Is Israel Really That Alone?

09/20/2011 01:37 pm ET | Updated Nov 20, 2011

Last weekend, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman declared that he has "never been more worried about Israel's future." In the column, Friedman explained that the cause for his concern is Israel's diplomatic isolation in the world.

Expanding on his argument, Friedman cited what he calls the recent "crumbling of key pillars" of Israel's security. The list of Friedman's crumbling pillars is a little surprising: the de-stabilization of Syria and Jordan, and Turkey's downgrading of diplomatic relations with Israel.

Friedman also says that in addition to these recent developments, the Israeli government's "ineptitude" has left the United States "fed up," suggesting that a further distancing of Israel's closest and most powerful ally is compounding the effects of the new regional dynamics.

All this has resulted in the situation captured by the metaphoric title of Saturday's column: "Israel: Adrift at Sea Alone."

But in painting his picture of Israel's present diplomatic status, Friedman neglects to mention the other side of the globe. In fact, in many cases, Israel's current diplomatic ties to a number of very powerful and important democracies has literally never been better.

Israel and India are currently working towards a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with which would not only result in a significant boost to the economic ties between the two counties, but would also signal a major diplomatic upgrade between Israel and the world's largest democracy.

South Korea is another important diplomatic ally with whom Israeli relations are on the rise. Earlier this year, an eleven-member parliamentary delegation from the Asian democracy visited Jerusalem in an effort to intensify the South Korea-Israel relationship "in all areas, particularly with regard to issues of security and peace, but also in the spheres of renewable energy, science and technology and bilateral trade," according to The Jerusalem Post. The Post characterized the delegation as "effusive" in their express desire to further ties with the Jewish state.

While Friedman, in his weekend column, pointed to the changing diplomatic posture of Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, he neglected to mention the diplomatic counterbalance of leaders like Canada's prime minister, Steven Harper.

At the G-8 conference in France this past May, Harper was reportedly "adamant" in not just his diplomatic support for Israel, but also in refusing the validity of President Obama's newly issued policy statement that Israel should begin negotiations with the Palestinians on the basis of the pre-1967 borders. The government of Canada issued an official diplomatic communiqué expressing just that.

"Countries like South Korea, Taiwan, India, and Colombia are countries where relations with Israel are growing at an unbelievable pace," Raphael Harkham, an Israeli-American lawyer and political scientist told me. "Like Israel, these countries have all struggled through territorial disputes but have managed to grow their economies nonetheless."

Eastern Europe is also undergoing a diplomatic perestroika in relation to Israel. This month Albania's premier Sali Berisha praised Israel's relations with the Balkan state at an official meeting with a Israel's Minister of Agriculture, saying noted those relations will continue to deepen..

The government of the Czech Republic has officially sided with Israel on the Palestinians' unilateral statehood bid at the UN, and Poland and Hungary are two staunch European allies who are still formulating their position on the upcoming bid.

But it's not just that Israel's diplomatic relations are so strong in some parts of the world that makes Friedman's column so puzzling.

"Friedman is speaking in complete hyperbole," Harkham says. "He's either ignoring history or he doesn't know it. In terms of Israeli history things have been far worse in the past."

The Shamir government's relationship with President George H.W. Bush became so strained that Bush openly threatened diplomatic sticks that President Obama has never even hinted at. In 1991 Bush 41 threatened to withhold a $10 billion loan package if Israel continued settlement expansion. (A little more than ten years later, Bush 43 made the exact same threat.)

But maybe no episode represents the apex of Israeli diplomatic isolation like U.N. Resolution 3379, which declared Zionism -- the notion that Israel should exist -- as racism. The resolution passed at the General Assembly by a ratio of two-to-one.

Today, relations with Egypt, Jordan and Turkey may be rocky, but it's important to remember that there was a long period when the Arab states were sworn enemies of Israel.

And while it may be convenient to pretend as if Turkey's recent diplomatic response represents a sea change in Turkish-Israeli relations, in 1980 Turkey issued a similar -- actually a verbatim -- response to Israel, downgrading relations to "second-secretary" status (the same status Turkey downgraded to recently) on account of Israeli policy. (i.e. In that case it didn't even require Israeli action to warrant a downgrade.)

With all this in mind, Friedman's narrative metaphor about Israeli drifting alone in a diplomatic sea sounds far-fetched. And upon reflection, the notion that because of Israel's isolation, the United States -- the wealthiest and most diplomatically influential country in the world -- is clinging with Israel to a loose political plank in the global sea seems, in spite of the potent political imagery it offers, a little bit of fancy.

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