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Israeli Foreign Policy: An Historical and Contemporary Analysis

As a middle power and the sole Western liberal democracy in the Middle East, the State of Israel has developed a complicated and conflict-ridden position in the international system. These factors are reflected in the state’s historical and current domestic and foreign policies and must be taken into account to effectively analyze and predict future prospects for the country.

Historical Context

Israeli foreign policy issues essentially began before it was formally recognized as a state in 1948. The state was created in the context of historical conflict dating back centuries, resulting in tense foreign relations with several international entities from the outset. In the late 1800s, the Zionist movement began amongst Jews in Eastern Europe in favor of establishing a sovereign territory for Jewish people. In November 1917, Britain committed itself to the Zionist cause by issuing the Balfour Declaration, which stated British support for “the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish People.” Controversially, this declaration contradicted the terms of the secret Sykes-Picot agreement, which proposed the division of the Ottoman empire following WWI between Britain and France. It also contradicted the Hussein-McMahon correspondence, where the British agreed to grant Arab independence following the war in exchange for their help fighting the Ottoman empire. This complicated web of alliances is a central component of many Jewish-Palestinian disputes, particularly those in the Palestine Mandate before World War II.

The deaths of nearly 6 million Jews in the Holocaust fueled the urgency for a Jewish state, and thousands of Jews sought to enter Palestine while Britain imposed limits on Jewish immigration to safeguard the indigenous Arab inhabitants. The situation escalated, and in 1947 Britain referred the Palestine problem to the United Nations General Assembly. A resolution was approved on November 29, 1947 calling for a complex partition of Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state. Because of the historical and religious importance of Jerusalem to both parties, the resolution stated that the city would become a separate entity to be governed by an international organization. The Arab Higher Committee rejected the resolution, and violence increased. The establishment of the State of Israel was declared on May 14, 1948 with David Ben-Gurion as the first Prime Minister, and Arab military forces began invading the territory the following day. Throughout this conflict, Israel received significant support from United States, which was the first country to formally recognize Israel. In the Cold War context, the U.S. began supplying Israel with missiles and committed to the strategy of prioritizing Israeli security in order to maintain a balance of power in the Middle East as the Soviet Union began to back Egypt. Tensions remained high between Israel and the surrounding countries resulting in a series of conflicts: in 1956 in the Suez Canal, in which Israel secretly colluded with Britain and France to invade Egypt and regain Western control of the Suez Canal; and in June 1967, during which Israel captured the Golan Heights, the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank, adding approximately 800,000 Palestinian Arabs to its population. While UN Resolution 242 insisted that Israel end their occupation of territory acquired during the Six Day War, Israel did not relinquish control over new territories and developments within Jerusalem.

Israel effectively annexed East Jerusalem in 1980 when their parliament enacted the Jerusalem Law announcing the city as the complete and undivided capital of Israel. This action was unanimously condemned by the international community, and allies, including the U.S., insisted that Israel abandon its expansionist policies. Despite efforts at peace talks with the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords, there remained significant ambiguity over Jerusalem that continues to be a source of conflict today. These historical events continue to shape Israel’s foreign policy decisions in the modern context as many of these issues remain unresolved. This can be seen in both the modern internal context of Israel’s policy decisions, as well as the external actors and events that influence the state.

Internal Context

Israel’s core values are largely a source of its religious ties and its complicated history as a state; from these factors defining characteristics of the Israeli identity that largely dictate its foreign policy decision making. The legacy of the Holocaust created an identity born out of victimhood and vulnerability that necessitated a strong presence of militarism—a  trend that only grew in the hostile environment of the new state. With the growth of Israeli military success in the 1967 Six Day War came a sense of confident self-reliance, which compounded the historical victimhood to create an Israeli identity that championed strength in the face of adversity; this new confidence in military capabilities did not extinguish the vulnerability, but utilized it as a justification for aggression and expansion in the region. The importance of this identity strand is demonstrated by the significance of military service in Israeli life, which is seen as “a pillar of the personal and collective identities of the Israeli people.

