Photo Credit: GPO
Netanyahu and Modi

{Originally posted to the Council for Foreign Relations website}

In December 2017, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution rejecting and criticizing the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The vote was 128 in favor and 9 against (including Israel and the United States), with 35 abstaining and 21 absent. That result was variously interpreted as a sort of victory for the United States and Israel, in that fifty-five countries did not support the resolution, or a great defeat, reminiscent of the 1975 General Assembly resolution equating Zionism with racism. (That resolution was repealed in 1991.)


But Israel’s international standing at the start of 2018 is markedly different than it was in 1975. The 1975 vote reflected Israel’s isolation in the world, while the 2017 vote reflects Israel’s recent successes in diminishing that isolation. The pattern that could be developing is one in which Israel will lose votes in the General Assembly and other UN bodies (though sometimes by diminishing margins) while developing bilateral relationships with more and more countries, even Muslim-majority ones.

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Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

United Nations

Diplomacy and International Institutions

While Israel does maintain diplomatic relations with most countries, thirty-two UN members refuse diplomatic relations with the Jewish state; most are Muslim-majority countries. Israel has long been treated with unique severity in the UN system, where there has long been a nearly automatic majority for any resolution criticizing Israel or supporting the Palestinian cause, whether over Israeli settlement activity, claims of human rights abuses, Israeli responses to terrorist attacks, or other allegations. Its geographic location should place it within the Asia-Pacific Group in the United Nations along with its neighbors, but Arab states have prevented this, and, as a result, Israel has had to join the West European and Others Group instead.

According to Geneva-based watchdog group UN Watch, in the decade after its creation in June 2006, the UN Human Rights Council adopted 135 resolutions criticizing individual countries; 68 of them, or just over half, have been against Israel. The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has over the last decade adopted about ten resolutions a year against Israel. Over that period, it adopted only one resolution criticizing any other country: Syria, in 2013. That focus largely explains why the United States and Israel announced their departure from UNESCO in 2017. The UN General Assembly itself has over the last decade adopted roughly twenty-five resolutions a year criticizing individual countries; more than 75 percent of them have targeted Israel.

The Meaning of UN Votes

How can Israel’s recent diplomatic progress be measured? First, the December 2017 General Assembly vote was followed by no concrete steps (some previous resolutions established special UN procedures targeting Israel or demanded that states take various actions against Israel). UN votes are significant indicators of symbolic support for the Palestinian cause or the two-state solution, but no country has changed its economic or diplomatic relationship with Israel in the wake of the latest UN vote, with the exception of Guatemala, which announced that it would follow the United States in moving its embassy to Jerusalem.

Second, there have been notable examples of Israel’s wider diplomatic outreach in the past two years. At the 2016 General Assembly session, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with fifteen African heads of state and ambassadors. In November 2016, he became the first Israeli prime minister in three decades to travel to East Africa, where he met with the heads of Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, and Ethiopia. Visiting Kenya again in November 2017, Netanyahu was received by President Uhuru Kenyatta at his residence on inauguration day; he was the only Western leader who took part in the festivities and was seated next to Kenyatta during the celebratory meal. He was also the only foreign leader asked to speak at the lunch. Similarly, in September 2017 Netanyahu set another diplomatic precedent, venturing to Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico in the first-ever trip by an Israeli prime minister to South America.

Burgeoning Trade With Asia

Israel’s “pivot to Asia” is even more striking. While its diplomatic relations with Asia’s major powers are not new, trade between them is growing fast. One part of this is the arms trade: only Russia tops the Jewish state as China’s largest arms supplier. But the Israel-China relationship is broader: their trade has steadily grown since diplomatic ties between the two countries were established in 1992. China (including Hong Kong) is now second only to the United States as a source of imports to Israel and as a destination for Israeli exports, and the Chinese state-owned Bright Food Group purchased a 56 percent controlling stake in the Israeli dairy conglomerate Tnuva, which controls more than 70 percent of Israel’s dairy market.  “Hardly a day goes by without another Israel-China initiative being announced, whether it’s a new Israeli tech incubator in China, new investments, joint ventures, trade conferences or delegations,” the network reported in July 2017.

