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”

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - CONTENTS - Jonathan Ferziger

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.”




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