Foreign policy and defense
According to abbreviationfinder, Israel is a nation in Western Asia. Its capital city is Jerusalem. The United States is Israel’s foremost ally, while relations with EU countries are sometimes strained. In its own region, Israel has remained isolated, despite peace agreements with two of its neighboring countries: Jordan and Egypt. The isolation is mainly due to the failed peace process with the Palestinians, who have sympathies with them in the Middle East. Iran has the role of Israel’s arch enemy. But the many conflicts within and between countries in the region sometimes open up unexpected benefits for Israel.
Israel’s external borders are yet to be determined: this is especially true of the border with the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim, and the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied from Syria at the same time, in 1967. At the border with Lebanon there is disagreement over an area called the Sheba Gardens.
- Countryaah: Overview of business holidays and various national observances in Israel for years of 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023, 2024 and 2025.
For Israel’s opportunities to achieve peace with its neighbors, the unfinished peace process with the Palestinians is the most important factor. In this matter, Israel applies different lines, since in practice Israel has two counterparts: the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank and the Islamist movement Hamas in Gaza. The Palestinian Authority recognizes Israel but Hamas does not.
The Palestinian Authority was established after Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) tentatively concluded peace in 1993 and the agreements in the Oslo process gave local Palestinian autonomy (see Modern History). The goal was that the process would also result in an independent Palestinian state, but Israel’s supremacy persists and Israel strengthens its grip on both the West Bank and Jerusalem (see Settlement Policy and Current Policy). Peace negotiations have not taken place since 2014, but parts of the practical cooperation on which the Oslo process laid the foundation have continued, not least in security matters. At the same time, Palestinian officials are campaigning, among other things, within UN organizations aimed at raising international support and action against Israel – and they sometimes produce results. One example is what has happened since Israel built a long barrier against the West Bank, which is largely on Palestinian land. The building was raised in the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which in 2004 concluded that the barrier is illegal. But the ruling in the UN Court of Justice is not binding. It does not force Israel to change its policy. Israel sees the barrier not only as justified but also as effective: fewer acts of terror within Israel have been the result.
The fact that there is a second counterpart to Israel has to do with the insanity between Palestinian factions (see Modern history). There is also a sharp dividing line for Israel. Israel is acting harder, with blockades and military offensive, against the Gaza Strip where Hamas rules. There is open enmity between Israel and Hamas, which has repeatedly escalated into full war. Israel is sometimes fired from rockets by both Hamas and other militant groups, but the scale of Israel’s military countermeasures, which often go beyond civilians, is accompanied by massive criticism both from individual countries and from international human rights organizations. This happened not least in the spring of 2018, when Palestinians demonstrated at the Gaza border in connection with Israel’s 70th anniversary. Israel took sharp shots at protesters with high death rates as a result.
Increased US support
Israel’s strong ties to the US are expressed, for example, by US support in the UN, where the US uses its veto power in the Security Council to stop decisions and interventions against Israel. The United States also acts within the UN member organizations to protect Israel.
As President, Donald Trump has reinforced Israel-friendly politics. His representative Barack Obama had followed a line applied by both Republican and Democratic presidents: strong support for Israel politically, militarily and economically – but also objections, especially to settlements on occupied land. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received internal criticism in Israel for jeopardizing important relations with the United States by disguising himself with Obama, who also marked by not, as usual, supporting Israel in a UN vote on settlements. With Trump followed a patchwork: On December 6, 2017, the United States decided to recognize Israel’s supremacy over Jerusalem. The United States moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May 2018. Trump also appointed an Israeli ambassador who actively supports settlers on occupied land. USA: In November 2019, the government passed another very controversial message: that it was not considered that Israeli settlements on occupied land necessarily constitute a violation of international law and that the assessment of whether settlements are legal in Israel should be made by the Supreme Court. The outside world, for example the EU, hastened to reiterate the attitude that has been in place since the 1967 occupation: that settlements violate the Fourth Geneva Convention which prohibits an occupation power from moving into its own population.
Even in international arenas, Israel is now receiving even stronger support from the United States, which is putting pressure on the Palestinians: The United States is countering Palestinian membership in international organizations and has withdrawn its support for the UN organization UNRWA, which is responsible for health care and schools for refugees. The United States refuses the International Criminal Court (ICC) as the authority to test whether Israelis have committed an abuse of Palestinians (a policy to be seen in light of the fact that the United States also does not want to see Americans facing international court).
On the Palestinian issue, people in the vicinity of Trump have been working on a peace plan, which was tabled in January 2020. The main features of the plan: East Jerusalem is permanently invading Israel (though the King of Jordan would retain a role as protector of the holy sites for Muslims). The 600,000 Israelis living in East Jerusalem and the West Bank are allowed to remain and continue to use the land they have used. No Palestinian refugees are allowed to return to their homes in what is today Israel. Israel retains security responsibilities all the way to Jordan’s border.
