In the growing confrontation between the liberal world order and its anti-liberal nationalist and authoritarian opponents, which side does Israel want to be on? The question would have been absurd even a decade ago, when Israelis still regarded themselves as members in good standing in the liberal world. But in recent years, Israeli foreign policy has been trending in a decidedly anti-liberal direction.
Since about the middle of 2015, the Israeli government has embraced Hungary’s avowedly “illiberal” prime minister, Viktor Orban; worked to forge close ties with Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, despite its limitations on civil liberties and legislation outlawing public discussion of Poland’s role in the Holocaust; warmly embraced Brazil’s right-wing nationalist leader, Jair Bolsonaro; provided a state visit for President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, who once likened himself to Adolf Hitler; worked consistently to woo Russian President Vladimir Putin; offered a 25-year contract to a Chinese state-owned firm to manage the port of Haifa, which has often hosted the U.S. 6th Fleet; and provided consistently strong support for the military dictatorship in Egypt, including lobbying the U.S. Congress on its behalf, as well as supporting the authoritarian sheikhdoms of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, notably, stood up for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman following the October 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and Post contributing columnist.)
Netanyahu, who faces a difficult reelection vote on Tuesday, insists he is only leading Israel out of international isolation, but the common denominator among all these new partners has been an avowed hostility toward liberalism and the liberal world order, and the prime minister himself has become something of a “central figure in the global non-liberal camp,” as Israeli commentators have noted. Yoram Hazony, a conservative Israeli thinker and onetime aide to Netanyahu, has frankly proclaimed Israel’s solidarity with those he calls the “holdouts against universal liberalism” in Hungary, Poland, France, Italy, Britain and elsewhere. All face a struggle against what he calls the U.S.-led “liberal empire.”
While perhaps few would go that far, there is broad agreement among Israeli conservatives that the central institutions of the liberal world order created since the end of World War II — the European Union and the United Nations, and perhaps even the transatlantic alliance NATO — are hostile toward Israel and should be taken down a peg. A united Europe, regarded by many on both sides of the Atlantic as one of the great accomplishments of the post-Cold War era, “hasn’t been a blessing for this country,” Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the United States, has argued. “The less united Europe is, the better.” The emerging nationalist forces in Europe have provided Israel new allies in its struggle with liberal Europe. “Major changes are happening in Europe,” one senior Israeli diplomat told Haaretz a year ago. “It is becoming less liberal and more nationalist.” Hungary’s Orban is “leading this change,” and that is why “Netanyahu has identified him as a key ally.”
Just as significant was the election of Donald Trump as president nearly three years ago. Trump and his administration have also lent their support to nationalist and authoritarian leaders across Europe and elsewhere. Trump officials openly attack the E.U. and have expressed disdain for the leaders of Europe’s traditional center-right and center-left parties. Trump’s so-called America First approach to the world is a repudiation of the United States’ decades-long support of the liberal world order, and it has given Israel even more leeway to forge its alliances with right-wing nationalists. In the months following Trump’s election, Israeli officials worked to broker an understanding between the incoming administration and Orban, who had been shunned by the Obama administration. Israeli officials also tried to broker a new start to relations between the United States and Putin, proposing a deal that would have dropped U.S. sanctions against Russia over its actions in Ukraine in return for Russian concessions to Israeli concerns about Iran’s influence in Syria. Some conservative Israelis have even encouraged the United States to downgrade or sideline the transatlantic alliance. “America paid Europe’s defense bill and protected it from the Soviet Union for five decades,” Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick wrote for Breitbart, “while allowing the Europeans to take advantage of America in lopsided trade deals.” There is no question that some Israelis feel, as Israel’s former top diplomat Avi Gil noted, that the liberal world order itself has been a mixed blessing for Israel, and the breakdown of that order, while damaging to Israel is some ways, also offers “new opportunities.”
The Israeli elections this week probably won’t hinge on questions of Israeli foreign policy any more than U.S. elections do. But Netanyahu has made his diplomacy a major campaign theme. Massive posters show him shaking hands with Putin and, of course, with Trump. Quick trips to meet with now-British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the height of his efforts to rally British nationalists to his side in the fight over Brexit, scheduled summits with Putin, constant references to Netanyahu’s close relations with people such as Orban and Bolsonaro, as well as with Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist leader of India — all aim to show that Netanyahu is a great world leader, but they also assume a large portion of the Israeli electorate has no problem with the fact that these relationships are all with anti-liberal, right-wing nationalists. A Netanyahu victory could well cement this relatively new trend in Israeli strategy.
