I will try to derive from the conceptual changes happening in the world the relevant implications for Israel’s foreign policy and I will describe how Israeli diplomacy is dealing with the new reality.

Address by Ron Prosor, Director General, Ministry of Foreign Affairs
to the Herzliya Conference – January 22, 2006
"Israeli Diplomacy in a Changing World: From a Defensive to a Proactive Stance"

[translated from Hebrew]

My esteemed colleagues,
Esteemed Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am pleased for the opportunity afforded me to speak at this important and impressive conference, which, every year, forges fruitful cooperation between the world of academic ideas and the hands-on world of statesmanship. Congratulations to Professor Reichman, to Dr. Uzi Arad and to the whole team at the Interdisciplinary Center for this contribution to the process of shaping Israeli policy.

In this talk, I will try to derive from the conceptual changes happening in the world the relevant implications for Israel’s foreign policy and I will describe how Israeli diplomacy is dealing with the new reality.

We are in the midst of an era of dramatic change and changing paradigms in the international arena in general, and in our strategic environment in particular, the likes of which we have not seen since the establishment of the State of Israel.

The globalization of threats:

While the 1980s and 1990s were characterized by an era of globalization, pronouncing the end of history, with emphasis placed on economics in the global village, since the September 11 attacks, the world has come to understand that globalization also incorporates new threats, asymmetric in nature, not defined, as in the past, as a conflict between nations. The need to defend against terror has gone from a negligible threat to world security to one of the issues at the top of the agenda of the international community as a whole.

The United States, the sole superpower since the end of the Cold War, revised its thinking already then, and radically changed its strategy for national security from deterrence and containment to prevention and taking the initiative.

From stabilizing to shaping:

The main banners of the new strategy – the war on terror on the one hand, and promoting the democratization of the Arab world on the other – are meant to provide an answer both to the phenomenon of fundamentalist terror and to its psychological and social root causes. We are therefore now presented with another pragmatic change in American policy. A change from a realistic approach striving for stability and a balance of interests to an idealistic approach: instead of striving to stabilize the reality as in the past, the American superpower is striving to shape reality according to the principles of democracy, reforms, and accountability.

A system of checks and balances:

These changes have major implications for all the players in international arena. Europe and Western countries, particularly those that have experienced terror in their midst need, by force of circumstance, to work together with United States to provide a response to the new challenges to security. In our region, countries which for years managed to evade the west’s scrutiny, are now required to come up with better answers, both to the international community and to their own citizens.

The results are already evident on the ground. The political changes since 2001 in Afghanistan, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority, and even Egypt, are all an expression of a new struggle for the soul of political Islam. Alongside the conservative and extremist views that had set the political agenda in these countries, you now hear voices starting to call for reforms and modernization.

The benefits and drawbacks for us:

The implications of these changes for Israeli diplomacy are acute. The new international emphasis places us in a respectable club of democratic countries combating terror. The significance for us is clear – a switch from a defensive stance to taking of the initiative. For the first time, measured actions on our part utilize  ‘international legitimacy’ to drive and further our interests.

That said, along with our support for the American effort, and along with our cognizance of the fact that Israel should look forward to a time that we are not the only democracy in the Middle East, it is vital that we be aware of the dangers facing us in the short-term. Situated "in the eye of the storm", we are exposed to the risks inherent in the instability anticipated in the countries around us.

It is important that we remain on our guard, and not allow procedural democracy to serve as a fig leaf for organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah which are ideologically opposed to a true democracy. These organizations will destroy democratic values if they win positions of influence through participating in the "democratic process".

Diversifying the diplomatic toolbox:

Changes in the international arena are not only happening in the directions led by the United States. It is important to take note of additional global trends, which sometimes conflict with the current American strategy:

  • One trend is characterized by a shift in the diplomatic center of power to multilateral activity. Nations voluntarily relinquish some of their sovereign autonomy in order to coordinate policy with other nations.
  • Another trend is the tendency to prefer the use of soft power, or legitimacy and incentives, over the traditional use of hard power, made up of military components that tend to stress the stick over the carrot.

The European Union is an obvious reflection of both these processes. It is of no importance whether we accept the claims made by Bob Kagan, author of the book Power and Paradise, that Europe’s preference for not using power is due to its lack of power, because in practice, this is the reality that we have to deal with.