Israel’s military, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), has since become one of the country’s largest and most important institutions with significant influence in the economy, society, and political sphere. The IDF plays an essential role in the state, leading some scholars to define Israel as a “garrison democracy.” The IDF maintains a strong presence in the lives of everyday citizens, particularly for the Jewish population, because of the mandatory conscription of both men and women at the age of 18. Israel’s overall annual defense budget is approximately $16.4 billion, constituting about 5.6% of its total GDP. Controversially, Israel maintains a policy of “nuclear opacity” or amimut, essentially stating that the country will not disclose its nuclear capability. A 2017 report estimated that Israel possesses a nuclear arsenal of around 80-85 warheads, making it the only nuclear power in the Middle East besides Pakistan.[

Ever since the establishment of the state, economic policy has been conducted with a strong sense of governmental interventionism, largely due to the mass immigration that took place in its early years. Today, Israel’s industrial, market economy is considered the most advanced in Southwest Asia and the Middle East in economic and industrial development, with its top five trading partners being the United States, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, China, and Belgium. In 2017, Israel’s GDP was estimated at $316.5 billion, ranking 55th largest in the world. A considerable external interest group with influence over the Israeli economy continues to be the Jewish diaspora, but economic strength has lessened its dependence on external financing. In the long term, Israel faces structural issues including low labor participation rates for its fastest growing social segments—the ultra-orthodox and Arab-Israeli communities, as well as its increasing income inequality. 

Domestic issues facing the state of Israel largely concern ethnicity and religion. Despite its espoused Western-oriented values—such as freedom of religion and equality for all citizens— traditional Judaism continues to play a dominant role in both society and the modern state. Religious practices influence the education system, treatment of various ethnic groups, political debates, and marriage—as there is no option for civil marriage in the state. Cultural disharmony is further exacerbated by attitudes toward non-Jews. In Israel, non-Jews are primarily Arabs that are often Muslim or Christian; Jewish Israelis also distinguish between Arabs who reside within the pre-June 1967 War boundaries of Israel and Arabs who live in the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and the Gaza Strip—the latter group is perceived as having no loyalty to the state. These internal rifts pose significant security concerns for the government in addition to the challenge of forming cohesive domestic policy.

Due to fear that a constitution would unleash a divisive conflict between religious and state authorities, Israel’s primary legal document is the “Basic Laws,” a building block method in which the laws are evolved “chapter by chapter in such a way that each chapter will by itself constitute a fundamental law.” This decision necessitated the creation of the Knesset, the unicameral parliament and the supreme authority of the state, as the legislative body responsible for overseeing the establishment of these laws. In addition to the Knesset, major government actors include the President, a largely ceremonial role, and the Prime Minister in the executive branch.

In terms of the foreign policy decision making process, the inner cabinet—consisting of the Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Defense, and other selected ministers—is responsible for formulating Israel’s major foreign policy decisions. The Prime Minister is the main actor in determining policy, and these are subsequently implemented by the Minister of Foreign Affairs. The Knesset does not initiate policy objectives, but must legitimize government policy choices on controversial issues. Consistent key factors that influence these decisions include Israel’s strategic situation, the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict, and the lack of recognition from the majority of Arab states in the region. With these in mind, the central goal for Israeli foreign policy is to overcome diplomatic isolation and gain more state recognition and stable foreign relations.

The current party in power is Likud, a center-right wing party founded in 1973 by Menachem Begin, in coalition with six smaller parties including United Torah Judaism and Shas. Benjamin Netanyahu, who is also the Foreign Minister, has held the position of Prime Minister since 2009, after serving in the role for the first time from 1996-1999. Throughout his tenure, a main domestic concern of his administration has been the growing population of Arab-Israelis, which many fear would make it difficult for Israel to remain both a Jewish and a democratic state while ruling over the Palestinians. Significant recent legislation includes the Knesset passing a controversial Basic Law defining Israel as the national homeland for Jewish people, in addition to withholding funds from the Palestinian Authority to penalize its support for Arab prisoners. 