If so, it will complete a remarkable turnabout. For most of their existence, Israelis have struggled to embed their nation ever more firmly within the liberal economic, political and strategic order — believing it was their shared values more than anything else that would help protect Israel against its enemies. The fact that many Israelis, including the country’s leaders, seem to be abandoning this decades-long approach says something about the current state of Israeli politics and society. But it also says something about the state of the world. Israel’s turn away from the liberal order is a case study of what happens to small states when global winds shift. Even a decade ago, there would have been no right-wing nationalist leaders to turn to in Europe, and no U.S. president of either party working to disassemble the world order created by the United States after World War II. Israel’s new direction is the product of swings in Israeli politics and society, and it is also a course chosen by Netanyahu, pursuing his vision of his own interests and of his nation’s. But it is also a symptom of the liberal world order’s decline.
Israel faces opportunities it hasn’t had before
Until recently, few Israelis would have doubted that the success and survival of their nation were intimately tied to the success and survival of the liberal world order into which it was born in 1948. Historians still debate the significance of the United States in the creation of the Jewish state. Israeli determination and military prowess played a critical role, and Zionist leaders were determined to declare independence irrespective of U.S. or international support. But whether the Jewish state could have been born and survived without U.S. support seems doubtful. The British fought against the Jewish state every step of the way, abandoning the Balfour Declaration before World War II, opposing and, in some cases, physically preventing European Jewish refugees from traveling to Israel during and after the war, and then arming and sometimes fighting alongside the Arabs in the war that followed Israeli independence. The rest of the European powers were either irrelevant or indifferent. (The Soviet Union supported Israeli independence for a variety of motives, most having to do with undermining the British position in the Middle East, and it would soon join the Arabs in opposing Israel.)
The United States, on the other hand, though hesitant, conflicted and wary of alienating the Arab states in the early years of the Cold War, nevertheless provided critical support to the Zionists at key moments. President Harry S. Truman repeatedly pressed the British to open Palestine to 100,000 European Jews. He supported partition, and the United States recognized Israeli independence 11 minutes after it was declared. Had the United States not forced the issue and used its enormous postwar influence to lobby other nations to go along, the other great powers would likely have shelved the idea in the face of violent Arab opposition. Truman’s unilateral decision to recognize Israel outraged the British government and, in the view of diplomat and historian George F. Kennan, threatened to “disrupt the unity of the western world.”
Israelis, at the time, believed the U.S. role was essential: The chief rabbi of Israel told Truman that God had put him in his mother’s womb so that he could be the instrument “to bring about the rebirth of Israel after two thousand years.” David Ben-Gurion, the Jewish state’s first prime minister, believed Israeli statehood was the product of fortuitous circumstances, among which were the decline of British power and “the rise of American predominance.”
Nor is it likely that Israel would have flourished without the United States’ continued commitment. During the first years of its existence, Israel suffered international isolation, and the Eisenhower administration spent most of its time currying favor with Arab nationalists, especially in 1956, but as Abba Eban observed in “My People: The Story of the Jews,” the United States nevertheless “showed a general constancy of support” and “no other relationship brought Israel such enrichment and security over two decades.” American Jewish financial assistance alone underwrote Israel’s survival in the early years. American Jews provided Israel $600 million in 1967 and $1.8 billion in 1973 (the equivalent of nearly $10.5 billion today).
More significant than direct support was the postwar order that U.S. power played such a big part in creating, and which benefited all capitalist democracies. Just as the United States would not have thrived as it did during the late 19th century without the relatively stable global trade and financial order made possible by British naval and economic hegemony, so, too, there could have been no “start-up nation” without an open and stable economic order in which Israeli products could be exported, on waterways kept clear by the U.S. Navy, to a world made peaceful and prosperous by the U.S. security guarantee. Had Europe not become an oasis of peace and democracy, had Soviet power not been checked and ultimately undone, had the Arab states — belligerent as they were — not been forced to exist in a predominantly American world, Israel’s survival would have been much more in doubt, no matter how gritty, courageous and determined the Israeli people might be. As Gil noted, “Israel, as a small country surrounded by enemies, has benefited from being a member of the free-world camp.” Not only has the U.S. strategic umbrella strengthened Israel’s ability to deter its adversaries, and not only has the liberal economic system provided economic benefits for Israel, but also Israel’s image as a member of the “liberal-democracy club” — in contrast to its undemocratic neighbors — has won it more international support than it might otherwise have had.