The growing impact of the international arena on our national security:

These changes in the international arena forced us to revise our modus operandi, because this arena now impacts on our national security more than in any other time in our history.

The following are several examples:

The handling of the Iranian threat, which I will discuss later, is being led by the EU 3, and by the Board of Governors at the International Atomic Energy Agency, and we hope in the near future, also by the Security Council.

Syria has removed its forces from Lebanon, entirely due to united action on the part of the international community, reflected in Security Council Resolution 1559.

In the Palestinian arena too, there is a lot of diplomatic activity, including the donor community, the Egyptian mediation efforts, the European observers, and of course, the Quartet.

The implications for Israeli diplomacy:

The new emerging realities impose a dual task on the Foreign Ministry: on the one hand, to continue promoting and defending Israel’s interests in the international arena. And on the other, simultaneously moving to ensure that our security and diplomatic preparedness is adapted to the needs and constraints of the modern era, and finding the right balance between soft and hard power. I want to focus my talk on this dual task.

From a defensive to a proactive stance:

A proper reading of our national interest obliges us to take the initiative and to be involved in what is happening in the international community; and to switch from a zero-sum game approach to a win-win approach. This requires that we find ways to link the international agenda to Israel, and to link Israel to the international agenda. To the outside world, we must take steps to put together coalitions that promote our national interests efficiently and effectively. Within the country, we must influence the decision making processes towards a country that behaves responsibly, as an active member of the family of nations.

An analysis of the changes I mentioned led us to change our modus operandi from a defensive posture to one of proactive diplomacy.

In this talk, I want to discuss four areas we have focused on recently to cope with the challenges before us:

  1. Proactive diplomacy to thwart security threats by political means.
  2. Creation of an infrastructure for ties with Arab and Muslim countries.
  3. Harnessing the changing trend in the multilateral arena to our advantage.
  4. Promoting Israel’s soft power.

1.   Thwarting security threats by political means

The first issue on our diplomatic agenda are the ongoing and intensive efforts to prevent and to thwart various threats against Israel’s security. First and foremost among those threats is the Iranian nuclear program. Our determined diplomatic activity has engendered a growing awareness amongst the key international players about the scale of the imminent danger posed by a nuclear Iran.

Today, it is clear that the danger is not only to Israel but also to the common interests and values of the international community as a whole. It should be borne in mind that just two years ago Europe still held the belief that it’s ‘critical dialogue’ was sufficient to deal with the challenge posed by Iran’s nuclear armaments program.

Our efforts to thwart their intentions are, at least at this stage, of a diplomatic and not of a military nature. Our diplomacy seeks to have the international community unite and use all the resources at its disposal. We are currently concentrating on 35 member states of the Board of Governors at the International Atomic Energy Agency, to persuade them to transfer the issue to the Security Council. The aim is to have sanctions imposed by a resolution of the Security Council, in order to avert the nightmare scenario of a nuclear-armed Iran. In addition, our proactive diplomacy is a key link in the chain in the fight against local and global terror.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been conducting a special diplomatic offensive to have Hamas and Hizbullah put on the lists of the international terrorist organizations. These lists are an effective tool for restraining the actions of the terror organizations and limiting their ability to raise funds and recruits activists. It enables us to attack their public legitimacy, and to intensify the political and economic pressure on those countries, such as Syria and Iran, that continue to provide support and refuge to the terror organizations.

The special and ongoing diplomatic campaign, in collaboration with our intelligence community, has met with no small success. The Hamas was added to the European list, in addition to being on the lists of the United States, Canada, Australia and Japan.  As regards Hezbollah, diplomatic activity has made it anxious and lower its profile. However, the success is only partial, because at least in Europe, the organization continues to enjoy legitimacy, despite its terrorist activities against Israel, its efforts to frustrate the peace process, and the danger that it poses to democracy in Lebanon.

We are working tirelessly to have Europe add Hizbullah to its terror lists.  At the same time, we are working with key states in the Security Council for the full implementation of Resolution 1559, that is to say, Hizbullah’s disarmament.

In my opening words, I described the advantages and risks inherent in the two banners raised by the American government: the war on terror and promoting democratization.

In this context, it is important to understand that the participation of terrorist elements in democratic elections constitutes a Trojan horse that will destroy democracy from within. If the Palestinians enable the Hamas to determine their fate in the elections this coming Thursday, the prospects for peace between our two nations will continue to diminish.