Public opinion of Israel’s government has seen some major shifts since 2005, when Ariel Sharon left the Likud party to form Kadima, a Centrist party that drew politicians from the conservative Likud and the liberal Labour party. Disenchantment with the two mainstream parties was further illustrated when Kadima took 29 of the 120 seats in the Knesset in 2006, though voter turnout was an all-time low of 63%. This has a lasting impact on mainstream politics as the public made a clear shift to the center. Public opinion of the Israeli government is taking another hit currently amidst recent corruption allegations against Netanyahu of fraud, bribery, and breach of trust. Legally, Netanyahu could continue in office if indicted, but he could face public pressure to resign, and his coalition partners could withdraw their support for the government. Israel’s previous prime minister, Ehud Olmert, announced his decision to resign in July 2008 amid corruption-related allegations two months before the police recommended charges against him, signifying that there is precedent for resignation to occur.

The main domestic policy goals for Israel currently are to maintain its stable economic growth, to maintain the Jewish majority within the state, and to continue efforts at peace talks with Palestine without relinquishing Jerusalem.

External Context 

In the external context of foreign policy, Israel projects a very clear identity—that of a Western nation. An issue that arises from Israel’s identity as a member of the Western liberal democratic group is the incongruous environment in which it projects these ideals; the real foreign policy implications of this claim are not Israel’s similarities with other Western nations, but its significant differences with the rest of the region. This identity plays a key role in the formation of Israel’s foreign policy goals: to achieve uncontested legitimacy as a state. Currently, 32 members of the United Nations do not formally recognize Israel, the vast majority of which are party to the Arab League.

Israel further emphasizes its “separateness” in the Middle East with its participation in transnational organizations. The history of Israel’s participation in the U.N. demonstrates its unique international standing; despite being one of the earliest members, Israel did not succeed in joining a regional voting group until 2000, thus preventing it from serving on the Security Council. The state should have joined the Asian group, but it was barred by its Arab neighbors. In 2000, Israel was invited to join the Western European and Other Group (WEOG) as a temporary member, a body united by democratic geopolitical nature as opposed to geographical location; this move was significant because it was an international recognition by other states of Israel’s Western identity. Israel is party to several international agencies within the UN, including UNESCO, UNHCR, and the WHO; notably, though Israel participates in the International Atomic Energy Association, it is not party to the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT) due to its refusal to confirm its procession of nuclear weapons.

Israel’s status as a middle power in the systems analysis of international relations makes forming strong alliances a central goal. Arguably Israel’s most important relationship is with the United States; part of U.S. policy has been to maintain Israel’s “qualitative military edge” to balance power in the region, which has reinforced cooperation on defense, including military aid, arms sales, joint exercises, and information sharing. Two recent policy changes in the United States have had significant impact on Israel: recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In December 2017, President Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and pledged to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. These actions represented a departure from the decades-long U.S. executive branch practice of not recognizing Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem because of the adverse effects this demonstration of bias would have on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Similarly, the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA has real implications for Israel; while Prime Minister Netanyahu has been vocally against the deal since its formulation under President Obama, many actors in the Israeli government are concerned about the prospects of Iran resuming its nuclear activities without the deal’s restrictions.

Israel’s significant relationships with other states in the global arena range from unstable to adversarial. Most notably, Iran remains of primary concern to Israel largely because of its antipathy toward the state, its broad regional influence, and the possibility that Iran will be free of nuclear program constraints in the future. These tensions have heightened with both states’ involvement in Syria; Iran-backed forces, namely Hezbollah, have moved closer to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights since late 2017 via actions against Syrian opposition groups. Both states have conducted strikes on the other throughout the conflict, creating an increased atmosphere of animosity between the actors in the region, including Russia, which has Iran’s support.

