Israelis Scramble to Keep Up With Pace of New Diplomatic Ties

THE Israeli Foreign Ministry, flush with a spate of recent successes in breaking the Jewish state's diplomatic isolation, has run into an unexpected problem.

It does not have enough experienced diplomats to staff all the new embassies it wants to set up in the countries that have decided to open diplomatic ties with Israel.

"Each time I ring up the administration people, they are afraid I'm going to tell them we have established diplomatic relations with yet another country," says Moshe Yegar, head of the ministry's Asia and Africa desk, only half jokingly. "They grumble that we don't have the budget and we don't have the manpower to staff all these new missions."

Though the speed of Israel's recent breakout from diplomatic quarantine has taken diplomats here by surprise, they add quickly that stretching their resources is a small price to pay for widening the country's net of international diplomatic relations.

That trend was dramatically highlighted in the last week of January, when in the space of a few days both China and India, accounting for half of the world's population, established full diplomatic links with the Jewish state.

Ostracized by a large proportion of the world community for nearly a quarter of a century since the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars, Israel has finally won broad international acceptance, enjoying normal diplomatic relations with 104 of the 166 United Nations member states.

All 104 of them, and eight others, symbolized that acceptance at the UN General Assembly last December, when they voted to rescind a 1975 resolution that equated Zionism with racism.

That Israeli victory, over opposition from Arab and other Muslim states, was followed by the establishment of diplomatic ties with three international giants that had previously snubbed Israel - the Soviet Union, before its collapse, China, and India.

"The Arab effort to isolate Israel for more than four decades has suffered a very serious blow," Mr. Yegar argues. "One of the major Arab objectives was to delegitimize Israel, to make it unacceptable to the international community. Breaking that boycott is a very important diplomatic achievement."

Israeli officials attribute their nation's long-sought acceptance mainly to the end of the cold war and the emergence of new patterns of international relations.

"Undoubtedly the dramatic change in the international situation has been a major factor," Yegar says. "With the end of the cold war, old enmities became simply irrelevant."

Almost as soon as the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the new democratic regimes that emerged in Eastern Europe restored the relations with Israel that previous communist governments had severed after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Even Albania, which under Chinese influence had withheld diplomatic relations, opened ties.

Last October, the Soviet Union followed suit, prompted by a desire to play a role in the United States-sponsored Middle East peace process. Disregarding the resentment of its traditional Arab allies, Moscow sent an ambassador to Tel Aviv in a bid "to undermine the US monopoly over Israel," in the words of Oleg Derkovsky, deputy head of the Middle East desk at Russia's Foreign Ministry.

Israel's diplomatic progress in black Africa, which severed diplomatic ties en masse after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, has been less spectacular but steady over the past decade. Ten countries have established ties since 1982, with Nigeria and Angola in the offing.

Israeli diplomats worked hard for the recent scoops in Asia, setting up a scientific exchange office in Beijing in 1990, for example, that served as an embryo embassy, and pushing New Delhi to allow more than an Israeli consulate in Bombay.

These efforts reached fruition, Yegar says, partly because of the peace process that has put Israeli and Arab delegates at the same negotiating table.

"Countries like Russia, China, and India realized that when some Arab countries are meeting with Israel, continued surrender to Arab pressure not to normalize relations with us had become anachronistic," Yegar says. "As big, important countries, they cannot afford to make themselves look outdated."

Aside from the diplomatic advantages of wider international ties, Israel is expecting economic benefits. "The moment these [diplomatic] barriers are removed, you can expect a tremendous boost in trade," Yegar says. "While we were considered boycotted by the world, it was difficult to attract investment here. This should change now."

But Israel is wary of one possible implication of its new diplomatic ties - that more countries will feel they have an interest in involving themselves in the peace process.

While Russia is a cosponsor of the negotiations, and China has joined the multilateral talks on regional issues, Yegar insists that for a country like India, "normalizing relations does not mean that they automatically join the multilaterals. We do not want to see a renewed United Nations scale develop around these talks."

At the same time, problems remain for Israeli diplomacy. Egypt is the only Arab country to have established relations, and Turkey is the only other Muslim state with ties. In Asia, Islamic countries such as Pakistan and Indonesia maintain their solidarity with the Arab world.

Yegar is prepared to be patient. "It's up to them," he says. "When they change their minds, Israel is here waiting."

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