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The visit of Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to India scheduled for last week had to be cancelled at the last minute as he tested positive for Covid. Despite the minor hiccup, the Israeli leader and his colleagues have been crisscrossing the region and beyond. The fragile Bennett-Lapid government that came to power last June is conscious of its limited exposure to international diplomacy and is aggressively capitalising on the expanding horizons of the Abraham Accords, which saw Israel’s normalisation with the UAE, Morocco, Bahrain and Sudan. While The US is still the pivot, Israel is consciously expanding its diplomatic footprints in the region and beyond.

Recent weeks also saw the return of terrorism, and a spate of attacks struck Hadera, Beer Sheba and Bnei Brak, resulting in the killing of 11 Israeli citizens and injuries to many more. The attack in Hadera was carried out by two Israeli Arab cousins from Umm al-Fahm, believed to be sympathisers of the Islamic Caliphate or ISIS. Moreover, the renewed violence came just days before the onset of Ramadan, often a tense period in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

At the same time, the nation’s diplomatic footprints have been expanding in recent weeks. Let’s look at some of the forays. Having commonly seen boycotts, isolation and exclusion in the past, Israel hosted a six-member Foreign Ministers summit attended by Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, UAE and the US in March. A few days later, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid was in Athens, where he also met his Cypriot counterpart. Earlier in the month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan broke his decade-long bickering and hosted Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who was also in Amman, to meet with King Hussein of Jordan. In early March, Bennett broke his Sabbath observance and flew to Moscow to mediate the Ukraine crisis; and a couple of weeks later, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy virtually addressed the Israeli Knesset. Moreover, since the normalisation of relations, the Israeli president, prime minister, foreign minister, defence minister and other leaders have visited Bahrain, UAE and Morocco and held high-level consultations.

In an unusual move, Defence Minister Benny Gantz was supposed to accompany the Israeli Prime Minister to New Delhi, which will now be rescheduled. Indeed, last October, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar virtually attended the inaugural Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Jerusalem comprising India, Israel, the UAE and the US, unveiling the mini-Quad. But it was Egyptian President Fattah al-Sisi who stole the march on the others and hosted a three-way summit involving Bennett and Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin-Zayed al-Nahyan.

The crisscrossing Israeli diplomatic manoeuvres underscore a few broad trends. First, even a year into its office, the Biden administration is still clueless about its Middle East policy. Its desire to review the nuclear deal with Iran is not viewed favourably in the region, especially by Israel and Gulf Arab Kingdoms. Washington has not convinced its allies that a renewed agreement would be stable and better than the 2015 one and will have iron-clad guarantees against the Iranian ability to increase uranium enrichment. For example, the much-heralded nuclear deal prohibited Iran from enriching uranium above 3.67%, suitable only for nuclear power reactors—the stated objective of the Iranian nuclear programme—for 15 years. However, using the Trump administration’s pull-out as an excuse, Iran revived its enrichment programme. Last November, Persian media reported that Iran had increased its stockpile to 25 kgs of 60% enrichment. Moreover, the Vienna talks with Iran do not indicate that the Biden Administration is addressing regional (Arab and Israeli) fears over an Iranian hegemony and its persistent interference in the internal affairs of its neighbours.

Second, the Biden administration’s failure to deter the Russian invasion and its subsequent inability to defend Ukraine raise regional doubts over American credibility. Though the traditional pro-western allies still lack a viable alternative, these countries, including Israel, are opting for a hedging strategy. For example, Israel is careful in distancing itself from Washington’s anti-Putin rhetoric and declaring Moscow as an aggressor will only undermine Israel’s freedom of action against Iranian elements in war-torn Syria. Even during the heydays of the Cold War, Israel never pursued an explicitly anti-Soviet policy, and its criticisms and actions largely focused on the Soviet military support and supplies to the Arab world and the absence of diplomatic relations following the June War. Moreover, Israel is also aware of the consolidation of the Sino-Russian partnership manifested in the decade-long crisis in Syria. The Saudi reluctance to pump more oil into the market to stabilise prices and exploration of the Yuan for oil transactions with China is part of this cautious approach of the Gulf Arab countries, for whom Israel is a better bet.

Lastly, population estimates suggest that nearly a million Russian Jews live in Israel. The number will be higher if one includes other nations of the former Soviet Republic. At one time, Eastern Europe had more Jews than the state of Israel and now the Russian-speaking Jews form an important political constituency, necessitating the leaders, especially Bennett, to befriend Moscow.

While the US still remains its major patron and benefactor, the spate of diplomatic engagements in recent weeks also indicates the Israeli willingness to expand its circle of friends through converging interests and shared disappointments with the Biden administration.

Note:  This article was originally published in The New Indian Express on 11 April 2022 and has been reproduced with the permission of the author. Web Link

As part of its editorial policy, the MEI@ND standardizes spelling and date formats to make the text uniformly accessible and stylistically consistent. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the MEI@ND. Editor, MEI@ND: P R Kumaraswamy