Turkey and Egypt maintain complicated relationships with Israel. In the past, Turkey-Israeli relations were very positive, with the two states hosting joint military exercises as well signing several military agreements on cooperation. This relationship deteriorated after the second Palestinian uprising in the occupied territories, with the Turkish government accusing Israel of genocide and later with practicing “state terrorism.” Similarly, in 1988—about ten years after the signing of the Camp David Accords and the Treaty of Peace Between Egypt and Israel—the relationship between the two countries cooled significantly, though peace was maintained. These relations had originally been envisioned as leading to a reconciliation between Israel and the Arab states, but this development has not occurred. Recently, these relationships improved when Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi met with Netanyahu at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2018. This effort to revive Palestinian-Israeli diplomatic talks was the first meeting of Israeli and Egyptian leaders in nearly four decades.

Finally, other significant external influences in Israeli foreign policy are non-state actors—terrorist organizations Hamas and Hezbollah. Hezbollah has challenged Israel’s security near the Lebanese border for decades—with the antagonism at times contained near the border, and at times escalating into broader conflict. In recent years, Israeli officials have sought to draw attention to Hezbollah’s weapons buildup and its alleged use of Lebanese civilian areas as strongholds. Increasing tensions with Iran in Syria have led some to speculate that if the conflict worsens, Iran could look to gain leverage over Israel by having Hezbollah launch attacks from Lebanon. In regard to the threat of Hamas in Gaza, although Palestinian militants maintain rocket and mortar arsenals, the threat from projectiles has reportedly been diminished by Israel’s Iron Dome defense system. Controversially, Israel’s use of live fire and the death of more than 120 Palestinians in the spring—many of which occurring the day that the U.S. embassy opened in Jerusalem—led the U.N. Human Rights Council to make an “independent, international commission of inquiry.” A June U.N. General Assembly resolution condemned both Israeli actions against Palestinian civilians and the firing of rockets from Gaza against Israeli civilians.

Future Prospects

Several factors have developed recently that have the potential to shape Israel’s future. Currently, Israel is facing security threats from a number of actors, most prominently Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas. The relevant new policy developments that emerged this year—namely U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA and U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel—hold real implications for the state. With these developments in mind, Israel’s foreign service has outlined several pressing policy objectives to implement for the upcoming year. The most prominent concern for Israeli foreign policy under the current administration is addressing Iran’s nuclear capabilities, particularly with the recent withdrawal of the U.S. from the JCPOA. The current policy goal is to begin drawing red lines in the establishment of a new deal that is more favorable to Israel’s national interest. With the Trump administration demonstrating a more vested interest in Israel’s role than previous administrations, there is potential for the U.S. to include more of Israel’s demands should it submit a new deal proposal. While reestablishing a peaceful diplomatic process with Palestine has been a consistent policy concern for Israel for some time, Iran has taken precedence due to the existential threat Iran’s nuclear capabilities pose in this new post-JCPOA context. In addition to the nuclear issue, Iran—and by default Hezbollah—pose a security threat in regard to their presence in Syria. With tensions consistently escalating between the states and terrorist organization, the Israeli Foreign Ministry is considering implementing diplomatic talks with the international community in addition to military tactics; the purpose of these talks would be to propose “removing Iran and its proxies in Syria from any future arrangements and from anything connected with the rehabilitation of Syria.” Given the alliance between Iran, Russia, and Syria in the region, there is a low threshold for success in these endeavors; more likely, Iran and Hezbollah will continue engaging in a shadow war with Israel in the region. Finally, with the new U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Israel is seeking more widespread recognition of this from the rest of the international community. This carries significant security concerns from Hamas; the U.S. recognition alone spurred increase in violence and terrorist activity in the region, and Israeli efforts to gain more recognition could result in even more security threats.

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