UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan and Yair Lapid, then Israeli foreign minister, Sde Boker, Israel, March 2022
UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan and Yair Lapid, then Israeli foreign minister, in Sde Boker, Israel, March 2022
Asi Efrati

For the past year and a half, I have had the privilege of leading the State of Israel’s foreign policy, first as minister of foreign affairs, and then as prime minister. Throughout this period, we have operated with the understanding that foreign relations in the era of globalization cannot be conducted as they were in the past. The global economy has changed, the range of security threats has widened, and social media is transforming ties between regimes and their citizens. It no longer makes any sense for the field of foreign relations to continue operating according to diplomatic conventions forged in the nineteenth century. The right way to look at another country in this new era is not as a unified whole, but rather as a complex network of interests and values. Governments can cooperate in some areas even when they disagree, compete, or clash in others. In this way, if we work correctly, we can build new kinds of ties and alliances, ones that we haven’t seen before. I call this path Connectivity Statecraft, or CS.

I was able to put this approach into practice. At the end of June 2021, an El Al plane landed at the airport in Abu Dhabi. Smiling sheikhs in their dazzling white djellabas stood on a red carpet awaiting my arrival. It was over 40 degrees Celsius, and the Israeli flags drooped on flagpoles as if they had passed out in the heavy heat. I had arrived for the first official visit by an Israeli minister to the United Arab Emirates in order to open our first embassy in the Gulf. Politicians and diplomats have a tendency to overuse the word “historic,” but this time we knew that this was a visit that would be engraved not only in our memories but also in the histories that would one day be written about us.

That evening, after a long series of meetings and ceremonies, I went to dinner with Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the foreign minister of the UAE. I like him: he has a wonderful sense of humor, and he is one of the savviest and most experienced leaders I have ever met. Somewhere between the sixth and seventh course (I lost count at a certain point), something jogged my memory.

“Tell me,” I asked him, “aren’t England playing Germany today in the quarter-finals of the European soccer championship?” In response, he hit the table, causing the delicate plate of sashimi in front of him to bounce in the process.

“Damn it,” he replied. “We should have stayed at my house to watch the match.”

As frequently happens when soccer is involved, I struck a poetic tone. “You don’t understand what it means to the Jewish people when England plays Germany,” I told him. “It immediately reminds me of my father, who sat in the ghetto during the Holocaust and secretly listened to Churchill’s speeches on the BBC.” A spark lit in his eyes. “That’s very moving,” he said, “but my brother owns Manchester City. We may have fewer memories associated with the game, but we have a lot more assets on the pitch.”

The sheikh raised his hand, and a bald bodyguard with the squashed nose of a boxer hurried over. “Do you have a phone on you?” Zayed asked. The bodyguard nodded in bemusement. From that moment on, we spent most of the meal with the bodyguard standing over us while we watched the match on his battered cellphone. As with us, unexpected history was also made on the pitch: England won 2–0.

In the year and a half that has passed since, Israel and the UAE have forged one of the closest alliances in the Middle East. It is an economic, political, and even military alliance. But what is the basis for this friendship?

Countries are not monoliths; they are complex networks of interests and values.

Israel and the UAE are very different countries. Israel is a vibrant and at times unruly democracy; the UAE is a federal monarchy. Israel is a “startup nation,” home to many entrepreneurs and innovative companies; the UAE’s economy thrives off oil and trade. Most Israelis are Jews; most people who live in the UAE are not even Emirati, as around 88 percent of the country’s residents are expatriates. By the old standards of foreign relations, our two countries don’t share a single criterion that would make them “like-minded countries,” or LM, in diplomatic parlance.

