Can Israel Afford a Moral Foreign Policy? (COMMENTARY MAGAZINE) Jonathan S. Tobin 06/15/12)
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Earlier this week, I noted the fact that while President Obama has
chosen not to visit Israel since taking office even when visiting the
Middle East, Russia’s Vladimir Putin will be making his second trip
to the Jewish state this month. The fact that Obama is still so
resentful of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he
couldn’t bring himself to go to Jerusalem even when it would clearly
be in his political interests to do so, while Putin thinks it is good
politics to go there, struck me as interesting. But our friends at
the Forward have a very different take on the story. In an editorial
published this week, they think it is wrong for Israel to receive
Putin and urge it to cancel the visit.
In assessing this position, we need to start by saying this is the
sort of editorial that explains why there is a difference between
government and journalism. In seizing the moral high ground on Putin,
the Forward editorialist is taking a stand that no Israeli
government, no matter how righteous or devoted to the cause of human
rights in Russia, Syria and Iran it might be, can possibly take.
Israel has enough enemies without picking a fight with Putin even the
United States would be wary of starting. This is the sort of
unrealistic moral preening that we journalists love to indulge in.
There is also the fact that the Forward, whose idolatry of Barack
Obama seems to be boundless, has been noticeably quiet in expressing
criticism of the administration’s desire for a “reset” with Putin or
his appeasement of Russia on a number of different fronts.
But having said that, I’m prepared to concede the editorial has a
point, especially with regard to the egregious praise of Putin on the
part of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and that the question of
how moral Israel’s foreign policy should be is not solely a matter
for idle journalistic posturing.
Since its birth in 1948, the State of Israel has been under siege and
has almost never been in a position to pick its friends with
impunity. Indeed, so desperate has it been for any sign of friendship
from other countries, let alone genuine cooperation or alliance, that
it led to the development of a deep cynicism about its place in the
world, which led it to be willing to sometimes take the hands of some
unsavory regimes. Friends of Israel were right to take umbrage at the
notion that an embattled nation was expected to be more punctilious
about its foreign policy than greater and far more secure nations.
Nevertheless, as Israel’s position grew stronger in recent decades,
it was fair to say that its willingness to embrace apartheid-era
South Africa or any Third World dictator who would stand apart from
the global chorus of Israel-haters was often ill-considered and
Though Israel’s governments were justified in prioritizing security
and defense, a public posture of moral blindness ill befit a nation
that also sought to play upon the international community’s sense of
justice. Even if it could not expect fair play for itself, brazen
cynicism on such questions did nothing to enhance its position.
Israeli leaders of both the left and the right have generally been
uncomfortable taking stands on disputes elsewhere in the globe. But
this shyness about defending human rights when Jews were not the
victims only fueled the unfair comparisons of its own complex
problems vis-ŕ-vis the Palestinians to real tyrannies that are often
voiced by anti-Semites and other Israel-haters.
So while it is clearly unreasonable to expect Israel to attack Putin
directly or to rebuff his overtures, it is not wrong to point out
that Lieberman’s coziness with the Moscow regime is an embarrassment.
In his defense, it should be noted that although he was widely
considered unsuitable for his task when he took office in 2009,
Lieberman has been as good a practitioner of cynical realpolitik on
his country’s behalf as any of his seemingly more accomplished
predecessors. Though he gets little credit for it, it was his
diplomatic skills — often exercised with unsavory Third World
governments — that helped stave off the so-called
Palestinian “diplomatic tsunami” at the United Nations last year.
But behind the scenes diplomacy is one thing; public endorsements of
Putin’s tyranny are quite another. Though only a fool would think it
is not in Israel’s interests to keep Russia from sliding back to the
open hostility that characterized relations during the era of the
Soviet Union, there is no need for Israel to go as far as that.
As much as Israelis have vainly hoped for a normal existence, the
Jewish state has also always aspired to stand for Jewish values and
the Jewish people. As such, it is far from wrong to expect it to
support not merely democracy for itself but the rights of all peoples.
I should add that I myself have written in the past to chide some
Israelis — even those whom I greatly admired — for being willing to
treat the question of human rights as somehow not being their
business. In February of 1997, I even tweaked Natan Sharansky, a man
whom I consider a genuine hero and then serving as Israel’s Trade
Minister— for not using a meeting with his Chinese counterparts to
raise the topic of the status of prisoners in the Chinese gulag. The
piece (written originally for the Jerusalem Post under the
headline “Say it Ain’t So, Natan,” is not available on their website,
but can be read here on the site of San Francisco’s J Weekly which
subsequently picked it up) motivated Sharansky to use a second
meeting with the Chinese to do exactly as I had asked him to do. That
earned him a rebuke from Israel’s Foreign Ministry but confirmed my
high opinion of his integrity.
The standard here should not be, as the Forward’s piece seems to
want, to demand that Israel be tougher on Russia than even the United
States, but that it must be prepared to speak up about human rights,
even when it is inconvenient. The Jewish state may still be
beleaguered, but it is not so weak that it must be compelled to
prostitute itself on behalf of Putin, as Lieberman appears willing to
do. A completely moral foreign policy is a luxury that not even a
superpower can always afford, but we have a right to expect that
Israel’s approach to the world should consist of more than raw
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