The story is similar with India. In June 2017, Israel’s Economy Ministry stated that trade between the two countries had increased by 2,000 percent over the last twenty-five years rising from $200 million to about $4 billion. When, in June 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi became the first Indian head of government to visit Israel, the Jerusalem Post reported that Israel’s exports to India have risen about 60 percent in the past decade. Among those traveling with Modi were top executives of major Indian companies. Netanyahu paid a return visit in January 2018, bringing a 130-member commercial delegation with him.

Arab and Muslim Openings

Israel’s relations with Arab- and Muslim-majority states are improving as well. On the sidelines of the 2017 General Assembly session, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi held his first meeting with Netanyahu. As one senior analyst at the International Crisis Group stated, “Egyptian-Israeli relations are today at their highest level in history.” While formal, and often cold, diplomatic relations began in 1979, today the two countries closely cooperate on security issues relating to Gaza and, especially, Sinai, where they work together against the threat from extremist groups.

No doubt some of this change is due to concerns about Iran that Israel and many Sunni-majority nations, especially in the Gulf, share. In 2015, Israel opened a diplomatic mission in Abu Dhabi (it is accredited to UN offices there, not to the United Arab Emirates), and an analysis by Rice University’s Baker Institute concluded that “the rapprochement that significant sections of the Israeli military and security establishment have long wanted with the Gulf Cooperation Council has taken root since 2011, as the post–Arab Spring landscape has provided the opportunity to deepen unofficial ties in areas of shared concern.” “It’s almost a revolution in the Middle East,” Israeli cabinet minister and Likud party leader Yuval Steinitz said in 2017. On top of all this, Netanyahu visited Muslim-majority Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan in 2016, firsts for an Israeli prime minister.

Despite the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement launched in 2005, Israel’s exports appear to have been largely unaffected. The movement has a loud voice in Europe and on American university campuses, but Israel’s exports to the European Union continue to rise steadily; total trade between the European Union and Israel expanded from 23.8 billion euros in 2006 to 34.3 billion euros in 2016. Israel’s economy remains an extraordinary success story: according to the World Bank, gross national income per capita has risen from about $12,000 in 1990 to $36,000 in 2017, while its gross domestic product rose from $59 billion to $318 billion. Exports rose in those years from $20 billion to $90 billion.

Third, Israel’s diplomatic fortunes are now mixed rather than hopeless, even at the United Nations. The recent General Assembly vote on Jerusalem, Israel’s withdrawal from UNESCO, and the continuing resolutions against Israel at the Human Rights Council demonstrate that the United Nations remains hostile territory for the Jewish state. But there are countertrends. Mexico has announced an end to its automatic support for anti-Israel resolutions, and India broke ranks with Arab states for the first time in 2017, withholding support for various resolutions condemning Israel. There were some other encouraging signs: In 2006, 60 percent of the country-specific resolutions adopted by the Human Rights Council targeted Israel. That declined to 40 percent after the United States joined the council in 2009 and fell to less than 20 percent in 2016.

Is there an overall pattern? At the bilateral diplomatic and economic level, Israel is gaining ground, even with Muslim-majority countries. The UN system is a lagging indicator; Israel will continue to lose votes and be the target of extraordinary attention and condemnation there, even from states whose voting patterns do not reflect their own bilateral relationships with the Jewish state. Perhaps it is the symbolic nature of votes in the United Nations not followed by concrete steps that leads states to continue old voting patterns there. Perhaps it is the fact that all votes are public, while bilateral relations can be hidden. But the general trend is clear: Israel is forging new diplomatic and economic ties with many countries, improving old ties with others, and expanding its trade and financial partnerships.


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Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). He served as deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security advisor under Pres. George W. Bush.