The case of Hamas emphasizes the urgent need that the international community define criteria and thresholds that will constitute prerequisites for participation in the democratic process. Obviously, the use of terror must remain beyond those criteria. With regard to Hamas and to other Palestinian terror organizations, it is clear that recognition of Israel and its right to exist are also threshold conditions. We are working together with nations that have the same outlook in this regard, to formulate such criteria. No less than the future shape of the region we live in lies in the balance.

2. Creating an infrastructure for ties with Arab and Islamic countries

An important element in the war on terror is strengthening of the moderate forces in our region. In this context, our diplomacy is actively engaged in an attempt to put life into the normalization process between Israel and its neighbors, and we have many achievements in this area, some of which, I regret, cannot be made public at this time.

I would only say this, that the meeting between former foreign minister Shalom and his Pakistani counterparts, and the visit by an Israeli delegation headed by the Foreign Minister to Tunis, are the tip of the iceberg of secret activity currently underway in the Gulf, North Africa, and Muslim countries in Asia. We prefer quiet diplomacy on the ground at this time, with emphasis on economic cooperation, over ceremonies and meetings in the media limelight.

Alongside these successes, it is important for me to say that in the run-up to the implementation of the disengagement, and immediately afterwards, we worked intensively to have moderate Arab countries demonstrate their support for the process. Our aim was to restore their diplomatic representation in Israel and to strengthen Abu Mazen by obtaining economic support for the Palestinian Authority.  Regretfully, most of these countries, with the exception of Egypt and Jordan, preferred not to put their shoulder to the wheel and not to gear up for the task.

In any event, we believe that improving the dialogue and cooperation between Israel and its neighbors will help to expand the constituency for peace, both among the Palestinians and in the Arab and Muslim world as a whole. Widening the peace base and rapprochement down from the level of the leadership to broader audiences is a critical and prime mission for Israeli diplomacy.

3.   Exploiting the changing trend in the multilateral arena:

Another area that Israeli diplomacy has focused on in the wake of the changes I have described, is our effort to redefine and reorganize our relations in the multilateral arena, so that they reflect our national interests and not our fears.

As I said in my opening words, the political relevance of regional blocs is on the rise, and as a result, foreign policy is determined ever increasingly in the councils of international and regional groupings. NGOs are also becoming significant players in this area. From Israel’s standpoint, this means that we cannot only rely on the quality and closeness of bilateral ties between us and various countries around the world. We need to build broader coalitions than ever before in order to gain room for maneuver and the support needed to implement our policy.

In this context, efforts to normalize our relations with the United Nations are at the top of our agenda. As everyone present in this hall is aware, Israel has suffered from and continues to suffer from ongoing discrimination and a hostility in the corridors of the UN. But the days have passed when Israel agreed to sit on the sidelines and accept a policy of institutional discrimination by UN bodies. Today we fight against this.

We place on the agenda of the United Nations, and on the agenda of member states the moral imperative to put an end to the ostracizing of Israel in UN bodies, and the need, once and for all, to put an end to the diplomatic incitement campaigns against Israel, a characteristic feature of the UN landscape in decades past. This imperative must be translated into concrete, practical action and procedures at the UN, such as the inclusion of Israel in Western regional groups, and the deletion of 20 anachronistic resolutions proposed against us every year.

Our modus operandi has undergone a significant change.  We have moved from a defensive stance to taking the initiative, and we have started promoting resolutions of our own. Such diplomatic activism is bearing fruit. The most important expression of the impact of our efforts was the first UN resolution, at Israel’s initiative, to officially commemorate Holocaust Day on January 27th, every year.

We have also recently witnessed several precedents on issues that have been stalemated for many years now, such as the status of Magen David Adom and changes in the anti Israel conduct of some UN agencies. We have succeeded in neutralizing the "automatic majority" against us in the UN by building a common agenda with key influential entities. 

But we are not resting on our laurels. In the former foreign minister’s meeting with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan several months ago, we announced Israel’s intention to submit its candidacy for membership of the Security Council, something Israel has been barred from ever since it joined the United Nations 57 years ago.

We also working outside the United Nations to improve our relations with a whole host of international players, from NATO, whose Secretary-General visited Israel a year ago, to the South American trade organization (Mercosur), to the OECD, the organization representing the developed countries, where we are conducting a "political campaign" for membership.