The relationship between Israel and the liberal world order was never simple; the democratic powers were often far from reliable allies. In 1967, French President Charles de Gaulle bluntly declared that his country was not about to jeopardize relations with the Arab world “merely because public opinion felt some superficial sympathy for Israel as a small country with an unhappy history.” Even the United States was often hesitant to take Israel’s side without some compensating effort to appease Arab anger. Some of the tensions between Israel and the liberal order reflected a perhaps inevitable divergence of worldviews, especially between Israel and the Europeans. Beginning after World War II and accelerating after the end of the Cold War, Europeans sought to move away from their nationalist past and eschew the power politics that had brought them to catastrophe twice during the 20th century. Israel, however, moved in the opposite direction, as it had to. The very purpose of Israel was to give Jews both the nation and the power they had lacked to save themselves from annihilation. Since Israel faced the constant threat of attack from its neighbors, its reliance on traditional power politics was bound to grow, while Europe, protected by the ironclad U.S. security guarantee and facing no threat at all after the Cold War, gradually not only abandoned traditional power politics but also came to regard power itself as antiquated and immoral.
The Six-Day War in 1967 was a turning point in European attitudes toward the Jewish state. Israel’s unexpected triumph in that war, and its defeat of the Arab armies in the 1973 war, shifted the world’s perception of Israel from beleaguered victim to military powerhouse, and, as Eban observed, “A weakened vulnerable Israel attracted more affection than a strong and resistant Israel.” The 1967 war was a turning point in another way, as well, for it ended with the Israelis in control of a large subject population of Palestinian Arabs. This exacerbated a problem that was inherent in Israel’s founding. Because the liberal world established the state of Israel on lands where Jews had settled but where nearly 1 million Arabs lived, hundreds of thousands of Arabs were driven from their homes. The continued presence of the remaining Arabs within the borders of the Israeli state created the dilemma that has bedeviled Israelis ever since — the need to ensure that Israel remained a Jewish nation but also that it remained a liberal democratic state, as it was intended to be. Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence guaranteed “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex.” The challenge for Israelis from the beginning was, as Eban put it, to find a “point of balance and reconciliation . . . between the two poles of Jewish universalism and national particularism.”
Nations of the liberal world were remarkably unsympathetic to this conundrum, especially given that they were just as responsible for the predicament as the Israelis. They were also surprisingly quick to forget their own histories. Israel was hardly the first democratic power to rule another population, to deprive a people of their rights to self-determination and to use force to control them — the British had their Irish, the French their Algerians, the Americans their Native Americans and enslaved blacks. Nor was Israel the first liberal power to be criticized by the liberal world for not living up to its own principles. Even as Israelis suffered from this criticism, however, they did not deny that there were standards to which Israel and all liberal powers could and should be held. Even as they sometimes defied the liberal order, they never repudiated it. This, Eban observed, was the eternal “predicament of Israel’s diplomacy" — to seek security without isolating itself from the rest of the liberal world.
The only obvious solution lay in the search for peace with the Arabs. For decades, the hope of an eventual peace deal with the Arabs embodying a so-called two-state solution kept alive hope that the “point of balance and reconciliation” could be preserved. With the repeated failures of negotiations with the Palestinians, however, such hopes faltered. Over the past 30 years or so, Israelis have been whipsawed both by the failure of the peace process and by successive waves of Palestinian resistance, which have only deepened Israel’s predicament. As the Israeli thinker and author Micah Goodman noted in his book “Catch-67: The Left, the Right, and the Legacy of the Six-Day War,” the first Intifada of the late 1980s and early 1990s made most Israelis recoil at the moral and physical cost to their democratic society associated with oppressing a subject population. As a result, between 1987 and 2001, the percentage of Israelis supporting the establishment of a Palestinian state jumped from 21 percent to 57 percent, and even today a majority of Israelis would prefer not to rule the Palestinians. But the second Intifada in the early 2000s, which followed the breakdown of the U.S.-sponsored Camp David talks in 2000, convinced many Israelis that peace was hopeless and that efforts at accommodation only led to acts of terrorism against Israeli civilians. Those on the liberal side of Israeli politics were demoralized.
