(Editor’s note: Paragraph four contains language that may be offensive to some readers.)
Barack Obama is meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly Wednesday, at a time when the U.S. president is considering whether to initiate an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal before he leaves office.
If Obama does so, it will be over Netanyahu's objections – and could trigger a very public disagreement between the two leaders during Obama's final months in office.
This would not be the first Obama-Netanyahu spat, though. American officials were furious when they saw a recent video of Netanyahu describing opposition to Israeli settlements in the West Bank as “ethnic cleansing” of Jews. The State Department called it “inappropriate and unhelpful;” White House officials were reportedly livid.
On various other occasions, meanwhile, senior administration officials have described Netanyahu as “recalcitrant,” “myopic,”“reactionary,” “obtuse,” “blustering,” “pompous,” “Aspergery” and “chickenshit.” Netanyahu reportedly dislikes Obama, while Israel’s Defense Ministry has compared the Iran nuclear deal to Britain’s 1938 Munich appeasement agreement with Nazi Germany.
Given American-Israeli tension, some fret Israel risks diplomatic isolation – something even Netanyahu recently felt compelled to deny. In reality, though, Israel's diplomatic gains have never been greater. Here's why.
First and foremost, despite the Obama-Netanyahu friction, Israel’s partnership with its powerful American patron remains robust. Washington just agreed to provide Israel with a record-sized $38 billion military aid package. Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton emphasize their strong support for Israel. The country also retains overwhelming support in Congress and – according to the latest Gallup poll – among the American public as well.
Even beyond its relationship with Washington, Israel is successfully developing close ties with an unprecedented number of countries – including many old enemies.
Consider Egypt. Although Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed the Camp David accords almost 40 years ago, it has been a “cold peace” at best, and as late as 2011 Israel was forced to evacuate over 80 diplomats after protesters stormed its embassy in Cairo.
But since Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s ascension to power in 2014, Israeli-Egyptian cooperation has reached new heights. Egypt’s Foreign Minister recently visited Israel, and a Netanyahu-Sisi summit may soon be possible.
Common national security and economic interests drive this newfound cooperation. Both sides see Gaza-based Islamist group Hamas as a common foe, and during Israel’s 2014 military campaign against Hamas Sisi reportedly took an even harder line on a possible Israeli-Hamas ceasefire than Netanyahu himself.
The two countries also share intelligence on Hamas and Islamic State’s Sinai affiliate. Egypt even allows Israel to conduct drone strikes against militants on Egyptian territory, according to a former senior Israeli official.
Mutual security interests also drive an Israeli-Saudi détente, particularly a shared fear of Shi’ite Iran. In the run-up to the Iran nuclear deal – which both Israel and Saudi Arabia opposed – Riyadh reportedly offered the Israeli government the use of its airspace to attack Iran as well as assistance with air-to-air refueling for Israeli jets. These contacts came to light when it was revealed that representatives from the two countries had held five secret meetings in 2015 to discuss managing the threat from Tehran.
Relations have continued this year. In May two former senior Israeli and Saudi officials – including Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia's former intelligence chief – shared the stage at a Washington think tank to discuss their mutual fear of Iran. In July a retired Saudi general led a delegation of Saudi academics and businessmen on a trip to Israel for discussions with senior Israeli officials.
While no diplomatic relationship between the two countries exists – Saudi Arabia insists an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement be signed before it recognizes Israel – it’s extremely unlikely these types of extensive contacts could occur without approval from the highest levels in Riyadh.
A new Israel-Greece-Cyprus alliance has also emerged. The Greek and Israeli militaries hold extensive air and naval exercises together, and in 2015 Greece allowed the Israeli air force to conduct exercises over Crete.
Earlier this year, meanwhile, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Netanyahu held talks in Israel, followed by a three-way summit between Netanyahu, Tsipras and Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades that concluded with the creation of a de-facto geopolitical bloc between the three states.
Security and economic interests drive this Israeli-Greek-Cypriot bloc. Greece and Cyprus are both historically antagonistic toward Turkey, while Israeli-Turkish relations deteriorated after the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, when the Israeli navy stormed a Turkish ship trying to deliver aid to Gaza. The two countries agreed to normalize ties in June, but continue to disagree over Gaza. This makes Israeli-Greek-Cypriot defense cooperation a natural hedge against an increasingly unpredictable Ankara.
Israel’s offshore natural gas bonanza provides another reason for its alliance with Greece and Cyprus. Since Israel possesses far more gas than it needs for its own economy, Netanyahu, Tsipras and Anastasiades also discussed the possibility of building a pipeline from Israeli gas fields through Cyprus and Greece to supply Europe – something that would further cement this new three-way alliance.
Israel is also significantly expanding trade and diplomatic ties with India, the world’s largest democracy. Israel sold approximately $10 billion worth of military equipment to India in the last decade, making India the largest foreign buyer of Israeli military gear, while Israel is India's second largest arms supplier after Russia.
On the diplomatic front, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee made an official state visit to Israel in 2015 – the first ever by an Indian head of state – while India’s foreign minister visited in January. Given India’s long history of supporting the Palestinian cause and denouncing Israel, India’s willingness to bring its relationship with Israel out from “under the carpet” represents another significant success for Israeli diplomacy.
Israel has overcome a similarly fraught history with China. For many years post-revolutionary China supported the Palestinian Liberation Organization with both diplomatic and military aid, and Beijing did not officially recognize Israel’s right to exist until 1992. But business interests drive an increasingly warm relationship. Chinese-Israeli trade has exploded and the two sides are also discussing a free trade agreement.
Israel accrues significant advantages from its growing Chinese ties. As part of its “Silk Road” initiative, China recently began building a new port in the Israeli town of Ashdod on the Mediterranean, while also agreeing to fund a so-called “Red-Med” high-speed railway line to connect Israel’s Red Sea town of Eilat to Ashdod.
Chinese venture capital firms also invested $500 million in Israeli startups in 2015, and by 2020 may hold as much as $10 billion of investments in the Israeli technology industry. Netanyahu visited China in 2013, while Chinese vice premiers traveled to Israel in 2014 and again earlier this year. In May the two countries signed a 10-year multiple entry visa agreement – making Israel only the third country granted this arrangement by Beijing.
To be clear, none of Israel’s new friends are as important to the country as the United States, and Netanyahu would be wise to develop an improved personal relationship with the next American president. Nevertheless, when viewed from Israel’s parliament, the country’s place in the world has never looked more secure.
This column has been updated since publication.
Josh Cohen is a former USAID project officer involved in managing economic reform projects in the former Soviet Union.
The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.