Drip Diplomacy: Israeli Foreign Policy in the Climate Change Age

Six. That’s the number of times Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has visited an African nation since being re-elected to his fourth term in March of 2015. That is only one fewer than the seven times Barack Obama visited an African country over the course of his entire presidency. It’s also six more than Bibi’s grand total of zero official visits throughout his first three terms as Prime Minister.1 Add to this his two trips to China in the last five years, only one fewer than Obama’s three visits, and one begins to wonder what the Prime Minister of a country the size of New Jersey is doing in Africa and Asia as much as the former leader of the free world. A shrewd politician like Netanyahu, however, is not one to act without a purpose, and these foreign trips to nations one would hardly consider Israeli allies are not to be overlooked.

Over the last decade, Israel has continued its controversial construction of settlements in the West Bank, engaged in a costly war in Gaza in the summer of 2014 that left over 2,000 Palestinians dead, and as recently as last spring was criticized from abroad for an overly-aggressive military response to protests in Gaza following the move of the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on the 70th anniversary of Israeli independence. Israeli actions against its neighbors- whether one believes them to be necessary or not- have begun to elicit increasingly serious reprimands from international bodies such as the United Nations.

For example, just prior to leaving office, Barack Obama’s Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power abstained on a U.N. Security Council vote that demanded the immediate end to all Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank, a stark departure from the traditionally tight American-Israeli relationship.2 Up until that point, Obama- like his predecessors- had wielded the U.S.’s permanent veto in the Security Council to ensure no anti-settlement resolutions passed.  Additionally, since the creation of the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2006, the Council has resolved almost more resolutions condemning Israel than the rest of the world combined.3

Recognizing the need to reverse its status as a pariah at the U.N., Netanyahu saw the necessity in developing international allies in other places like Africa and Asia–allies who would vote alongside Israel at the U.N. and who wouldn’t be quick to meddle in its relationship with its neighbors.  Netanyahu has even said as much. Before a visit to Liberia in the summer of 2017, the Prime Minister announced that the purpose of his trip was to “dissolve…this giant bloc of 54 African countries that is the basis of the automatic majority against Israel in the UN and international bodies.” 4 Although trade, technology, and security have too been cited as the ways Israel intends to deepen ties, perhaps Netanyahu targeted China and West and East Africa specifically because Israel could gain their support at the UN and in return give these nations something they so desperately needed: water.

Over the last 25 years, 28,000 rivers in China have disappeared. Groundwater levels have fallen by up to three meters a year, and the flow of the Yellow River, one of China’s leading water sources, is a tenth of what it was in the 1940s. China’s current Five Year Plan, which calls for halving per capita water consumption, is an idealistic goal at best. Moreover, in 2017, as a result of pollution and industrial waste nearly 10% of China’s water was unfit even for agricultural or industrial use.5

In Africa, the story is similar. The Sahel region in West Africa has experienced a string of deadly droughts over the last decade. In 2010, nearly 10 million Africans across four countries were left either hungry or highly food insecure due to the loss of livestock and crops. In 2012, the same story unfolded. Millions more found themselves without food and increases in crop prices only amplified the problem.6

On the other side of the continent, the 2011 East Africa drought, which hit Kenya and Ethiopia among other countries, was said to be “the worst in 60 years.” Crops withered, food prices rose, nearly 9.5 million East Africans were affected, and several hundred thousand lost their lives.7

As climate change worsens, droughts and water crises are only expected to worsen. Enter Israel. Like China, the Sahel, and East Africa, Israel too has experienced both droughts and water shortages. However Israeli advancements in water technology have kept pace with both climate change and a growing population. One notable example is the significant improvement of drip irrigation, the process of dripping a small amount of water directly onto a plant’s roots rather than flooding the field. Netafim, the Israeli firm that makes drip irrigation technology, claims the technique uses 75% less water than traditional techniques and allows farmers to use less fertilizer and fewer pesticides. In turn, crops yield at higher rates causing food prices to drop, and aquifers suffer from less chemical pollution.8

