Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, criticized by the U.S. and Europe, looks east
Netanyahu is courting the Chinese, the Russians, and others “You want to go where the growth is”
Criticized by U.S. and European leaders over his policies toward the Palestinians, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is cultivating allies in other parts of the world.
His government started free-trade talks with China in March, is negotiating favored-nation status with Japan, and in late April hosted Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on his first visit to Israel. The four-time Israeli premier is planning a summer tour of Africa. He told his cabinet, reporters, and U.S. Jewish leaders that even Sunni Arab countries are drawing closer to Israel over shared fears of Iran. He also cultivated ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, visiting Moscow on April 21 to discuss common military concerns in Syria.
Those close to Netanyahu say tectonic shifts—no superpower in charge, Iran rising, the Middle East imploding, the still-potent Chinese economic engine—have convinced him Israel must develop new alliances.
“Over the longer term, there are problems for Israel in its relations with western Europe and with the U.S.,” says Mark Heller, principal research associate at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies. In contrast, “relations with many important Asian countries don’t seem to indicate much interest about how Israel gets along with the Palestinians, Arabs, or anyone else.”
Opponents of Netanyahu and his party say Israel’s success attracting investment from Silicon Valley and Asian tycoons such as Li Ka-shing has helped him absorb the blow of U.S. and European criticism of his settlement policies. The premier “says to himself: ‘Nobody’s punishing me, so why should I behave differently than I really want?’ ” says Yossi Beilin, architect of the 1993 peace accords with the Palestinians and a former leader of the left-wing Meretz party.
The U.S. remains by far Israel’s most vital ally, giving $3.1 billion in annual aid. The European Union is its primary trading partner. Israel’s exports to the U.S. and Europe have fallen since the global financial crisis, while exports to Asia rose to $17.7 billion in 2015, from $12.2 billion in 2008. Exports to China rose to $3.2 billion from $1.3 billion during that period. “You want to go where the growth is,” says Eli Groner, director-general of Netanyahu’s office.
Israel wants these trading partners to lend it more political support. “Many other countries want to learn about our technology, water desalination,
agriculture,” says Danny Danon, Israel’s United Nations ambassador. “But we also expect some reciprocity.” Israel’s previous ambassador tweeted a thank-you after India abstained on a UN Human Rights Council vote last July condemning the country for alleged war crimes in the Gaza Strip. Kenya and Ethiopia—both central to Netanyahu’s strategy to boost trade ties in Africa—abstained as well.
Some Arab states, tired of the Palestinian conflict, want to buy Israeli cybersecurity, agricultural, and water management products, Netanyahu told a conference in February. Longer-term, pressure on Israel is building from Europe and the UN to stop building the settlements, with backers launching a campaign of boycotts and sanctions against Israel.
Netanyahu may be calculating that the world has more to worry about than Jewish settlements on the West Bank, says Yoram Meital, chairman of the Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. “As long as the eyes of the international community are on Islamic State and on Syria,” he says, “he knows they’re not going to twist his arm with the Palestinian card.”