March 23, 2017 § 3 Comments
Israel’s relationship with Russia is in some ways its most important and also its most dangerous. While the U.S.-Israel relationship is the only one that is vital to guaranteeing Israel’s fundamental security, the relationship with Russia has a larger impact on the daily threats that Israel faces given the Russian role in the Syrian civil war. Prime Minister Netanyahu has ably managed ties with Moscow, with his trip to Russia to meet with President Putin two weeks ago the fifth in the past year, but the reality is that despite Israel’s best efforts, tension with Russia is bound to escalate. Israel and Russia’s redlines with regard to the outcome in Syria are in fundamental conflict, and papering over the differences is becoming increasingly harder to do.
Russia-Israel ties under Netanyahu and Putin have reached a historical apex for the two countries, partly because of the rapport between the two men and partly because of larger structural factors. From Israel’s perspective, closer ties with Russia make for good domestic politics. Over 10% of Israel’s population hails from the former Soviet Union, and Russian Jews maintain cultural and economic links to their former homeland. Soviet Jews have risen to the top of the government, with Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein the most recent examples. Russia is also seen as a strong ally in Israel’s battle against terrorism as Russia has its own homegrown terrorist threat, and the Kremlin has also historically been inclined not to harshly criticize Israeli settlement policies despite its support of a Palestinian state.
But it is due to defense concerns on both sides that the relationship has deepened and become more important. One of the few advantages that Georgia had in its five-day war with Russia in 2008 over South Ossetia was its Israeli drones, which were far superior to the domestically-produced models flown by Russia and a fact that did not escape Moscow’s attention. It led Russia to subsequently make four purchases of Israeli drones, a seemingly ordinary transaction made remarkable by the fact that it was the first time Russia had ever bought arms from a foreign country. As Russia has increased its military activity in Syria and its near-abroad, its desire for Israeli military technology has only grown, and thus its relationship with Israel has become more important.
On the Israeli side, Russia’s involvement in Syria directly impacts Israel and makes closer relations a necessity. For the Israeli government, Russia’s heavy presence in Syria has been a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that Israel has been able to repeatedly strike Iranian arms convoys destined for Hizballah without Russian interference despite flying hundreds of sorties through Russian-controlled territory, since Jerusalem and Moscow have worked out a deal preserving Israel’s ability to strike these targets and have coordinated to a near-perfect level. Were Israel trying to operate in Iranian-controlled territory rather than Russian, things would be far messier. The fact that Russia purposely turns a blind eye to Israeli strikes on these weapons shipments – despite the extraordinary fact that Israel is oftentimes blowing up weapons that Russia itself has supplied to Iran – also limits the fallout, as it makes it difficult for Iran to retaliate against Israel in response. The curse, however, is that in having to rely on Russia’s good graces, the Israeli military is operating at the mercy of a larger power and must also limit itself to the parameters of what it has agreed upon with Moscow, rather than being able to target Iranian fighters in Syria to whatever larger extent it wishes. Russia’s ownership of the Syrian civil war provides Israel with a greater degree of freedom but also a greater degree of restriction.
While the relationship has remained on track up until now, it has been destined to unravel from the day that Russia entered Syria, and indeed the first loose threads are now beginning to show. No matter how good the coordination mechanism between the two sides, the fundamental conflict at the heart of Israeli-Russian views on Syria is that Israel’s redline is the establishment of a permanent Iranian presence in Syria and Russia’s redline is the elimination of a permanent Iranian presence in Syria. At the outset of the Syrian civil war, Israeli government and military opinion was split as to whether it would be better for Bashar al-Assad to remain in power or better for him to be toppled. That debate has decisively shifted toward the latter as Assad has solidified his rule over western Syria with a serious assist from Iran, leading not only to a more robust Hizballah presence in Syria but Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps soldiers as well. As the Israeli defense and intelligence establishment came to a near-consensus on the dangers of Assad’s continued tenure given his ever larger reliance on Iran and his further cementing as an Iranian proxy, Russia made it clear that it will not abandon Assad and that its own core interest in Syria is keeping him – and the Iranian influence that is bound up with him as a necessary byproduct – right where he is. Israel cannot abide Assad staying and Russia cannot abide him going.
