Israel in the last week has presented two classic case studies on strategic blundering and on precisely how not to conduct a successful foreign policy. One of these cases resulted in little more than embarrassment, but the other will actually have tangible consequences for Israel’s security and long-term military planning. Let’s look at both to see if there are any lessons to be learned for Israel going forward.
The first is the fight with the European Union over labeling goods made in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. When the EU issued its labeling guidelines, the Israeli government’s response was to officially suspend diplomatic contacts with the EU on the topic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This was not merely a cosmetic measure; it came on the heels of Israel withdrawing from bilateral forums with the EU and calling the EU ambassador to Israel on the carpet, and was seen as Israel’s harshest available punishment against the EU in response to the labeling initiative. The presumed intention behind this move was to force the EU to reconsider, admit that it had gone too far, and withdraw the decision. Israel wasn’t wrong; I think that Israel was largely in the right given the way the EU guidelines differentiate between Jewish goods and Palestinian goods (an element that the U.S. guidelines do not have). But Prime Minister Netanyahu, the cabinet, and politicians across the entire spectrum made a big deal over the limited suspension of diplomatic contacts, and played it up as Israel using its power to change EU policy.
So you can imagine just how embarrassed Netanyahu and the government must have been last week when the suspension of diplomatic contacts was halted despite the EU not withdrawing its labeling guidelines. Furthermore, during the conversation between Netanyahu and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini in which Netanyahu agreed to end the diplomatic suspension, Mogherini specifically reiterated the EU’s view that labeling does not constitute a boycott and did not promise that no further measures would be forthcoming. In other words, Israel accomplished nothing but angering EU countries even further, and possibly shot itself in the foot by prompting the emerging French initiative for an international peace conference. The bluster and rage turned out to be irrelevant at best and counterproductive at worst.
The second case is still developing, but it is over the amount of annual U.S. military assistance to Israel. Close followers of this issue will recall that in the aftermath of the absolutely disastrous maneuver that was Netanyahu’s speech to Congress last March, Israel repeatedly deferred discussing the next ten year Memorandum of Understanding that would govern the amount and type of aid until after the Iran deal was either accepted or rejected by Congress – despite the fact that it was clear as day that the votes to reject it were not there – while Israeli officials anonymously expressed confidence that it wouldn’t matter. Except that now it turns out that rejecting repeated U.S. offers to negotiate did in fact matter, as Israel is unhappy with what is now being offered and Israeli officials now anonymously express that Israel would have received a deal more to their liking had they not waited until the Iran deal was concluded and implemented. My guess is that ultimately the aid package will be more than Israel is being offered right now but still less than Israeli officials were anticipating over the spring and summer when they were casually tossing out the number of $5 billion annually as if it was signed, sealed, delivered. Make no mistake though, this is a strategic failure of enormous magnitude, and is just the latest fallout from last March’s speech, which brought Israel not a single measurable benefit.
So what are the lessons from these two episodes for Israeli strategic engagement and diplomacy going forward? Some people will no doubt infer from both of them that the European Union and the Obama administration are out to get Israel and jumped at the chance to do so. I think, however, that there are more level-headed takeaways. First, leverage is paramount in any negotiation and Israel plunged headfirst into both when its leverage was about as weak as it could be. Jerusalem went hard after the EU after Netanyahu and the cabinet had spent over a year making it clear that they were not interested in any type of peace process and only a few days after Netanyahu had rejected separate U.S. and Quartet entreaties to take steps in the West Bank that would demonstrate a commitment to two states. Similarly, Israel purposely put off negotiations over the aid MOU until it had no cards left to play on the Iran deal and after the world had largely moved on. When the U.S. and other world powers were focused on mitigating the Iran threat, then Israel was in the best position to push for military assistance that would blunt that threat. But even in foreign policy, states and leaders have short attention spans, and now that the bandwidth is being consumed almost entirely by Syria and most American decision makers view the threat from Iran as having been temporarily rectified, Israel is not going to find itself with quite so receptive an audience.
Second is that Israel made the mistake of behaving like a global power rather than the regional power that it is. It is mind-boggling that Netanyahu or anyone else genuinely thought that suspending some diplomatic contacts with the EU was going to rattle it into changing its policies in fear of what might come next. It is mind-boggling that Netanyahu or anyone else genuinely thought that it could get anything and everything that it wanted from this administration or any administration (remember how President George W. Bush refused to give Israel bunker busters in 2008?) no matter the context. This isn’t a matter of states disrespecting the world’s only Jewish state. It is a matter of an ironclad law of international relations, which is that relative power matters. Israel too often acts as if it is dealing with equals when in fact it is the subordinate party when it comes to the EU and even more so the U.S.
Finally, as with Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, there is an element of hubris and a complete misreading of domestic politics involved. The settlement labeling initiative, which passed the European Parliament 525-70, isn’t even a close call in European politics; the idea that the Israeli government believed that it could downgrade relations with the EU and get a different result was hopelessly naïve. Truth be told, Israel’s response probably only reinforced for many European leaders that they were making the right move. On the U.S. side of things, following the Congressional speech debacle, months of intensive lobbying against President Obama’s signature foreign policy priority, and open statements and insinuations that the White House wasn’t smart or knowledgeable enough to know what it was doing, Israel expected none of these factors to impact at all on dealings going forward. To call this foolish is being charitable. This isn’t to say that Israel shouldn’t have taken these steps if it actually thought that they would affect the outcome of the Iran deal, but that it shouldn’t have done them without first thinking through the consequences and accepting the costs. These are all things that should be on the minds of Israel’s leaders going forward when they make decisions on which pitches to swing at and which pitches to take.