No standard definition of LM exists, but until recently, such a detailed explanation wasn’t needed. In the two events that most pivotally shaped the twentieth century, World War II and the Cold War, the world organized itself along relatively clear lines: on one side stood the nationalist dictatorships, and on the other stood liberal democracies. (The only exception was the Soviet Union, which stood with the Allies in World War II and against them in the Cold War.) The differences between the two sides could be determined by looking at the countries’ attitudes toward free elections, a free press, independent courts, minority and individual rights, and in many cases the strength of the resentment and suspicion directed at the other side. Friendly relations developed between the countries that felt they had similar worldviews, and groupings such as the European Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the African Union, and the Arab League were formed. What began as an attempt to identify and address shared challenges developed very practically into economic, cultural, and security cooperation on a huge scale. Even without a precise definition or a formal overarching organization yoking them together, Canada and the Netherlands were clearly LM countries, just as Turkey and Azerbaijan were LM countries, and Spain and Portugal were LM countries.

The Canadians and the Dutch didn’t need to sign a treaty to indicate that they were part of the same group. All the components were already there: pluralistic societies, some form of moderate capitalism, and governments that changed every few years without the transfer of power leading to too much disruption. The two countries have many common interests, but more than that, they enjoy a comfortable friendship based on shared values. When Canadian officials vote at the United Nations on a resolution condemning Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian regions, they don’t ask themselves how the Dutch will vote. They already know.

BEYOND FRIENDS AND FOES

And yet what worked in the twentieth century doesn’t work in the twenty-first. The world has changed. The first two decades of the new millennium were profoundly affected by four phenomena: economic globalization, the globalization of information (through the Internet and social media), the spread of international terrorism, and the climate crisis. All these trends are global, whereas the world’s political structure is still riven by nation-states. As recently clarified in the Biden administration’s National Security Strategy, the traditional division between foreign and domestic issues no longer holds. In many ways, the old methods of managing foreign relations have been left behind.

Fifty years ago, the world was divided into huge blocs. Thirty years ago, those divisions shrank to countries that were “like us” or “not like us.” Over the past 20 years, nation-states have had to deal with ever-increasing complexities. The challenge liberal democracies face is no longer a matter of getting more countries to move over “to our side” but rather to operate intelligently, given the intricacies in every country. A smart foreign policy does not treat other countries as monoliths. Instead, it must be able to examine each country in terms of what matters in a given political moment and in terms of the issues most important to one’s own country’s foreign policy.

In this model, alliances are organized according to subject, not regime type. The same country can be a partner in certain fields but compete or clash in others. In a polarized world in which the rivalry between China and the United States is intensifying, countries need to develop as many types of collaborative mechanisms as possible with as many different partners as possible. They cannot limit themselves only to the dichotomy of “partners’’ and “enemies.” Israel has incredibly close allies, such as the United States, and sworn enemies, such as Iran, but there is a range of countries in between with which relations are based on dialogue, cooperation, and ad hoc agreements.

Israel and the UAE may not be LM countries when it comes to our methods of governance or our stances on the Palestinian issue, but we are undoubtedly CS partners thanks to our shared economic worldviews, our mutual concerns about Iran, and our ability to pool resources to advance global goals. Just recently, for example, Israel and the UAE launched a huge joint solar energy project with Jordan that will undoubtedly make a tremendous contribution to protecting the environment. In all these areas, our two countries operate as CS countries, bolstering ties in the long term while buttressing our economic and security cooperation in a region that is prone to disruption and turmoil. Even in the areas where we are far from agreement, our deepening ties allow us to conduct a much closer and more open dialogue. When the Emiratis decided to reopen their embassy in Tehran, we were wary, but we had an honest and frank conversation with our UAE counterparts and got good answers on many of the issues that troubled us. This is another advantage of CS: it establishes better diplomatic dialogue.

THE TIES THAT BIND

In the coming years, even the greatest of rivals will have to find ways to build relations in some areas. The United States and China, for example, are not just two superpowers on an economic, security, and diplomatic collision course but also the two countries that emit the most carbon into the atmosphere. If the U.S. government wants to address the climate crisis with the appropriate seriousness, it will need to find a way to build a joint climate policy with China. In other words, the Americans and the Chinese can continue to clash over Taiwan and over the use of high technologies, but they will still have to deal with the climate crisis together and even formulate a unified U.S.-China climate policy with respect to other countries.

