Netanyahu, ’60 Minutes’ and Israel’s Growing Diplomatic Reach
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu again proved his public relations mastery with his CBS “60 Minutes” interview with Lesley Stahl on Sunday. He not only delivered catchy soundbites, but was cool in the face of attempted provocations (which are part of the job of a good interviewer) and made significant, informative comments, without compromising vital national interests. Netanyahu outlined Israel’s great diplomatic achievements and growing international relations, despite all the talk these days about the marginalization of the country. The good news is that Israel is not isolated. The less good news — though also far less important — is that the newsroom of “60 Minutes” is either not aware of this fact, or not very fond of the emerging situation. But, as Netanyahu explained, Israel’s future position in the world is bright.
The prime minister is currently on a trip to Azerbaijan, a Shi’ite Muslim state bordering Iran, in a move that is nothing short of a diplomatic coup. The visit serves as formal recognition of the very fruitful and vitally important strategic relations between Israel and this important Muslim state, and it must be making some high-level officials in Tehran very nervous. Strong, positive Israel-Azerbaijan ties have numerous and widespread implications for the region, and though a lot of what is happening between the two countries is kept in the dark (as it should be), the message to the ayatollahs is clear: Israel is around.
Netanyahu will then proceed to Kazakhstan, a Sunni Muslim central Asian state, and one with enormous economic potential. Though a member of the Jewish tribe, Sacha Baron Cohen, may have relentlessly mocked Kazakhstan in his movie “Borat,” there is really nothing comical about this vast and rich country.
The visits to these two nations comes after the prime minister’s trip to several African countries. The dialogue with one of them was a particularly resounding success but did not get nearly enough attention outside of Israel. In Kenya, Netanyahu was welcomed by President Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of legendary freedom fighter Jomo Kenyatta, in a bombastic reception that marked the clear upward trajectory of Israel’s relations with African nations. Progress has been slow and gradual, but constant. Netanyahu was as eagerly received by the Kenyans as President Barack Obama was, a man whose father called the country home.
Israel also continues to maintain a strong presence in Europe, holding relations with even the extreme left-wing government in Greece, improving ties with Turkey and expanding its reach in the Balkans. The positive direction of Israel’s relations with Russia, China, India and Japan is also clear.
By far, however, the greatest shift in Israel’s international position is also the one that has been the least visible and the most important. This is Israel’s changing role in Middle Eastern affairs, evolving from being the bogey man of Arab politics, the eternally hated scapegoat, to being an active player in the regional diplomatic ecosystem. The frightening shadow of Shi’ite Iran, the rise of destabilizing Sunni jihadist elements and the vacuum left by a US administration bent on pandering to Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood may explain the change. But another element at play here is that oil-producing Arab countries — Saudi Arabia chief among them — know full well that the golden age of Arab black gold is on the decline. The Saudis already speak openly about this, in an indication of how worried they are about their economic future. One can honestly assume that when these countries look ahead, they see the necessity of changing their tune about Israel, due to the advantages that are to be gained through cooperation with the Jewish state, mainly in terms of benefiting from Israel’s superior scientific stature.
That said, the elephant in the room, the issue which can and will be the one to slow down, if not outright stop, any dramatic and visible change in Israel’s international position continues to be the Palestinian question. This matter poses the greatest challenge for Netanyahu. He must figure out how to combine impressive diplomatic outreach with the almost universal expectation that Israel make, or be seen as making, actual steps to break the deadlock with the Palestinians. Easier said than done.
This changing international landscape was the topic of some of Stahl’s more pointed questions, but Netanyahu was astute and experienced enough not to tell her and the American audience that a lot of it is due to the diminishing role of the US in global affairs under the Obama administration. This is not to imply that Israel’s alliance with the US is over — and the arrival of two F-35 fighter jets at an Israeli air base this week is a good reminder of the centrality of that relationship — but it is in Israel’s utmost national interest to prepare for the rainy day, when changing circumstances and perspectives in America may take a major toll on the alliance. The last eight years provide us with a vivid signal of unpleasant shifts that may be on the horizon.
But Israel, under Netanyahu’s leadership, has made impressive achievements, and it is remarkable that the country is even facing such promising possibilities.