Additionally, take Watergen, another Israeli firm that produces 2,000-pound generators capable of extracting 600 liters of clean drinking water directly from the air each day. The generators simply require electricity, and their weight allows for easy transportation to rural areas that are often hit hardest by droughts and lack the necessary infrastructure to transport water.9

With just these two Israeli technologies, West and East Africa and China can drastically reduce the intensity of droughts, the cost of food, and the level of pollution in their waterways. Is it really any wonder then that China, Kenya, Ethiopia, Liberia, and Guinea are interested in receiving Netanyahu or that Bibi has targeted these countries as potential like-minded voters at the U.N.?

When Netanyahu visited in Kenya in February of 2016, he and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta signed a joint agreement and established a bilateral committee to focus specifically on addressing water and agricultural issues.10 On the Prime Minister’s trip to Liberia, he too emphasized Israel’s commitment to investing in Liberian “water treatment…water purification,” while planning a visit to Israel for ten Liberian leaders to learn efficient and effective Israeli agricultural techniques.11 Moreover, the city of Shouguang will also play host to Israel’s flagship “Water City” project in China. The plan is to “advance Israeli companies and incorporate Israeli technology” into China’s massive water infrastructure in an attempt to deepen ties between the two nations. The project has headlined Bibi’s multiple trips to the country since 2014.12

Climate change is precipitating a worldwide water crisis and it is clear that Israel has solutions. Netanyahu simply wants to be sure Israel gets something of equal value- in this case support at the U.N- in return for offering its extended assistance and investment. A canny politician like Netanyahu surely knows never to let a crisis go to waste.

And it isn’t just parts of Africa and China that Bibi has in his crosshairs. Vietnam has been experiencing a water crisis of its own as only 39% of the rural population has access to clean drinking water.13 It may be no coincidence then that in 2011 former Israeli President Shimon Peres visited Vietnam and in 2015 Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely did the same. In 2014 former Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang visited Israel, and last November Vietnam received its first Watergen generators- as gifts no less- for use across the country.14, 15

Over the last decade Colombia has suffered from the “worst drought” in the country’s history, causing food prices to skyrocket and leaving farmers in economic straits. In 2015, the Israeli firm RWL Water completed construction of a major water treatment facility in the country and in 2017 Netanyahu attended a State Visit.16

In 2016 Paraguay declared a state of emergency during a severe drought of its own. Netanyahu made an official visit there too just before heading to Columbia.17 Back up five years to 2011 and Mexican farmers were suffering through their “worst drought in 70 years.” Bibi visited Mexico as well.18 Finally, in February of 2017 Netanyahu became the first Israeli Prime Minister to visit Australia, a country that has been racked by droughts for much of the last two decades.

Despite Bibi’s best efforts, this “Drip Diplomacy” has yet to yield results at the U.N. For all the traveling and water technology, these countries have so far declined to vote alongside Israel when significant resolutions come up for votes.  But as climate change worsens, droughts increase in frequency, and Israel begins to play a much larger role in combating the crises, Netanyahu and his successors may well demand cooperation at the U.N. in exchange for continued cooperation. If Israel becomes one of Africa and Latin America’s most important international benefactors via their assistance in modernizing these nations’ water infrastructure and agricultural technology, several years from now it shouldn’t shock us when Liberia, Ethiopia, or Colombia all of a sudden have something to say about Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

However regardless of if Drip Diplomacy succeeds, the strategy says something about how Netanyahu views Israel’s status on the world stage. Since the advent of the U.N., the U.S has been able to wield its military and economic strength to coax and cajole allies into voting the way it wants them to at the U.N. The capability to do so however is unique to superpowers like the U.S. Even Beijing and Moscow don’t possess nearly the international influence that Washington does. Bibi’s continuing gamble to reject the U.N.’s reprimands and instead attempt to use Israeli technological power to change the votes of certain countries demonstrates his unwavering belief in Israel’s future as a global leader. Israel may be the size of New Jersey, but Bibi is betting that its influence can be just as large as that of the whole United States.