Israel was able to disaggregate sources of tension and sources of agreement in the way we rebuilt our relations with Turkey. In 2021, we started receiving signals from the Turkish government that they wanted to renew diplomatic relations. Relations had been severed in May 2018, when the Israeli ambassador in Ankara was expelled after Israeli military activity in Gaza. In response to the renewed outreach, I sent a careful message to the Turks saying that we would examine the issue and get back to them. Turkey is an important regional power, but I wanted it to be clear that they could not sever and restore relations with us whenever they felt like it. A few days after I conveyed this message to the Turks, I tested positive for COVID-19. I was sitting at home, coughing quite a bit, when I was told that Mevlut Cavusoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, wanted to speak with me about a nondiplomatic matter. When he got on the line, Cavusoglu said he had heard I was sick and wanted to wish me well—and that, once I recovered, we should meet so he could personally verify that my health had improved. Amid my coughing, I managed to tell him that I got the message.

When he arrived in Israel, we sat down for a private conversation in my office in Jerusalem. As happens in such conversations, he took the cards with talking points that his assistants had prepared for him out of his pocket. He looked at them for a minute, and then he did something that no one had done before or has done since: he gave me his cards. “Look,” he said, “and tell me which things on here you want to talk about.” Cavusoglu is not only one of the nicest people I have ever met; he is also an experienced diplomatic fox. He essentially told me: I understand that the only way to earn your trust is to trust you. I told him that we would be happy to restore diplomatic ties, but first we wanted to renew the aviation agreements between our two countries and reestablish the Israeli-Turkish economic commission.

Lapid and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Jerusalem, May 2022
Lapid and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Jerusalem, May 2022
Asi Efrati

The Turks thought I was insisting on these preliminary steps to test their seriousness, but my goal was in fact the opposite: I proposed these measures to ensure that our relations were rooted not only in the decisions of statesmen but also in the clear interests of our states. The goal was to create within Israel and Turkey a dense network of ties that would strengthen our diplomatic relationship from the bottom up. The Turks understood, and the agreements were signed with record speed. In June 2022, I visited Ankara and met with the head of Turkish intelligence with the added goal of strengthening security ties between our countries (a visit that had an unexpected bonus—when I got back to the plane, a gift from Cavusoglu was waiting for me: warm pita bread with the most delicious doner kebab I’ve ever eaten). In September, I had a cordial meeting in New York with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and we agreed to exchange ambassadors. The way we shaped the renewal of our ties will also better protect the bilateral relationship from turbulence in the future. Not long after my visit to Ankara, Israel launched an operation in Gaza against the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad. It was a wider military operation than the one that had led to the severing of relations in 2018, but Turkey responded this time with moderate, measured criticism, as one would expect from a friendly Muslim country.

Azerbaijan, a country with a large Shiite majority, responded similarly. It is a country with which we conducted a similar CS process, based on our shared concern about the spread of Iranian influence and our ties in the fields of energy and agriculture. In November 2022, after a gradual expansion of security and economic cooperation with us, the parliament of Azerbaijan voted overwhelmingly in favor of opening an embassy in Israel.

The old way of “doing business” was to define the nature of relations between countries—friendly, hostile, or something in between—and only then let government bodies and the private sector develop relations. The CS approach reverses this order. It treats the nature of relations with another country not as the product or goal of diplomacy, but as the infrastructure on which diplomatic engagement is built. When you tell the other side in advance what interests and values are important to you, it creates a sense of security. A country whose behavior you can anticipate is one you can trust.

THE POWER OF GOING SMALL

The CS approach is most effective when it operates through the framework of small groups of states—what is referred to in diplomatic parlance as “geometric ties”—and eschews cumbersome, highly conflicted organizations, such as the UN and the World Trade Organization.

In October 2021, I had dinner at the luxurious home of the Emirati ambassador to Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba. Antony Blinken, the U.S. secretary of state, and Zayed of the UAE sat with us. The conversation turned to issues of food security and water technology. What occupied us were not the technical solutions but rather a diplomatic question: In whose hands are we willing to entrust the control of the food and water supply of entire populations? Who do we believe will not carry out actions like those seen more recently, such as the cut in Saudi oil production in October 2022 that led to a spike in prices, or the disruption of supplies of wheat and gas resulting from Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine?

