When Israel’s foreign policy strategy turned ‘leaky’

The Libyan controversy reminds us of the more significant problem facing Israel. While the scale and intensity have reduced considerably, Israel’s conflict with the Arab world is far from over.
Image used for representational purpose. (Photo | AFP)
Image used for representational purpose. (Photo | AFP)

The premature leak of a meeting between Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and his counterpart in the Libyan National Unity Government, Najla Mangoush, cost the latter her job and forced her to flee to Türkiye. It is widely recognised in Israel that Mangoush was fired not for her secret meeting per se but due to Cohen’s premature leaking of their face-to-face conversation in Rome a few days ago, mediated by Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani. Though Libyan Prime Minister Abdulhamid al-Dbeibah was aware of and even approved the meeting, the leak was politically devastating for the fragile government. Indeed, partly to appease domestic critics, he even visited the Palestinian embassy in Tripoli following the controversy.

Politicians the world over love ribbon-cutting even before the foundations are ready. Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen is not an exception. Unable to control the excitement of a “historic breakthrough”, Cohen disclosed the impending “normalisation” with another Muslim country. This unleashed another diplomatic row and temporarily ended any possible expansion of Israel’s circle of friends. As a damage control measure, the Israeli foreign ministry disclosed that in the first-ever meeting between the two countries’ officials, they discussed preserving Jewish heritage sites in Libya, cooperation in agriculture, and providing humanitarian aid to the war-torn country. Incensed by the intemperate behaviour, the US is furious that its efforts were temporarily scuttled and urged Israeli officials to find ways to “calm things down.”

Even politically stable Arab countries are extremely cautious about normalisation of relations with Israel. Libya is far from stable, and for over a decade since the removal and murder of Muammar Qaddafi, the country is in the midst of a civil war, with rival factions competing for territorial control and international legitimacy. In May last year, clandestine Israeli moves resulted in the Iraqi Parliament passing a resolution that criminalised attempts towards normalising relations with the Jewish State. Similar disclosure by the then Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres thwarted normalisation with India in the late 1980s.

Moreover, President Biden could not expand the circle of Israel’s friends in the region since assuming office. The I2U2—India, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States—is a poor attempt at consolidation and expansion of the gains of the Trump Administration. Indeed, the much-hyped Abraham Accords did not expand to include other Arab countries in the normalisation process once Trump left office in January 2021. While Israel’s relations with Bahrain, Morocco and the UAE have grown, ties with Sudan have not progressed much. Despite periodic reports of contacts with and visits of senior officials, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, Saudi Arabia is still not ready to come out of the closet. However, the absence of relations did not inhibit the Al-Sauds from opening their airspace for travel to Israel. In March 2018, Air India started flying to Israel using Saudi airspace. Following the Abraham Accords, this privilege was extended to Israel’s official carrier, El Al, for flights to India and Southeast Asia.

Last July, there were speculations that Israeli Muslims could directly fly to Jeddah for their hajj pilgrimage. The Saudi ambassador to Jordan is concurrently accredited to Palestine. This was seen as a prelude to an impending Israeli-Saudi normalisation. These behind-the-scenes movements need greater finesse and must be choreographed with Saudi interests in mind. President Biden’s lack of political capital vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia is partly responsible for the non-realisation of Israeli-Saudi normalisation. The Democrats’ noise about human rights considerably weakened Biden’s influence over Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The current controversy over the premature leak also underscores the traditional Israeli foreign policy outreach since 1948. In a hostile environment, Israel conceived, developed and mastered clandestine diplomacy with its supposed Arab and Islamic adversaries. The Israeli-Jordanian ties were pursued at the highest levels even before the establishment of Israel. King Hussein met every Israeli prime minister except David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin. His erstwhile rhetoric of ‘Jordan is Palestine’ was adopted by maverick Ariel Sharon enjoying a greater personal rapport with King Hussein than the sweet-talking Netanyahu. The absence of formal relations did not inhibit Morocco—incidentally head of the Al-Quds Committee of the Arab League—from hosting Israeli officials and even nudging Anwar Sadat’s normalisation efforts. Likewise, Oman and Qatar have hosted Israeli officials without formal recognition.

Due to the sensitivities of the Arab and Islamic interlocutors with whom relations do not exist, Israel relied more heavily on its intelligence agencies than foreign policy entablement. The security officials, for example, drafted the Israel-Jordan peace treaty, which the diplomats merely signed. Israel’s external intelligence agency, Mossad, has a bigger role in sensitive foreign policy decisions than career diplomats.

Above all, the Libyan controversy reminds us of the more significant problem facing Israel. While the scale and intensity have reduced considerably, Israel’s conflict with the Arab world is far from over. Normalisation was and continues to be a pawn in inter-Arab politics. Countries and groups—secular and Islamist—do not hesitate to whip up public passion against Israel. Some of these happen even without any active involvement of the Palestinians.

The Arab-Islamic normalisation with Israel increased the focus on the Palestinian dimension of the conflict, but the need for secrecy is just a reminder that Israel’s conflict with the Arab world is far from over. Whenever necessary, even non-Arab players—Iran and Türkiye—do not hesitate to capitalise on the Arab sentiments against Israel. And Libya is the latest reminder.

P R Kumaraswamy

Professor at JNU. Teaches contemporary Middle East

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