or at least substantial progress toward that.
The relationships with other countries around the world where there are formal relations – and sometimes very good economic and military relations – but there it really is intergovernmental. Israel’s standing among the publics, unfortunately, still has a long way to go.
Luke Vargas: Ben, in your book you write that after the Oslo Accords of the mid-1990’s there was enthusiasm that relations between Israel and states in the Gulf would improve rapidly. You note that there were breathless journalists talking about embassies opening up within Israel in weeks.
In a way, you could say that there is similar enthusiasm about the trajectory of relations right now, but unlike the Oslo Accords, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of hope right now about the Palestinian peace process. Is that ultimately going to be a problem that runs into the improving relations trajectory we’re seeing now?
Ben Caspit: Yes, we always remember the Oslo happy, euphoric days, we can say. We all celebrated the big euphoria of peace. We all believed in it, and I’m talking about both sides – Palestinians, Israelis, of course the international community. It seemed real. We cannot compare those days to any different era in Israel’s history.
Shimon Peres was talking about the new Middle East. It was an era of hope and optimism. Nowadays, the current relative flourishing of Israel’s secret romance with its Arab and Muslim neighbors, it is not coming from hope or optimism, but from fear and pessimism.
Bibi is the king, the master of pessimism and of fear. He knows how to leverage these sentiments and he uses the great fear of all our neighbors – most of our neighbors, from [Iran’s] growing efforts to exploit the region – it’s a very unique tool, in order to upgrade the secret relationship between Israel and its neighbors.
I think, and I know and I think Chuck knows as well, that we always had secret engagements with states in the region that are not handing diplomatic relationship with Israel. But in the last four or five years it has been dramatically upgraded. There were leaks about visiting senior Saudis and other officials visiting Israel. I cannot confirm these leaks because of Israeli censorship, but things are happening.
On the other hand, they are happening in the shade, in the darkness. I think they are not going to be formal or public, exactly like Chuck said before, if there will not be a current, substantial peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.
This is what we hear all the time, constantly from Saudis, from Kuwaitis, Bahrainis, even Egyptians and Jordanians, and Netanyahu is not going to make a historic peace like Shimon Peres, so we’ll go on experiencing the mistress situation.
Chuck, Netanyahu there was saying that individual people might not have changed their views about Israel, but their governments have.
Luke Vargas: We only have a few more minutes left, and I want to start to pull back and look at the wider geopolitical implications of some of these changes we’ve seen.
Chuck, Ben just mentioned Saudi Arabia. Of course, relations with Egypt, according to several reports are at all-time highs. Could you explain recent developments in the Israeli-Saudi and Israeli-Egyptian relations and how that might come around the impact the United States in the end?
Chuck Freilich: Well, first of all there is an improvement. There’s an improvement with the Saudis quietly. There’s an improvement with the Egyptians, with whom we do have formal relations. Unfortunately, there too it’s most quiet.
I am a skeptic when it comes to how far things can go with the Saudis. We have a shared interest today, which is containing Iran, and that’s really what is behind pretty much everything we’ve seen the last couple of years. And there is a new crown prince in Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, who seems to be a reformist in a whole variety of areas, and maybe he’ll surprise us for the better in terms of his relationship with Israel. We’ll wait and see.
And if that happens, that will also strengthen the American position in the region.
With Egypt, Israel has been at peace with Egypt for 40 years now, but the Egyptians, partly because they weren’t willing to really have a warm bilateral relationship until there was progress with the Palestinians, partly because of their own domestic politics, they kept the relationship just about as cold as it could be over the years.
Now what has happened over the last couple of years is that because we share a number of security interests, such as keeping the quiet in Gaza, such as dealing with the uprising in the Sinai Peninsula – which is an ISIS, an Islamic State uprising, and which has been a big threat to Israel itself, a terrorist threat – so the Egyptians have been willing to cooperate with Israel far more than they have in the past. But that’s a quiet military relationship.
What we haven’t yet seen – I hope it will happen, but again I’m skeptical – is an improvement of significance on the public level and in terms of economic relations beyond military cooperation.
Luke Vargas: My final question to both of you – Ben, I’ll start with you. Should we expect Prime Minister Netanyahu to come to the U.N. next year and report six more continents visited, the charm offensive continues, relations have never been better? Or is there sort of a limit to how far this can go? What’s your projection in the middle to near term?
Ben Caspit: I think the frequent flyer Netanyahu is worried now, not from visiting another continent – I think he did it all – but from his internal problems, especially the mounting investigation, a police investigation against him. And in the next one or two or three months, the next months will be very dramatic in this case. There is a possibility that next September, October there will be another Prime Minister in Israel. I would not bet on it, but it’s in the cards.
If Netanyahu comes, I think that you will find something else, something new. He’s doing it each time he comes, he has a different gimmick. I think the thing with Israel’s position throughout the globe is a thing of the past.
Luke Vargas: And finally, Chuck, does Netanyahu’s frequently flying, as Ben says, permanently change or improve Israel’s standing on the world stage, or is it just a way of postponing an inevitable vote that swings against Israel at the United Nations, for example?
Chuck Freilich: Well I don’t expect any fundamental change in the attitude of the U.N. towards Israel. The United Nations is really a – I don’t even know what to call it – a totally corrupt, deformed organization, so I don’t think there’s going to be a big change in the U.N.
There may, let’s say, over a good few years, maybe we’ll see a slight moderation in the extreme hostility.
But first of all, I agree with Ben. I think for Netanyahu, the biggest question is whether he’s going to be prime minister a year from now or whether his legal troubles will force him out. But I do think he will be able to claim an ongoing, steady improvement in Israel’s international standing, and that is something that he can correctly take some credit for.
Luke Vargas: Chuck Freilich is a former Israeli deputy national security advisor and a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center, and author of the forthcoming book – look for it next March – “Israeli National Security: A New Strategy for an Era of Change.” Chuck, thanks so much for being with us.
Chuck Freilich: My pleasure. Thank you.
Luke Vargas: And also with us today was Ben Caspit, a veteran columnist following Israeli politics. He’s the author of the new book, “The Netanyahu Years.” Go out and buy that now. Ben, thank you so much for being with us on Wake.
Ben Caspit: Thank you very much.
Luke Vargas: From U.N. headquarters in New York, I’m Luke Vargas, signing off, join us again next week on “Wake.”