And on the right, there was an increasing desire to escape the “predicament of Israeli diplomacy” by turning away from the liberal world. As Walter Laqueur observed in the 2003 edition of his book “A History of Zionism,” a “new manifestation of right-wing nationalism” had emerged that was not “a product of the Enlightenment,” that was “anti-western,” unconnected “with the struggle for political liberty and a free society” and unconcerned about “individual freedom.”
Until recently, this shift in Israeli thinking had a limited effect on Israeli policies and politics. Even a decade ago, the world was not a welcoming place for an Israeli foreign policy premised on anti-liberalism. Conservative Israelis had to accommodate demands even from pro-Israel U.S. presidents to engage in continuing efforts to seek an agreement with the Palestinians. The Reagan administration recognized Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization; George W. Bush supported the creation of a Palestinian state until the end of his presidency; and a decade ago, even Netanyahu bent to U.S. pressure and suggested he would accept some form of a Palestinian state.
Then the world changed. Over the past decade, the United States has diminished its power and influence in the Middle East. Anti-liberal great powers Russia and China have begun to fill the vacuum, and illiberal nationalist forces — which barely existed a decade ago — have swept through the liberal world. Israel has responded by shifting course. Some of this has been difficult to avoid. If Israeli policies in recent years have been especially accommodating to Russian interests — refusing to join in imposing sanctions on Moscow over its seizure of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine, for instance; and refusing to join others in expelling Russian diplomats after the poisoning of a former agent in Britain — it is at least partly because the United States has allowed Russia to expand its influence in Syria, forge an alliance with Iran and again become a player in Middle Eastern affairs. If Israel hands one of its commercial ports over to Chinese management, thus potentially complicating U.S. naval visits to the nearby base, Israel would hardly be the only nation seeking to profit from China’s Belt and Road Initiative at a time when the United States' global role might be shrinking. And if Israel has made itself the preeminent promoter of Middle East dictatorships in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, to some extent, it is only responding to the fact that since the Barack Obama presidency, the United States has been subcontracting its leadership role in the region to those very same powers.
Beyond this arguably pragmatic response to the geopolitics, however, many Israelis have also turned away from seven decades of trying to strike the difficult balance between liberalism and Jewish nationalism. As Oren, the former ambassador, has noted, most of the Israeli electorate, and especially the growing proportion of young Israelis, has swung further to the right on the issue of what to do with the territories taken in the 1967 war. On the right side of the Israeli political spectrum, the talk is of annexation of settlements on the West Bank. The Jewish nation-state law passed in July 2018 by the Knesset, Israel’s legislative body, which declared among other things that the “right to exercise national self-determination” in Israel is “unique to the Jewish people,” might have been aimed at reining in an Israeli Supreme Court deemed by conservatives as too partial to Arab rights. But it also represented a deliberate tilt in the balance away from liberalism. It would also seem to be a precursor to addressing the problem of what happens when Jews are no longer a majority in the land of Israel — and it is not the answer the early founders had in mind.
Nations don’t make domestic and societal choices in a vacuum, least of all a nation such as Israel, whose “domestic” issues since 1967 are not simply domestic and have always had international ramifications. To the degree that the “anti-western” nationalism that Laqueur first glimpsed in 2003 has, for the moment, come to dominate, it is partly because the international order has allowed it and, more recently, has even encouraged it. Israel has choices today that it did not have before. As Gil noted, “A world order that assigns less weight to human and democratic rights, etc., will exert less pressure on Israel” and make it “easier for Israel to take unilateral measures in the territories.” This has certainly been Netanyahu’s view. As he expressed during a meeting with his Hungarian and Polish counterparts and others two years ago, “We have special relations with China, and they don’t care about political issues. Modi told me he has to look after the interests of India; Russia doesn’t set political conditions, and Africa doesn’t, either. Only the European Union does.” Indeed, the right-wing nationalist movements in Europe are staunchly pro-Israel even as they maintain historical anti-Semitic tendencies. They admire Israel’s combative nationalism and its plucky resistance to their common enemy, the European Union. Even Germany’s far-right nationalists these days see an increasingly nationalist Israel as “a role model for Germany.”