Alon Ushpiz, the director general of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, had once served as Israel’s ambassador to New Delhi and was present at the meeting. He suggested that we talk with the Indians. Just five days later—astonishingly fast when it comes to international diplomacy—a first meeting was held, and the I2U2 Forum was born, bringing together India, Israel, the UAE, and the United States on matters relating to food, water infrastructure, and other pressing issues. A few months later, in July 2022, we convened an I2U2 meeting in Jerusalem with Joe Biden, the U.S. president; Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister; Mohammed bin Zayed, the UAE president; and me, as prime minister. There, we received an initial report on a new food corridor the I2U2 had established between India and the UAE that would help increase food production in India, an important strategic partner of Israel, and increase food security for the Middle East. There is no doubt in my mind that this corridor will survive even tense political periods between our countries. Working in small multilateral groups is a form of insurance. The number of conflicting interests is limited, and therefore so are the number of things that can go wrong. 

Foreign ministers at the Negev Summit in Sde Boker, Israel, March 2022
Foreign ministers at the Negev Summit in Sde Boker, Israel, March 2022
Asi Efrati

We acted similarly in establishing the Negev Forum, in which Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Morocco, the UAE, and the United States are partners. Instead of fighting for the thousandth time over the Palestinian issue, we established working groups that deal with energy, regional security, tourism, health, the fight against terrorism, and more. The Abraham Accords, which preceded the establishment of the forum, were signed between the countries; the forum’s working groups operate within each country. We saw the strength of this positive connection from the first night. We sat down in March 2022—the six foreign ministers, without our teams—for dinner in a remote hotel in the Israeli Negev desert, not far from the grave of Israel’s founder, David Ben-Gurion. I instructed my staff not to disturb us under any circumstances. But soon, the door suddenly opened and my communications director entered. “There was a terrorist attack near Tel Aviv,” she whispered to me. “Two Israelis were murdered.”

The foreign ministers must have understood from my expression that something had happened because the lively conversation died down at once. I told them what had happened. “If we don’t condemn this attack all together,” I told them, “the summit is over, and terrorism will have defeated us.” They were silent for a long moment. I told myself that if even one of them asked to call home for instructions, it was all over. Then, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry raised his head. “Of course we will condemn this attack,” he said. “We are always against terrorism.” Ten minutes later, a joint statement condemning the attack was issued, signed by the Negev Forum ministers. From that moment on, the summit soared to new heights of collaboration.

One of the advantages of CS is the ability to forge ties even with hostile countries. There is constant tension between Israel and Lebanon. Our two countries are in a declared state of war. Lebanon was once the pearl of the Middle East, and only Tel Aviv’s nightlife could rival Beirut’s. Unfortunately, over the past 20 years, the terrorist group Hezbollah has become the dominant force in Lebanon. Hezbollah’s rise has helped transform Lebanon into a corrupt and failing country in which public bodies have stopped working and the supply of electricity is limited to several hours a day because of constant fuel scarcity. As usual, it became clear that every problem also holds an opportunity.

For more than a decade, Israel and Lebanon ponderously conducted ineffective negotiations to try to determine the maritime border line between the countries. Signs of gas deposits had been discovered along the disputed line, and a French-Italian consortium had expressed interest in building an oil rig to start drilling. When the war broke out in Ukraine and gas prices suddenly surged, we identified an opportunity. Together with the French and the Americans, we made sure that the Lebanese public knew that they could get electricity and secure a better economic future if their government signed an agreement on the maritime border with Israel. Public pressure began to build in Lebanon in favor of the agreement. Hezbollah objected at first, but then the group’s leaders realized that they looked as if they were blocking a source of hope for the Lebanese people. In October 2022, we signed a historic maritime boundary agreement. Lebanon was forced to recognize—in an official document deposited at the UN—that Israel is not only not an enemy but can also be a partner.