Large investments in the Palestinian economy have been under view. The United States has tried to persuade Arab states, in particular, to make investments. (The Palestinians, for their part, have urged both Arab neighbors and EU countries in the region not to support the plan.) The Americans are also reported to have approached President Abbas with the question of how the Palestinians would form a confederation with Jordan. But the US’s clear favor with Israel has not raised expectations that peace proposals from Trump could lead to a breakthrough. Security services in Israel have voiced concern that it could even pose a danger to Israel if US measures increase misery among Palestinians.
Disgust with neighboring countries
With Muslim Turkey, Israel has at times had very good relations. The relations were buzzing after the turn of the millennium over the war in Gaza, where Turkey has criticized Israel for treating Palestinians mercilessly. In 2010, Israel also shot dead Turkish activists on the Mavi Marmara ship, which was on its way to Gaza to break Israel’s blockade against the Palestinians. The US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has further aroused Turkey’s sympathies for the Palestinians and allowed the President of Turkey to emerge as the leading Muslim world in the Sunni Muslim world against Israel extending its power over places sacred to Islam as well.
Iran’s actions in the region cause deep concern in Israel. Iranian regime hates Israel, upsets military and builds alliances with Middle Eastern Shiite groups Israel sees as a threat: In Syria, Iran supports Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its Lebanese arms carrier Hezbollah movement (see below). Both are sworn enemies to Israel, who in turn carry out air strikes against targets inside Syria (see Calendar). Israeli ministers have openly declared that Israel will not allow Iran to secure holdings in Syria. Even military attacks against Iranian soil are not excluded as an alternative. It is known that Iran and Israel carry out hacker attacks against each other.
Israel has intensely opposed political agreements on Iran’s nuclear technology. Distrust in Israel was one of the reasons when in May 2018 the United States withdrew from an international nuclear agreement with Iran, which aimed to prevent the regime in Tehran from developing nuclear weapons. Well-informed Israeli media attribute to Israeli agents responsibility for several murders of physicists linked to the nuclear program in Iran.
The Syrian government demands Israel to bring back the Golan Heights that were occupied in the war in 1967. Over the years, secret attempts to reach a peace agreement have been reported, but conditions have not increased. Trump’s Israel ambassador has declared that he is convinced that the Golan will pass Israeli. In the Syrian civil war, the Assad regime has managed to regain large areas and is unlikely to give up claims on the Golan either. Nearly 5,000 Syrian refugees at the border received care at Israeli hospitals in 2013–2018. By contrast, Israel has not received refugees from Syria permanently.
Israel held southern Lebanon under military occupation for 18 years, 1982–2000. After first chasing Palestinian guerrillas on Lebanese soil, Israel in the 1980s encountered a new enemy in the Shiite Hezbollah militia, which occasionally shoots Israel from the north. Hezbollah, which is also a political movement, has a strong position in Lebanon and is usually described as a state in the state. Along the border, Israel 2018 began to build a wall, which will be equipped with surveillance cameras, among other things. Israel claims it is being built entirely on the Israeli side of the “blue line”, a ceasefire line drawn by the UN in 2000. The military’s goal is for the wall to be 13 miles long. Since 2012, there is a wall around the city of Metula near the border. In 2006, Israel fought a war against Hezbollah, which has been called the “Second Lebanon War”.
Friendships in the region
With two of the Arab countries that had leading roles in the wars 1948-49, 1967 and 1973, Israel today has peace agreements: Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994). Governments in all three countries have guarded the peace, though it has rarely been described as cordial.
The king of Jordan has traditionally and through the peace treaty an important role in Jerusalem, as supreme protector of the holy places of Islam in Jerusalem. When the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) acknowledged Israel and gave up terrorist methods, it also laid the foundation for Israel’s peace with Jordan, which released its claims on Jerusalem and the West Bank. In the absence of their own state, some of the Palestinians are still Jordanian citizens.
With Egypt, which through the peace gained the Sinai Peninsula, Israel has a common enemy in Hamas. In Egypt, among other things, Hamas Islamism – more than enmity against Israel – is disturbing the rulers. Hamas emerged as a committee of the Muslim Brotherhood organization. After the Arab Spring of 2011, elections were held that brought the Brotherhood to power in Egypt, but the military withdrew power and the Israeli regime’s old policy. Egypt is trying to mediate between the Palestinian factions. That development is difficult for Israel to influence, but Egypt, like Israel, has a border with the Gaza Strip and wants as little as Israel to give Islamists – and weapons – free passage across the border.
An entirely different community has begun to arouse interest in recent years: Old animosity between Shiite-dominated Iran and leading Sunni Muslim countries that Saudi Arabia – between Persians and Arabs – can benefit Israel. Saudi Arabia, like Israel, sees Iran as an arch enemy and from Saudi Arabia, Israel-friendly statements were made in 2018. The countries do not have diplomatic relations, but a sign of the softening Saudi attitude is that Saudi Arabia has opened its airspace for aviation flights to or from Israel.
During a visit to Lithuania in 2018, Prime Minister Netanyahu stated that Israel is striving to normalize its relations with Arab countries, as a way to also achieve peace with the Palestinians. During the year he also made a visit to Oman, which was surprising as the countries do not have diplomatic relations. But even though most Arab countries have given up the idea of going to war against Israel, the Palestinian issue remains an obstacle, especially for authoritarian Arab regimes – such as the Saudi one – who themselves risk losing their popular support if they openly take Israel’s part.