 

  1. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, s.v. “List of International Prime Ministerial Trips Made by Benjamin Netanyahu,” (accessed December 3), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_international_prime_ministerial_trips_made_by_Benjamin_Netanyahu
  2. Eric Cortellessa, “Choosing not to veto, Obama lets anti-settlement resolution pass at UN Security Council,” The Times of Israel, Published December 23, 2016. https://www.timesofisrael.com/choosing-not-to-veto-obama-lets-anti-settlement-resolution-pass-at-un-security-council/
  3. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, s.v. “List of United Nations resolutions concerning Israel,” (accessed December 3), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_Nations_resolutions_concerning_Israel
  4. Alexander Fulbright and Raphael Ahren, “PM heads to West African summit seeking support at UN,” The Times of Israel, Published June 4, 2017. http://www.timesofisrael.com/pm-heads-to-west-african-summit-seeking-support-at-un/
  5. Charles Parton, “China’s acute water shortage imperils economic future,” Financial Times, Published February 27, 2018. https://www.ft.com/content/3ee05452-1801-11e8-9376-4a6390addb44
  6. Xan Rice, “Severe drought causes hunger for 10 million in west Africa,” The Guardian, Published June 3, 2010. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2010/jun/03/drought-hunger-west-africa
  7. BBC News, “Horn of Africa tested by severe drought,” BBC, Published July 4, 2011. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-14023160
  8. Ruth Schuster, “The Secret of Israel’s Water Miracle and How It Can Help a Thirsty World,” Haaretz, Published July 4, 2017. https://www.haaretz.com/science-and-health/how-israel-can-help-a-thirsty-world-1.5392651
  9. http://www.watergen.com/
  10. Raphael Ahren, “Netanyahu to visit Africa, first Israel PM to do so in 50 years,” The Times of Israel, Published February 29, 2016. https://www.timesofisrael.com/netanyahu-to-visit-africa-first-israeli-pm-to-do-so-in-50-years/
  11. Joaquin M. Sendolo, “Israel Celebrates 70th Anniversary, Underscores Relations with Liberia,” Liberian Observer, Published April 30, 2018. https://www.liberianobserver.com/news/israel-celebrates-70th-anniversary-underscores-relations-with-liberia/
  12. Ora Coran, “Netanyahu’s China Visit is All About Business,” Haaretz, Published March 20, 2017. https://www.haaretz.com/.premium-netanyahus-china-visit-is-all-about-business-1.5450835
  13. Sahisna Suwal, “Water in Crisis – Vietnam,” The Water Project, https://thewaterproject.org/water-crisis/water-in-crisis-vietnam
  14. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Israel%E2%80%93Vietnam_relations
  15. Eytan Halon, “Hanoi to Benefit from innovative Israeli Air-to-Water Technology,” The Jerusalem Post, Published November 8, 2018. https://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Hanoi-to-benefit-from-innovative-Israeli-air-to-water-technology-571377
  16. Rose Lander, “Colombia suffering worst drought in recorded history,” Colombia Reports, Published September 22, 2015. https://colombiareports.com/colombia-suffering-worst-drought-in-recorded-history/
  17. Vladimir Hernandez, “Paraguay declares state of emergency as drought shrinks economy,” BBC, Published February 26, 2012. https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-latin-america-17171858/paraguay-declares-state-of-emergency-as-drought-shrinks-economy
  18. Noe Torres, “Mexican farmers suffer worst drought in 70 years,” Reuters, Published November 25, 2011. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mexico-drought/mexican-farmers-suffer-worst-drought-in-70-years-idUSTRE7AO18Q20111126

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