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Israel breaks out of its global isolation

For decades it has suited both Israel and its enemies to portray the Jewish state as endangered and embattled. Israel’s bitterest foes have predicted that the “Zionist entity” will be swept away. Its liberal critics have insisted that Israel will never be secure until it makes peace with the Palestinians. The Israelis, meanwhile, have argued that external threats justify their continued occupation of Palestinian land and frequent recourse to military force.

Visit Israel, as I did last week, and you still hear regular dark warnings about Iran and terrorism. But what is far more striking is the mood of buoyant optimism among the country’s political and business leaders.

Israel has enjoyed more than a decade of rising prosperity and relative peace. Its per capita income is now higher than that of Britain. The country’s booming tech industry boasts more than 70 unicorns (tech start-up companies valued at $1bn or more), which is about 10 per cent of the global total. Venture capital is pouring into the country. Israel is also a world leader in the fight against Covid-19, vaccinating its population faster than any other country.

After two years of political crisis, Israel has a new coalition government, which stretches across the right-left spectrum and includes, for the first time, an Arab-Israeli party. Benjamin Netanyahu, who has dominated and polarised Israeli politics for many years, is now out of power and on trial.

Most intoxicatingly of all, Israelis feel that they are breaking out of the international isolation that has long threatened the country with pariah status. The immediate cause for this is the Abraham Accords, which have normalised Israel’s relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain and, more tepidly, Morocco and Sudan.

Issawi Frej, Israel’s minister for regional co-operation, enthuses that the accords offer the country huge opportunities for economic growth. Frej, who is an Arab-Israeli, recently attended a meeting in Abu Dhabi with the Abraham accord countries, Egypt and Jordan. He predicts that more countries in the region will join the accords soon.

Despite the pandemic, it feels like every prominent Israeli has recently visited the UAE. They come back enthusing about the novelty of flying over Saudi airspace and the warmth of their reception in Dubai. “There’s even a kosher restaurant in the Burj Khalifa [the world’s tallest building],” marvels one Israeli venture capitalist.

There are also more tangible pay-offs. Many Israeli companies are doing deals in the UAE. Israel Aerospace Industries, a leading tech exporter closely linked to the military, has established a facility in Abu Dhabi. Like other Israeli companies, it sees the Gulf as a jumping off point for new global markets.

The diplomatic fruits of the Abraham accords are also evident. Last week, Yair Lapid, Israel’s foreign minister, took part in a quadrilateral meeting with Tony Blinken, US secretary of state, and the foreign ministers of India and the UAE. The “new quad” will establish a forum for economic co-operation.

One senior western diplomat in Israel says that 15 years ago diplomacy with Israel was “80 per cent Palestine, 20 per cent other things. Now it is 20 per cent Palestine, 80 per cent other things.” Israel’s technological prowess is key to changing its relationship with the outside world. As the diplomat puts it: “The world wants what Israel is selling.”

Shifts in geopolitics are also working to Israel’s benefit. For a previous generation of western leaders, such as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the holy grail of international politics. For the current generation, other issues are more pressing. In Washington, the growing rivalry between the US and China is the defining issue. The governments of China, India and Russia see Israel primarily as a tech partner and a geopolitical actor. In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States are more worried by the threat from Iran than the fate of the Palestinians. The shared fear of Iran, in Israel and the Gulf, underpinned the Abraham Accords.

It would be nice to report that the surge in international acceptance of Israel also reflects significantly improved treatment of the Palestinians. But, on the contrary, Human Rights Watch issued a report this year arguing that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians now meets the legal definition of “apartheid” — a charge the Israelis reject. HRW states that the “Israeli authorities methodically privilege Jewish Israelis and discriminate against Palestinians”.

An outbreak of fighting with Hamas in May saw at least 260 Palestinians killed by Israeli strikes on Gaza; with 13 people killed in Israel, mainly by Hamas rockets. But international condemnation of Israel subsided quickly. The Abraham Accords were not derailed and neither was the decision of Ra’am, an Arab-Israeli party, to participate in the new coalition government.

The implications for the Palestinians are bleak. Their cause remains high on the agenda of the left in the West. But with weakening support in the Arab world, the Palestinian ability to put pressure on Israel is weakening.

The pessimistic view is that an increasingly confident Israel will now feel free to press ahead with further colonisation of the West Bank. But there is an alternative path. Support for the peace process in Israel collapsed after the terror attacks of the second intifada from 2000-2005. A more secure and optimistic Israel could also be a more generous country.

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