On edge with EU countries
In Western Europe, Israel had strong support when the Jewish state was formed, but Israel is annoyed by repeated European criticism of the treatment of the Palestinian population and the expansion of the settlements. Israel has reacted strongly to countries that recognized Palestine as an independent state. Sweden acknowledged Palestine in 2014, it deteriorated diplomatic relations. Most EU countries say they are waiting for a definitive peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, but they are criticizing Israel for making a two-state solution more difficult.
In recent years, Israel has had reasons to voice concerns about anti-Semitism in EU countries and the terrorist attacks on Jewish institutions. At the same time, some Jews are relocating to places in Germany, Poland and the Baltics, whose numerous Jewish population was almost wiped out by the Nazis. A Polish law, which seeks to ward off accusations that there was Polish involvement in the Holocaust, is part of what put relations between Israel and Poland to the test (see Calendar).
With Cyprus, Israel shares the Aphrodite oil and gas field, from which Cyprus hopes to export gas via Egypt. Israelis and Cypriots negotiate the distribution of resources. They also discuss the establishment of an Israel-controlled port on the coast of Cyprus for transhipment of goods to the Gaza Strip. Gaza has no deep harbor, and Israel controls ship traffic off the strip, but ferry transport from Cyprus could supply Gaza with goods and thus reduce criticism of Israel subjecting Palestinians to blockades.
In UN polls, European states, as well as Arab countries and other Muslim countries, tend to criticize Israel.
Trade in great powers
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was one of Israel’s foremost critics, but relations with today’s Russia are good. Russia participates in the Syrian war on the part of the Assad regime – but it does not have to seriously interfere with relations with Israel: The rebel groups fighting in Syria are as unfriendly to Israel as Syria’s leadership is. When Syrian Air Force 2018 accidentally shot down a Russian military plane while Israeli fighter planes attacked Syrian targets nearby, Israel received criticism from Moscow – but Prime Minister Netanyahu immediately promised Israeli involvement in the crash investigation and President Putin soon took a conciliatory stance.
China’s foreign policy is particularly intense in the area of trade and its interest is mutual. While China voted against Israel in the UN vote on Jerusalem that followed Trump’s political shift in 2017 (see above), China was also Israel’s largest trading partner in Asia, and the third largest overall. “We complement each other,” said Finance Minister Eli Cohen at the end of 2017, emphasizing that Israel wants to see more of Chinese investment. The largest food manufacturer has been purchased by a Chinese state-owned company. Agreement on Israeli cooperation with China in the management of the port of Haifa worries the United States, whose military vessels sometimes add to the Mediterranean port.
A few countries, like the US, have chosen to move their embassies from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Brazil, under President Jair Bolsonaro, has flagged to follow the United States in its tracks. Paraguay, on the other hand, has changed its decision after the regime change and Israel has responded with the message that the Israeli embassy in Paraguay should be closed. In Latin America, Panama is the only country that has not recognized Palestine.
Israel allocates a greater share of its budget to the defense than any other democratic country, and can quickly mobilize a large number of soldiers.
Jews and Druze perform military service while Israeli Arabs are exempt. For the ultra-Orthodox Jews there are special associations, but in practice they are usually exempted from military service. However, this relationship is changing (see Current Policy).
Women also do military service, but may not be included in all associations. The period of military service for men should be gradually reduced from three to two years, while the time for women should remain 18-24 months. Women over the age of 24, married women and women with religious barriers are exempt from military service.
International observers are convinced that the country has nuclear weapons. Israel has neither confirmed nor denied this, but has stated that it does not intend to be the first to use nuclear weapons in the event of a conflict. Israel has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
An air defense system against incoming short-range projectiles called the Iron Dome was launched in 2011. It is manufactured by state-owned Rafael and has been developed with US aid. The system detects threats in the air with the help of radar, calculates the probable impact site and provides coordinates to be able to fire robots at the projectile that is coming in. Tracks for tracking and firing can be moved and the system is stated not to be weather sensitive. It has been used not least against rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, but it began to develop at the height of the 2006 Lebanon War, when the Hezbollah movement fired rockets at Israel.
Another example of the military assistance Israel receives from the United States is that the two countries have jointly developed an air defense system with Arrow robots that will be able to shoot down enemy robots at high altitude. The system is manufactured by Israeli Aerospace Industries and American Boeing and was commissioned in Israel 2017.
Since the turn of the millennium, Israel has been one of the world’s leading arms exporters. In particular, radar systems and targeting robots are exported to India, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States and other countries.
READING! Read more about Israel in the UI’s online magazine Foreign magazine:
Israel hopes Putin can take away Iran in Syria (05/05/2011)
FACTS – DEFENSE
Army: 133 000 men (2017)
The air Force: 34 000 men (2017)
The fleet: 9,500 men (2017)
Military expenditure’s share of GDP: 4.7 percent (2017)
Military spending’s share of the state budget: 11.5 percent (2017)