The bells of the liberal world toll for Israel: Why taking a stance against the invasion is both the smart and just move

Foreign policy is the art of balancing national interests with moral variables, which express a state’s values and the identity it seeks to project to the world. Israel’s position on the Russia-Ukraine conflict thus far is focused on the delicate balance between two seemingly contradictory considerations – its values-based affiliation with the Western camp and its realpolitik need for Russian goodwill. However, adopting a clear stance by joining the global liberal camp in condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine serves both of Israel’s considerations. It is simply the just and wise move to make.

Israeli decisions in the face of this dramatic and clear violation of another state’s sovereignty through the use of military force has substantive implications for the way it will be viewed by the international community. Events in Donetsk and Crimea should be viewed as opening maneuvers in a global development. The increasing friction between the liberal camp and its illiberal challengers, chiefly Russia and China will shape the international arena for years to come. The current conflict is a test of the West’s resolve to reaffirm its strong liberal credentials even if it comes at a cost. This camp stood on the side-lines in the face of past aggression with disastrous consequences; now it is clearly expressing its determination to stand up to Russia, with countries like Germany and the UK willing to pay the price.

The current conflict finds Israel’s brand in the liberal world under continued erosion, the product of 12 years of Netanyahu governments’ policies and internal changes. The 2018 Nation-State Law that prioritizes the state’s Jewish identity over its democratic one, the ongoing settlement enterprise, and above all, support for the Trump Administration and its illiberal allies, have undermined Israel’s position among its traditional, liberal allies in the US and Europe. The current crisis finds the liberal camp divided on Israel, pitting the traditional mainstream, i.e., the Biden Administration and European governments, which regard Israel as an important ally despite its drawbacks, against radicals, including parts of the progressive camp in the US and leading human rights organizations that cast doubts on the morality of Israel’s political model. Under these circumstances, clearly siding with the liberal camp is an opportunity for Israel to reaffirm its alliance with its friends in this camp.

The need for an unambiguous stance also stems from Israel’s rise as a regional power with global influence. A state’s ability to integrate values into its policies is a consequence of its position and international status. Israel instinctively feels it does not have the luxury of values-based considerations; as a small state surrounded by enemies it must focus on survival above all. The darkest time in Israel’s foreign relations – the ties with the apartheid regime in South Africa in the 1970s – followed its diplomatic isolation in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Israel is still small and enemies still surround it, but its global position has dramatically changed from those difficult days. It is now a central axis in the Mediterranean Basin, a leading member of a regional coalition confronting the Iranian threat, and its homemade surveillance technology affects the political reality in countries near and far. Israel, for better or worse, is a global-level actor. The government’s hesitation over its stance on the Russian invasion reflects the fact that unlike in the past, Israel now has the choice, and the obligation, to make a values-based decision.

However, a clear Israeli stance does not require sacrificing its interests on the altar of moral values. It is also the rational choice for long-term thinking.

First, given the common perception of an Israeli-Russian “honeymoon” in Syria, it is important to differentiate between long-term, values-based strategic alliances and ad-hoc interest-based relations. The welcome Israeli-Russian operational coordination in Syria is a temporary asset dependent on shifting short-term interests. It cannot serve as a strategic alternative to a substantive partnership with the US. Given the perceived US withdrawal from our region, it is incumbent upon Israel to ensure the sustainability of American assets for every scenario –continued US support of Mediterranean Basin partnerships, its military presence in Syria and its efforts to enhance the Abraham Accords.

Second, Israel must not be portrayed as the weak link in the liberal camp. We have already seen Russian strategy applying pressure on hesitant actors, for example the Baltic states. Israeli ambivalence could invite such additional pressure. The recent joint Russian-Syrian aerial patrols near the ceasefire line with Israel and the extensive sea and air drill the Russians conducted along the Syrian coast are clear indications of such potential.

When Kissinger said that Israel does not have a foreign policy, only a domestic one, he overlooked one salient truth – all foreign policy ends up shaping domestic policy. The values we choose to project to the world – whether Netanyahu’s policies or the approval of spyware sales to dictators – have substantive repercussions for the values that resonate with the Israeli public and the norms of our conduct. Israel’s stance in this crucial global test is an important domestic statement about our identity, especially in light of the challenges Israel faces both domestically and abroad. Therefore, Israeli decision-makers must not “ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee”.

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