In this interwoven environment of international dialog, it is critical to recognize the latest sources for gaining international standing and legitimacy, and the influence deriving therefrom. While in the past international standing was acquired through military might and material resources, in the 21st century, countries acquire legitimacy through awareness and contribution to global challenges, and the way in which they deal with human rights. It is also an era in which international law (though sometimes an anachronistic) constitutes a significant point of departure in defining policy. Today, Israel’s positive image on the international stage and its record on humanitarian issues are of no less importance than its military might.
We must therefore deal with this prevailing mindset in two respects:

On the one hand, we must ensure that the rights and interests critical to us as a state are not swept away in a giant tsunami of political correctness. This, considering that Israel, as a small democracy under fire, finds itself a pioneer on the frontline of the confrontation for the soul of the international system against the new strategic threats.

Without receiving sufficient recognition for this, Israel constitutes a testbed for the west. Israel is effectively writing, on a day-to-day basis, the manual for maintaining the fine balance between its commitment to protecting its citizens against suicide bombers operating amidst a civilian population, and upholding democratic principles.

We plan to have the insights gathered introduced as amendments into international law. This, due to the fact that we must put into sharp focus for the western world, parts of which are still suffering from "jet lag", the gravity of the terrorist threat and the need to deal with it, while simultaneously defending basic rights.

On the other hand, we must drop the "People of Israel shall dwell alone" mindset and start thinking about how to act like a normal country and as a responsible member of the international community.

4.  Promoting Israel’s soft power:

These issues bring me to the fourth focus of the Foreign Ministry’s activity as part of having to deal with the changing international system: promoting Israel’s soft power.

We are moving to depict the true Israel: Israel beyond the conflict; Israel that has a lot to offer the international community. An Israel that wins international recognition for its excellence in higher education, for its contribution to advancing science and medical research, and for its diverse and creative culture, is a safer and more protected Israel.

The Foreign Ministry recognizes these truths and is taking steps to implement the lessons from them through our system of public diplomacy, and through a wide range of activities in many areas including science, culture, etc. Our public diplomacy has changed direction, and we are emphasizing these aspects of Israel at the expense of anachronistic propaganda campaigns that drove investments, trade, and tourism away.

We are currently in the throes of a campaign, in partnership with leading advertising agencies in Israel and abroad, to rebrand the State of Israel. In this context, the activities of the Mashav Center for International Cooperation at the Foreign Ministry is a winning formula for soft power. It combines political and economic expediency with the expression of ethical facets of Israeli foreign policy.

It expresses our contribution to Tikun Olam [the Jewish concept of repairing the world], thereby providing the path to realizing our Jewish values and those of Jewish communities abroad. At the same time, it opens the doors to exports of Israeli products in the areas of agriculture, medicine, communications, etc.

That and more: the positive impact on policymakers in developing countries who experience our aid in the area of medicine, agriculture, etc. cannot be attained in any other way. Former graduates of the Center for International Cooperation who have reached key positions in their own countries, including presidents and ministers, are friends for life, and we reap the political and economic dividends from this.

Vis-à-vis developing countries, the activity of the Department for International cooperation places us in the esteemed community of donor nations.

That said, we cannot do it alone. The entire Israeli establishment must be mobilized, and made to understand that a normal standing in the club of the enlightened nations carries with it not only rights but also obligations. As a responsible and enlightened nation, we need to comply with international standards on a whole host of issues. Israel must allocate a defined percentage of its GNP to the developing world, the accepted practice among the developed nations and a prerequisite for membership of the OECD. In addition, we must comply with the generally accepted constraints of an enlightened nation on issues such as human trafficking, intellectual property, money laundering, and last but not least, supervision of defense exports. 


In the newly emerging strategic environment, and in the face of global threats and opportunities, it is clearly in Israel’s interest to develop broader means for cooperation with the international community. We must develop an integrated, more daring and comprehensive view of our national security, which determines how our resources are prioritized. This view must be based on taking the initiative in order to successfully deal with the challenges in the multilateral and changing world we live in today.

The Foreign Ministry has a decisive role in this process. The expertise gained from our relations with the international community and our ability to identify the changes emerging in this arena puts the Foreign Ministry in a unique position to take the Israeli establishment forward and adapt it to the new realities. This is the mission and challenge we face as diplomats, civil servants and partners in the shaping of national policy.