This situation was manageable so long as Israel was content to confine its actions in Syria to striking Hizballah and breaking up any efforts to supply it with advanced game-changing weaponry, such as S-300 anti-aircraft missiles. But with intelligence that Iran is now beginning to establish permanent bases in Syria, the Israeli calculus has understandably changed. Russia’s, however, has not. It was notable that in the aftermath of the Netanyahu-Putin summit two weeks ago where Netanyahu raised his concerns about preventing an Iranian military presence on Israel’s northern border, neither side indicated that it was particularly satisfied with the outcome of the discussion. Furthermore, one week later the Israeli ambassador to Russia was summoned to explain an Israeli strike that hit close to a Russian military position, introducing a new level of tension into the relationship, and Israel had to bat down the Assad government’s claim that Russia had informed Israel that it could no longer fly missions in Russian-controlled Syrian airspace.
It is an enormous accomplishment of Netanyahu’s diplomacy that the situation with Russia has proceeded so smoothly until now, particularly when juxtaposed against the backdrop of downed planes and economic sanctions that have marked the Russia-Turkey relationship over Syria. But Israel is now entering an untenable situation, in which it will have to choose between risking open conflict with Russia – something that both sides will be desperate to avoid – or sitting on its hands as Iran digs in across from IDF positions on the Golan and plants missile batteries on Syrian territory for the purposes of targeting Israeli cities and towns. Israel was right to worry about Iranian ambitions in the region, but it is the Russian relationship with Iran over Syria rather than the American relationship with Iran over the nuclear deal that will prove to be the thornier dilemma to navigate.
March 16, 2017 § 4 Comments
There is a scene in the sixth episode of the first season of Mad Men where ad man Don Draper is approached by the Israeli government to come up with an effective tourism campaign for the Jewish state. Seeking some insight, he asks his Jewish client-cum-girlfriend to explain why Israel is important and why tourists would want to go there. She explains that Jews have lived in exile for such a long time that having a country seems very important, and that even though she has no desire to live there, Israel “just has to be” because of the idea that it represents. After Draper remarks that it sounds like utopia, she retorts that the Greek definition of utopia can mean either the good place or the place that cannot be. While the last exchange is meant to be a comment on their relationship, it captures the current wider context of the churning relationship between Israel and American Jews.
The surge in visible anti-Semitism in the U.S. over the past year has American Jews on edge, and for many it has reinforced the importance of Israel and why it “just has to be.” More than ever, Israel resonates as a safe harbor of last resort and as a refuge against a world that historically has not accepted Jews. I understand this sentiment not from a theoretical perspective, but from a personal one. As a kid growing up in New York, I never experienced a second of overtly detectable anti-Semitism. I had a recurring debate with my dad where I argued that the Jewish experience in America marked the end of history for the two thousand years of the Jewish Diaspora in which persecution and anti-Semitism were the defining features. And yet in the last two months, my kids’ Jewish schools have been subjected to multiple bomb threats, and my corner of Washington suburbia has seen an uptick in anti-Semitic graffiti and invective. Like Francis Fukuyama, I was wrong in allowing the exuberance of a brief moment to overtake the wider sweep of history, and despite being someone who never questioned the importance of Israel in the first place, that importance for me has now literally been driven home. Israel does indeed represent an idea for Jews around the world, and while we pray that it never has to transform for us from an idea into a practical imperative, it requires an absolute defense of Israel’s legitimacy and security.
But while the idea of Israel is of the good place, it is sliding dangerously close for American Jews into the place that cannot be. This is because Israel’s inviolable commitment to Jews, rather than only to Israelis, is in question, and once that emotional shift takes place, it will be impossible for many American Jews to identify with Israel in the same way. It will not be a place that they view as the ultimate oasis in the desert, but as a tantalizing mirage.
