Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has made several welcome changes to his ministry’s priority list, with perhaps the most noteworthy being the section on bilateral relationships. Strengthening ties with Arab states, which was at the top of that section under his predecessor, Tzipi Livni, is now at the bottom. Instead, Lieberman assigned priority to strengthening ties with the hitherto neglected regions of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
From a cost-benefit standpoint, this is a smart move. No Arab state is going to be anything but hostile in the foreseeable future. And while it is obviously preferable for states like Saudi Arabia to remain at their present hostility level rather than to escalate to Iran’s level, any investment beyond the minimum needed to ensure this much is just wasted time and effort.
In contrast, few non-Muslim states in Africa, Asia, and Latin America are inherently hostile to Israel; hence an investment of time and effort might well improve relations. And while most of these countries have little clout, they could nevertheless do much to boost Israel’s global image.
To understand why, consider this month’s UN General Assembly vote endorsing the Goldstone Report. The resolution passed 118-18-44, with another 16 countries not voting. That is a lopsided condemnation of Israel.
But of the 16 countries that skipped the vote, all were from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Of the 44 abstainers, 18 were from these regions (most were European). And of the 118 who voted in favor, almost half belong to the Organization of the Islamic Conference; most of the rest were non-Muslim states from Africa, Asia, and Latin America (plus five European states). Thus the vote could clearly have been made much less lopsided by flipping some of these states from “yes” to “abstention” and others from “abstention” or “not voting” to “no.”
Why does this matter? Because the fact that resolutions condemning Israel consistently pass by such lopsided margins contributes greatly to Israel’s pariah image, portraying it as a country with scarcely a friend in the world. If, instead, such condemnations passed only narrowly, this would portray it as a country that, despite many enemies, also has many friends. And countries with many friends are by definition not pariahs.
Could an investment of diplomatic effort flip some of these countries? It’s hard to know, given that Israel has never tried; for decades, its diplomacy has focused almost exclusively on the West and the Middle East. Nevertheless, another datum from the Goldstone vote is suggestive: the only Latin American country that did vote “no” on Goldstone — Panama — did so two weeks after its president met personally with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
And that’s the point: Most of these countries know little about Israel, and therefore care little. But if Israel made an effort to fill the knowledge gap, the caring gap might shrink, too. At the very least, it’s worth a try — especially when the alternative is for Israeli diplomats to waste their time battering their heads against a hostile Arab wall.