THE PARTS, NOT THE WHOLE

Building relations between countries is not a simple task. It brings us back to the old nineteenth-century debate between the German statesman Otto von Bismarck and the Austrian diplomat Klemens von Metternich on the question of what governs states: interests or values. CS is an effective tool, but we must be careful that it does not turn us all into cynics who cooperate where it benefits us and pretend not to notice everything else. Smart navigation between conflicting interests can very quickly degenerate into cold utilitarianism. Countries are not commercial enterprises and cannot operate only in terms of profit and loss. Liberal democracies have principles and values that obligate them to act and react. Torture, attacks on women and minorities, an unjustified attack on a friendly country: these are all things that cannot be ignored. Our enemies must know which fundamental principles we will not compromise, but so, too, should our friends.

In the summer of 2021, a U.S.-Canadian request to join a statement of condemnation at the UN Human Rights Council against China’s violation of the human rights of Uyghurs in Xinjiang was put before me. I deliberated. At the time, we were busy preparing for our Joint Committee on Innovation Cooperation with the Chinese, which I was supposed to lead jointly with the vice president of China, Wang Qishan, an incredibly astute statesman. A series of events had also been planned with the Chinese to mark the 30th anniversary of the renewal of diplomatic relations between our countries. There were quite a few people in the Israeli Foreign Ministry who thought that our joining the UN council’s statement of condemnation would jeopardize these projects. “What for?” they said. “For a statement that won’t change anything for anyone at a meeting of an organization that constantly unfairly attacks Israel?”

In the end, I decided that Israel would join the resolution. This decision-making process was complex, but the reason was simple: there are moments when one must not remain silent. China should know that the world is not ignoring what is happening in Xinjiang. The Chinese were very angry with us, and I had to conduct a careful and at times unpleasant dialogue with them. But after all the angry exchanges, the innovation conference was held as planned and was very successful. In some ways, our joining the statement even contributed to our relationship. The Chinese understand power, and they value strength and clarity. They don’t have to share our values on human rights, but they certainly need to know that we take these values seriously. They know that those who cede ground on principles will most likely end up losing ground on their interests as well. Even those who see the world as an arena powered only by the forces of realpolitik do not ignore the fact that liberal democracies are willing to pay a price for what they believe in. This is not weakness; it is strength.

Perhaps it is also appropriate to sound a word of warning regarding the opposite phenomenon. For CS to work, puritanism should be avoided. Morality is a part of any liberal foreign policy, but preaching is ineffective (and annoying). Intervening in the domestic affairs of a foreign country, friendly or not, should be done with caution and only when absolutely necessary. In most cases, a problem that appears clear and straightforward in the media turns out to be much more complex when you learn the details. Until recently, Sweden used to be governed by a progressive left-wing government that regularly tried to explain to Israelis, in righteous tones, how shocked it was by our treatment of the Palestinians. These people, comfortably sitting in Stockholm, were preaching to me while Israelis were being killed in terrorist attacks and rockets were being fired at my house in Tel Aviv. It drove me crazy. Eventually, Ann Linde, the Swedish foreign minister, visited Tel Aviv, and we resolved some of our disagreements in a friendly and open conversation. Shortly thereafter, the Swedish government fell, and a right-wing government came to power, supported by the Sweden Democrats, a party that has neo-Nazi roots. I managed to restrain myself and didn’t call Stockholm to lecture the Swedes about their attitude toward minorities.

Henry Kissinger insisted that the great dilemma of leadership is that we have to make decisions about the future without knowing what the outcome will be. This dilemma has become very acute in recent years, because the modern nation-state is a static point within an ever-expanding network of other powerful actors. Counterintuitively, the best way to handle this new world is not to work in a less compartmentalized manner but rather to work in a more compartmentalized one. Stop looking at countries as whole units, and instead work with them on the basis of shared challenges and shared interests. This is the essence of the CS approach, and this is the direction in which global foreign policy needs to move.

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