The first factor that threatens to cause this shift is the Israeli government’s treatment of anti-Semitism. In speaking about his decision to go to Paris after the terrorist attack on the Hyper Cacher grocery store to show solidarity with French Jews, Prime Minister Netanyahu described his role as not only representing Israel but as representing the entire Jewish people. This is not a role that has been claimed by previous Israeli prime ministers; David Ben-Gurion, for instance, clearly made a distinction between representing Israel and representing Jews outside of Israel in his exchange of letters with Simon Rawidowicz in 1954-55, in what began as an argument over the usage of the word “Israel” and other terminology and resulted in Ben-Gurion rejecting any uniformity between Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews. It is a matter for wider debate whether Netanyahu can and should have a wider role beyond being a political leader, but if he wants to credibly make the argument, he must assume the expansive mantle consistently rather than only when it is politically expedient. To come to the U.S. in the midst of an outbreak of bomb threats against Jewish institutions and a maelstrom of angst from American Jews who have never felt personally threatened before and to essentially proclaim that all is well, not only negates any claim on Netanyahu’s part to represent Jews in danger wherever they are; it also calls into question Israel’s very commitment to Diaspora Jewry. For Jews who fervently support Israel as the ultimate Jewish project and as a powerful symbol against anti-Jewish repression, it is distressing to see an Israeli prime minister brush anti-Semitism aside and categorically declare that a president whom many American Jews view as part of the problem is actually the best friend that Jews have.
The second factor that threatens to perpetuate this shift is the attitude, encapsulated in Israel’s new travel ban against anyone publicly calling for boycotts of Israel or any area under its control, that views Israel not as a place for Jews but as a place for Jews who hold a certain ideology. I do not support BDS and am not even minimally sympathetic toward its aims, and I also do not support boycotts of settlers or settlements. Furthermore, Israel has an absolute right to determine what constitutes a threat to its security, and to screen people who enter its borders to guard against those threats. But what is justified is not always smart, and conflating tangible physical threats with amorphous ideological threats demonstrates the distinction. Keeping out the violent West Bank demonstrator is not the same as keeping out the middle-aged dad who loudly declares that he won’t buy Jordan Valley dates, and it this latter action that will cause the break between many American Jews and Israel. Even if, like Rachel Menken in Mad Men, you are a Jew who wants to visit Israel but do not want to live there, being stopped at passport control in the Jewish state because of your political views is the fastest way to make sure that any affinity you had for Israel disappears. Israel in that situation becomes a place that cannot be, no longer a safe haven for Jews or even just a place for Jews, but a state that has abandoned its core function and reason for being. The central Zionist argument that Jews need a homeland only works if Israel is indeed a homeland based on Judaism rather than a homeland based on a set of political leanings. In elevating threat perception to absurd heights, the new anti-boycott legislation ignominiously creates a bigger threat to Israel’s existence than the boycotters it is combatting.
Israel can indeed be a utopia for Jews around the world; not a perfect place that must meet an impossible ideal, but an anchor to which Jews can gravitate in times of need. If it does not take this obligation seriously, however, it will become a different kind of utopia; a place that demands an impossible ideal and that sinks under the weight of its own expectations.
March 9, 2017 § 5 Comments
There is always angst among liberal Zionists about what liberal Zionism is and whether it can exist in a particular political environment, but the combination of the Netanyahu government and the Trump presidency has amplified the usual Weltschmerz. As Israel turns farther away from liberal values, legalizing illegal West Bank outposts and imposing ideological tests on those who want to enter the country, and liberals at home reject Zionism while lionizing social protest leaders who are literally anti-Israel terrorists, liberal Zionism is in an even more difficult place than usual in looking to reconcile its competing impulses. To succeed, liberal Zionists will need to reconstruct their first principles rather than to try and fit square pegs into round holes.
There is no question that the current political moment is uniquely challenging. Liberal Zionism over the last quarter century has often been synonymous with a peace process that shows fewer signs of hope now than it ever has. It has put forth a vision for Israel that is rejected by Israelis who return rightwing governments to power in election after election. It has put forth a vision for Israeli society that is belied by data such as majority support for pardoning Elor Azaria and real currents of racist and anti-democratic sentiment. And this is before we arrive at the enormous implications for liberal Zionism of the Trump presidency. How are liberal Zionists to grapple with a president who supports the fundamental tenets of Zionism but is so deeply illiberal? To complicate things further, how are liberal Zionists to grapple with a president who represents values that they reject but whose initial policy toward Israel may end up looking a lot like what one would expect from a liberal Zionist president?
