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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

Interview: AIPAC’s Stephen Schneider on Israel’s Expanding Diplomatic Relations

Despite growing efforts to delegitimize and isolate Israel on the international scene, the Jewish state is making important progress with foreign nations and international organizations. In recent years, Israel has forged diplomatic ties with countries outside of its traditional area of focus—namely in Africa, Asia and Latin America. AIPAC’s International Affairs Director Stephen Schneider joined NER to discuss the status of Israel’s current diplomatic efforts as well as future areas of opportunity.

Q: What are the factors that culminated in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s historic visit to Africa in early July—the first trip in 29 years by a sitting Israeli prime minister?

A: The Government of Israel has expanded its diplomatic horizon over the last decade, enhancing its focus to include other regions of the globe aside from traditional areas like Europe. A great example of this is Africa, where we saw Prime Minister Netanyahu travel to several countries over the course of one week, marking an historic visit by the leader of the Jewish state. Key heads of state met with the Prime Minister, while a substantial business delegation traveled to Africa as well. Overall, the key issues which bind Africa and Israel were emphasized, including security cooperation, energy, food and water security, and development assistance. For those of us who follow these issues carefully, one could call this trip a real game changer in Israel-Africa relations.

Q: Can Israel’s agency for international development, MASHAV, replicate its process of building diplomatic relations on a foundation of international development outside of Africa?

A: For those who know the story of MASHAV, there is a real sense of pride in the work they do. Whether it is their efforts on food and agricultural assistance in sub-Saharan Africa or the renovation of a children’s cancer hospital ward in Kenya, MASHAV truly symbolizes Israel as a shining light. Its energetic and talented director and staff are expanding the work of the mission to include other areas of the world, such as Asia. At a briefing I recently had with the MASHAV director, I learned of the important work it’s doing in East and South Asia—countries where Israel’s diplomatic corps is simultaneously working hard to expand its network and foster closer political relations. These Asian countries certainly appreciate Israel’s expertise, and for the Jewish state, this type of soft power diplomacy is hugely beneficial.

Q: How can Israel leverage its prowess in high-tech and energy to foster closer diplomatic and economic ties with Asian economic giants like India and China?

A: An important story on Israel’s widening diplomatic range has to include what is happening in Asia today. Europe historically has been Israel’s largest trading partner. Within a decade, Europe will likely be supplanted by Asia, including the dynamic economies of Japan, South Korea, China, India and Singapore. Much of this increased trade is based on Israel’s innovation ecosystem, including cybersecurity, which is highly sought after in Asia at large.

Q: How have Israel’s growing trade ties with Japan translated into deeper diplomatic cooperation?

A: Israel’s strategy to enhance diplomatic and security relations with Asia has borne fruit with the establishment of a new trade office in Osaka, Japan. During the 2015 AIPAC Minyan trip to Japan, we witnessed first-hand the important commercial, diplomatic and security relationship with Israel. We were honored to have a meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who certainly understands the strategic importance of Israel in his country’s path forward in a number of important policy areas. In this sense, we really are witnessing the emergence of a trilateral relationship among the United States, Japan and Israel based on a number of issues which connect the three democracies.

Q: Can you speak to the current state of relations between Israel and Latin America? Which countries offer Israel the greatest opportunities for growth?

A: As we look at Latin America, there is much hope for optimism, but also some uncertainty. Israel continues to build strong diplomatic and security relations with a number of nations, including Panama, Paraguay and Argentina. In fact, Paraguay has been a strong outright supporter of America and Israel in a number of recent votes at international organizations repudiating one-sided attacks against the Jewish state. This is an important step and one we hope can be mirrored elsewhere. The recent elections in Argentina offer new hope for many that relations with Israel will get back on track. Certainly, the early signs are encouraging.

Q: What is your assessment of the current relationship today between Europe and Israel and where do you see this relationship heading in the future?

A: This is a tale of two cities. On one hand, Israel has formed very close security and strategic relations with many countries in Europe, both inside and outside the European Union, over the past several decades. Trade continues to move in a positive direction, too—the European Union (EU) remains Israel’s largest trading partner. On the other hand, a substantial challenge we see results from the complicated relationships and foreign policy process between some EU member-states and the bureaucracy in Brussels. While some countries are supportive of Israel, others tend to have a more critical approach toward the Jewish state, which often translates to continued one-sided and misguided efforts to isolate Israel at the EU level. Notwithstanding these challenges, Europe still offers Israel opportunity for growth in the future. One particular area of focus is the regions in which states have been admitted into the EU since 2004, namely the Baltics, Central and Eastern Europe, and the Eastern Mediterranean. These countries have a different history and strategic dynamic which make them not only strong allies of the United States but also potential friends of Israel.

Q: Does Israeli Ambassador to the U.N. Danny Danon’s election as chair of a U.N. General Assembly committee foreshadow a more positive future role for Israel in the international arena?

A: The election of Ambassador Danon to chair the U.N. General Assembly’s Sixth Committee, which deals with matters of international law, is historic. This is the first time that we have seen an Israeli chair such an important body within the United Nations. With that said, we remain skeptical that this is a larger signal by the international body of Israel’s diplomatic acceptance and the halting of its one-sided attacks on the Jewish state. Sadly, we fully expect that the U.N. Human Right Council in Geneva, for instance, will generally continue this line of attack under Agenda Item 7, dedicated solely to Israel. Similarly, we recently saw that the World Health Organization voted and passed a resolution condemning only one country—Israel. So, on one hand we should rejoice at the election of Ambassador Danon and hope that this will set the stage for similar steps, but we should also be mindful that Israel has a long road to travel before it no longer faces institutional bias and efforts to isolate her.

Tags: Near East Report Near-East-Report