The blogosphere is in an uproar over this week’s unprecedented conference for all of Israel’s “heads of mission” – ambassadors and consuls – in Jerusalem. The Foreign Ministry’s news release acknowledges that this is the first such meeting ever convened for all Israeli heads of mission at one time. It makes a reasonable case that the conference is a policy-improvement measure of a kind common in other nations; but the conspiracy-minded see this simultaneous recall of all Israel’s diplomats as a sign that the bombing of Iran will commence shortly.
That is unlikely. The potential for an attack on Iran is undoubtedly a key topic at the conference, but as one agenda item rather than the primary purpose. Foreign policy in general is, in fact, enough of a pretext for the kind of conference going on this week. There are good reasons to believe Netanyahu perceives the U.S.-led world order to be in flux to the extent that Israeli foreign-policy thinking needs a larger scope. The assumption that Israel’s security conditions will be managed in a Washington-centered world order may soon become dangerously obsolete.
Clues that Netanyahu is seeking a broader footing for Israeli security ties have included the parade of Israeli officials to Russia in 2009 and Israel’s first high-level visits in decades to Latin America. Bibi has always had strong links with the U.S., but Avigdor Lieberman’s links to Russia give him a special and valuable access to the alternative geopolitical thinking in Moscow. And there is definitely alternative thinking in Moscow, whether on Iran, the fierce intra-Asian competition for the natural gas trade, or the future security of Europe.
Netanyahu will not, of course, distance Israel from the U.S. He is seeking to supplement old ties, not supplant them. Like Japan, Brazil, India, and Turkey, which are all engaged in exactly such preparations, Israel will need a broader set of security links if the power shifts expected by many nations do, in fact, emerge from the rivalry of Russia and China.
President Obama could have taken the path of strengthening links that have gradually weakened in the U.S.-led global order since the end of the Cold War. But he has chosen instead to deliberately undermine some especially crucial ones: America’s commitment to missile defense as a non-negotiable security principle; and our posture as an honest broker between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs. Our reliability as a regional actor in Middle Eastern security matters is more questionable than at any time since the Carter administration.
Israel must perceive, as other nations do, that any new global patterns set in motion during Obama’s tenure might not be easily reversed by a successor. A nuclear-armed Iran is only one aspect of the changed world Israel can expect in the coming years. It would actually be more surprising to not see this week’s conference than it is to see Netanyahu’s foreign-policy team gathered to consider the watershed in Israel’s national life that is probably coming in 2010.