“A different league” was the motto of Benjamin Netanyahu’s election campaign back in 2019. Billboards with this slogan, accompanied by huge photos of him shaking hands with world leaders, stood all over Israel. In his earlier years as Israel’s prime minister, Netanyahu worked hard to brand himself as “Mr. Security,” posing as the one who would prevent Iran from going nuclear. Later on, however, he sought to solidify his image as a mega-diplomat, someone influencers across the globe seek to spend time with, who can always expect open invitations to numerous foreign capitals, and who is able to deliver bilateral and multilateral deals despite unfavorable conditions — whether on COVID-19 vaccines or normalization with Arab states.
Netanyahu’s annual September visits to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) were usually a climax of these high diplomatic efforts, with polished speeches, sideline meetings with leaders, and engagements with officials from the United States. All would be widely covered by the Israeli media and lauded by Netanyahu’s electorate back home. But paradoxically, while Netanyahu was elevating his global posture, he determinedly weakened the very same governmental apparatus that is supposed to deliver diplomatic success.
Under his leadership, Israel’s Foreign Service dwindled and remains weakened to this day. Seen by Netanyahu as a bastion of competing elites or even leftists, the prime minister stripped the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) of many of its core responsibilities — including public diplomacy, strategic affairs, as well as combating anti-Semitism around the globe and the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement — reapportioning them to other ministries (including newly invented ones). The MFA’s budget was also cut over the years, leading to a decline in personnel, and its impact on foreign policy decision-making was deliberately reduced.
Nevertheless, the efforts made by Netanyahu and his aides to market his diplomatic initiatives proved somewhat fruitful, at least in the short term. Every year, the Mitvim Institute (an Israeli think tank founded by this author) asks Israelis what they think about their country’s foreign policy and surveys their diplomatic priorities. This annual Israeli Foreign Policy Index, launched in 2013, includes questions on multiple diplomatic issues and provides a snapshot of the Israeli mindset on foreign policy.
Despite a low point in public opinion in 2015, just after Netanyahu formed a narrow right-wing coalition in which he did not appoint a full-time foreign minister, the level of public satisfaction regarding various foreign policy issues saw a moderate increase during his time in office. These ratings began to fall in 2021, but in 2022, when the next government, headed by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, exemplified a different — more professional and effective — foreign policy approach, the Mitvim Institute’s index showed a renewed increase. Israelis saw that another mode of diplomatic conduct was possible, and that it could yield greater achievements.
The 2023 Israeli Foreign Policy Index was published earlier this month, just as Netanyahu was preparing for yet another visit to the UNGA. The findings were striking, emphasizing that Netanyahu’s “mega-diplomat” image no longer resonates. Since coming to power in late December 2022, the domestic and foreign policies adopted by his current government have again reversed how Israelis assess their country’s diplomacy and foreign policy.
Within less than a year, judgements turned negative, nearly reaching the low point of 2015. As far as Israeli public opinion is concerned, the impact of the country’s diplomatic achievements in recent years, as well as of the empowerment of Israel’s Foreign Service undertaken by the previous government, have been almost completely erased. In 2023, Israelis rank their country’s standing in the world at 5.03 out of 10 (compared to 5.85 in 2022), their government’s performance in the field of foreign policy at 4.82 (5.53 in 2022), and the status of the MFA at 5.00 (5.40 in 2022).
The most striking decline, however, was in the assessment of the quality of Israeli-U.S. relations. While in 2022, these relations were rated at 6.85 out of 10, this year the ranking dropped to 5.30. Only 19% gave the relationship a high ranking, between 8 and 10, compared to 44% who did so last year. This finding is especially important given that 73% of the respondents agree to a large or certain extent that “the US is and must remain Israel’s main ally in the future.”
Moreover, the poll indicates that for a plurality of respondents, concern over the deterioration of Israel’s ties with its Western partners significantly impacts attitudes toward the judicial overhaul Netanyahu is simultaneously advancing. Israelis have traditionally wanted their prime minister to handle the important alliance with the United States with care — same with relations with countries like Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, which were ranked in the poll as among the most important for Israel. But Netanyahu is currently not perceived to be delivering on this.
These results were generated from a representative sample, of which 69% define themselves as center-right, right-wing or far-right (compared to 17% as center, and 14% as center-left or left-wing). That sample composition not only reflects where Israeli politics is heading, but in more normal times, it would likely have more strongly backed Netanyahu and applauded his efforts on the world stage.
One area where Netanyahu is not paying a price for the unpopular policies of his government is on the Palestinian issue. On the one hand, the Mitvim Institute’s findings show that the Israeli public sees a linkage between democratic backsliding inside Israel and the advancement of de facto annexation of Palestinian territories; and Israelis believe their country should seek the help of Arab states that have normalized ties with it to promote peace with the Palestinians. But on the other hand, on the 30th anniversary of the Oslo Accords, Israelis attach relatively minor importance to promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace, especially when compared to other foreign policy issues that the government can promote. Only 37% of the respondents ranked this issue as important (i.e., gave it rankings between 8 and 10), compared to over 50% for each of the other policy issues surveyed. Those in the international community who seek ways to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace should, therefore, also try to invest more in mobilizing traditional pro-peace Israelis, who today seem less enthusiastic about the issue and whose support for peace initiatives can no longer be taken for granted.
As the Jewish New Year begins, Israel’s foreign relations face several parallel crises, including regarding ties with liberal-democratic allies in the West, relations with Arab neighbors, and the declining status and conduct of the Israeli MFA. When Netanyahu takes the stage in this year’s UNGA, many fewer Israelis will see him as their country’s diplomatic savior. Rather, he will be met with unprecedented demonstrations in the streets of New York, echoing the weekly protests against his government’s policies roiling Israel since the beginning of the year. The spectacle will showcase once again the extent to which Israelis are concerned about the damage the current far-right government is causing to their country’s democracy and standing in the world.
Dr. Nimrod Goren is the Senior Fellow for Israeli Affairs at the Middle East Institute, President of Mitvim - The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, and Co-Founder of Diplomeds - The Council for Mediterranean Diplomacy.
Photo by Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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