Developing Israel's 'Regional Superpower'

Israel punches above its weight, but the country needs more than a military strategy to amplify its strength, says Eytan Gilboa.

Gedalyah Reback ,

Netanyahu at the UN General Assembly
Netanyahu at the UN General Assembly
Flash 90

Is Israel a superpower? The question comes up and meets a number of answers and reactions. Some would answer that it is a miniature superpower, while others feel Israel is treated like a vassal state of the US.

Power in international affairs is an academic issue and is never black and white. Some countries are categorized as powers in some fields but hardly so in others. There are also levels of power that countries are assigned to. According to Professor Eytan Gilboa of Bar Ilan University, Israel is a unique kind of “Middle Power.”

“A middle power is any state that has much more power than its resources permit. Israel has much more influence,” says Gilboa, who is also Director of the Center for International Communication at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “I’ve argued that the difference between small states and a middle power is public diplomacy, but Israel would be an exception.”

“Most regional powers are middle powers. If they’ve got a strong position in the region and if you considered by those around you as a power then almost automatically you are considered a middle power.

Israel is unusual as a regional power because of its limited natural and human resources. While its military is qualitatively stronger than many other countries, Israel only discovered natural gas reserves off its shore several years ago. Its population is also under 9 million, puny compared to the 80 million Turks, 80 million Iranians, 90 million Egyptians and 30 million Saudis. When asked if Israel did not fit the bill because of its relatively small population and that lack of natural resources, Gilboa said that this would have been more likely an issue in the past but not today.

“It has to do with resources and population, but these are the traditional definitions of power and today things are very different.”

Gilboa points out countries can be powers in certain ways but not so much in others. While lacking natural resources and manpower, Israel is bountiful in technology, research and startups - #2 in the world. All this only covers so called ‘soft powers,’ without addressing Israel’s hard, military strength. On top of its state-of-the-art military technology and experience, Israel also is widely believed to have a nuclear option.

“Their public diplomacy (PD) is weak but other components make up for that,” notes Gilboa, who is also an expert in PD. “It would be worth arguing that Israel is stronger than Saudi Arabia but similar to Turkey and Iran who both have larger populations, large economic potential and ambition.”

According to Gilboa, it is indisputable Israel’s public diplomacy needs to take a front seat in order for the country to assert itself as the middle power it is already considered to be.

Resolving Domestic Issues to Focus on External

“The most important thing would be public diplomacy because it determines your image and standing in the world. Israel has to fight on many fronts, especially in places like Europe, to isolate BDS. This is something that must be adopted with a huge investment.”

There are other elements to amplifying Israel’s cultural influence, namely stabilizing conflicts inside Israeli society. While the economy and issues within it have been framed as political ones over the last several months, Gilboa says that the state should take issues like the cost of living more seriously in order to justifiably steer focus from pressing domestic issues in order to strengthen Israeli influence abroad.

“Certain things have to improve inside Israeli society. Security is not just in military power but also in social cohesion, cost of living, too much friction inside society it could erode the overall power of the state.

Don’t Give Up Fighting Palestinians in Diplomatic Arena

Diplomatic experts argue Israel has failed to see the need for diplomacy relative to its military strength. While not dismissing the doctrine Israel needs to retain a qualitative military edge in the region, those experts argue that cannot stand alone. Chief among those critics is political scientist Joseph Nye. Nye, speaking at the John F. Kennedy School of Government in 2004, he stated:

"If you look at efforts to help develop the region—in other words, if you think of the attraction that Israel has as a successful economy [and] laborers who wanted to work there, Arab students who wanted to go there—these were ways to enhance Israeli soft power. But, alas, in the last—under the current government, the Likud government, there has been much more emphasis on hard power and very little emphasis on soft power."

“I think I agree with Nye that Israel has relied primarily on hard power,” answers Gilboa who notes he has studied under Nye in the past. “Yet, there is much more awareness of the challenges Israel faces. The Palestinians are mostly using soft power.”

Israel faces a difficult hurdle to challenge the Palestinians in the international arena. On top of what Gilboa characterizes as a weak public diplomacy effort, the Palestinians know they have an automatic advantage in the public diplomacy arena. Still, Israel is not exempt from making the effort to counter their advantage.

“The Palestinians have an automatic advantage based on the number of Islamic states and the 50+ states in the Islamic bloc. The Third World also responds to them. This is something that requires an effective response. I think what we'll see is a more extensive use of soft power and public diplomacy.”

Again, Gilboa asserts Israel has relied too much on its military prowess for security and ignored the diplomatic field. Agreeing with Nye, the Jewish state needs to develop its own network of allies and not resign itself to avoid the diplomatic battlefield entirely when it comes to the Palestinians.

“Against a network you develop your own network. But if you use soft power against soft power, then it is 'fair play' or 'even in the game'. Resources and man power have to be invested. Much of Israel's PD should be carried out not by the state but public organizations that have much more credibility than Israel.”

“I think the most damaging thing is the peace process. While I think the evidence is clear that the Palestinians are responsible for the deadlock, Israel continues to be the one blamed. This is something that has to be reversed. This is the arena of soft power and diplomacy. You need to extensively use the tools available to you to show this is not the case and present a case that the other side is undermining peace.”