Liberal Zionism will have to develop a set of lodestars to survive the challenges it faces, some of which have to do specifically with Trump and some of which do not. One principle should be reinforcing the connection between Israel and Jews, but making sure that the obligation runs both ways. Liberal Zionism must be unwavering in its insistence that Jewish support for Israel’s bedrock safety and security does not exist on a higher plane than Israeli support for Jews’ bedrock safety and security. The increasing threats against Jewish institutions in the U.S. and the unnerving feeling that many American Jews are now experiencing for the first time in their lives of being cast as outsiders and interlopers is certainly related to the current political moment; whether it can be laid at the feet of President Trump is an infinitely more complicated proposition. Irrespective of the answer to this question, American Jews are grappling with anti-Semitism in new ways, and there should never be any doubt that the first and foremost priority of the Israeli government as it relates to the Diaspora is to insist upon the inviolable rights of Jews to live anywhere in the world free of harassment and danger. Zionism is about the right of Jews to national self-determination, but it was meant to address the problems of Jewish exclusion rather than to reinforce those problems in its own right. If an Israeli prime minister wants to claim the mantle of representing Jews worldwide, than Zionism must be outward looking to Jews outside of Israel’s borders as well as inward looking to Jews inside of them.
Second and relatedly, liberal Zionism cannot just support liberalism within the contexts of Israeli state and society, but it must also make the connection more explicit between Zionism and liberalism independently of what is taking place in Israel or the policies of the current Israeli government. This is vital not only for ensuring continued support for Israel, but also for ensuring American Jewry’s place in society. In a terrifyingly new development, the so-called “alt right” has a presence in the Trump White House and its vision of what it means to support Israel rests on upon a different pillar than traditional American pro-Israel positions. Historically, American governments and Americans themselves have supported Israel because they view Israel as a reliable strategic regional ally and because they view Israel as an ideological democratic and values-based ally. Liberal Zionism has been an easy philosophy to espouse precisely because of this connection between the U.S. as the leader of the free world – in other words, liberal democratic values – and Israel as an unwavering soldier in the fight to extend the free world’s reach across the globe. But the rabid pro-Israel position espoused by Breitbart and other alt right organs is not based on this view of Israel; it is instead based on identification with Israel as a state based on populist ethnic nationalism. This formulation ties support for Israel directly to its perceived rejection of liberalism rather than to its upholding of liberal values, and it explains why the alt right can support Israel to the hilt while also swimming in the cesspool of anti-Semitism.
This is dangerous for Israel, as it makes support for Israel contingent upon a specific set of policies rather than on the fundamental nature and existence of Israel itself – let alone the fact that the policies this support demands would only weaken Israel at home and abroad. It is also dangerous for American Jews, as it turns Zionism into an even more particularistic ideology in which only a narrow type of Zionism is acceptable. The motivating factor behind Herzl’s philosophical development of Zionism – that Jews are not regular white folks, but a minority deserving of protection that needs its own state – is thrown out when your embrace of Zionism only involves an embrace of Israel as an ethnically nationalist majoritarian entity rather than as a safe haven for an historically persecuted people. The devastating consequences for American Jews when this line of thinking is extended to its logical conclusion are glaringly obvious.
Finally, liberal Zionism must firmly and unabashedly embrace a renewed Zionism that harkens back to the founding Zionist ethos of taking responsibility for one’s destiny, and shaping history rather being shaped by it. One of the reasons that the marriage between Zionism and liberalism is a natural one is because both seek to better the world through active engagement with problems and to leave an active mark upon history rather than, in William F. Buckley’s famous formulation, to stand athwart history yelling stop. Complaining that there is no Palestinian partner and thus Israel has no choice but to maintain the status quo runs contrary to the spirit and letter of Zionism. Complaining that Israel’s adversaries engage in asymmetric and inhumane behavior and thus Israel need not hold itself to an elevated standard in its efforts to grapple with terrorism and rejectionism runs contrary to the spirit and letter of Zionism. In an age where standards of decency and morality are being redefined and even truth and facts themselves are now subject to debate, liberal Zionism must stand for something clear and concrete, and advance principles and proposals that do not depend on the actions or responses of others.
It is more important than ever to insist on belonging to both the liberal and Zionist camps, and not to allow membership in one eradicate membership in the other. Zionism has to transcend Trump, Republican orthodoxy, and traditionally hawkish positions on Israel. If it is seen to be the cause of a single party or a single political ideology, it will never recover. The danger of sitting back and allowing Zionism and Israel to be solely claimed and embraced by the right is real, and advancing an active and liberal Zionist vision that does not compromise its Zionism or its liberalism is as crucial a task as exists.