The result may be that some Israelis no longer believe they need the liberal world order, and that they no longer have to tolerate its criticisms. Israel is militarily powerful, is economically successful and now has allies who don’t care whether Israel remains liberal or democratic. Might not Israel fare better in the coming global disorder, a world where, as Trump’s then-national security adviser H.R. McMaster put it, there is no “global community” but only an “arena where nations . . . compete for advantage”?
The American interest in Israel
How indeed would Israel fare in such a world? To begin with, Israelis would have to stop counting on U.S. support. These days, Israelis seem to believe that even in a post-liberal world they will always be able to rely on the United States as a strategic ally because Americans will always believe it is in their interest to support and defend Israel — that somehow Trump’s America First will include a plus-one.
As a historical matter, however, that is a bad bet. U.S. support for Israel was never based on the belief that it was in the United States’ narrow strategic interests. From the beginning in the 1940s, officials at the State and War departments asked how it could possibly be a good idea to make enemies of tens of millions of Arabs, some of whom were sitting on vast reserves of oil, on behalf of a few hundred thousand Jews who, at the time, had little to offer anyone. George C. Marshall, arguably the most respected national security official in the United States at the time, vehemently opposed U.S. recognition of the Israeli state and came close to insubordination in expressing that disapproval to Truman. Kennan, the preeminent American realist, warned that if the United States recognized the new Jewish state, it would become responsible for defending it from its Arab neighbors in perpetuity. Dean Acheson believed the minute the United States lent its support to the establishment of Israel, it replaced Britain as “the most disliked power in the Middle East.” And, of course, the United States’ closest allies in Europe opposed the establishment of a Jewish state in 1948 for the same reasons.
Nor did that calculus change much as the decades passed. Throughout the Cold War, Israel was a dependable ally, but it is difficult to argue that the relationship was ever a net advantage to the United States. The pro-Israel English intellectual Anthony Hartley, writing in Commentary magazine in 1970, observed that as a simple matter of “power politics,” the United States had “every reason for wishing that Israel had never come into existence,” while the Soviets had “every reason for wishing it to remain as an obstacle to reconciliation between America and the Arabs.” The relationship with Israel also had direct and severe costs to the United States — the 1973 oil embargo did immediate and lasting damage to the U.S. economy and played a role in undermining two presidencies. Certainly, those Americans who regarded themselves as “realists” were never friends to Israel. As president, Dwight Eisenhower pulled the rug out from under both Israel and Britain during the 1956 Suez crisis, partly to woo the Egyptian pan-Arab leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. President Richard M. Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger tried to rebalance the U.S. position in the Middle East, alternately, and cynically, supporting and then undermining Israel in their attempt to win over Anwar Sadat’s Egypt.
Today, Israel presents itself as a vital ally against terrorism and Islamist radicalism. Many Americans find this persuasive, but aside from Israel’s important role in collecting and sharing intelligence, its contribution is less than that of the European allies that some Israeli commentators would have the United States abandon. France, Britain, Germany and other allies not only share valuable intelligence with the United States, just as Israel does, but they also do what Israel cannot do: provide troops. It has been European troops — not Israeli troops — fighting next to U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past decade and a half.
As Gen. David Petraeus summed up the common view back in 2010, when he was head of U.S. Central Command, “the enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors” presented a challenge to the United States’ ability to advance its interests in the Middle East. The violent conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians produced “anti-American sentiment” among the Arabs that damaged U.S. partnerships, weakened moderate Arab regimes and allowed “al-Qaeda and other militant groups [to] exploit that anger to mobilize support.” The conflict also increased the influence of Iran and its clients, Hezbollah and Hamas, who posed the greatest and most effective opponents of Israel and the United States. Today, Israelis might argue that this is no longer true, that the Arab regimes fear Iran much more than they care about the plight of Palestinians — witness Israel’s close relations with the Sunni Arab Gulf states. But that may not be a lasting condition, and it is doubtful that U.S. military commanders feel much differently today than they did a decade ago.
The problem posed by Iran shows the difficulty of assessing Israel’s net value as an ally strictly in terms of U.S. interests. Israelis and their American supporters often argue that among Israel’s chief contributions is its standing as a strong ally against Iran. Yet there is a syllogism at work: One of the reasons Americans regard Iran as a threat is that it poses a threat to Israel. Iran poses little direct threat to the United States, for the moment. Indeed, in recent years, Sunni radicalism has posed the greatest direct threat to the United States — it was only in response to the terrorist threat from Sunni extremists that the United States deployed its own troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, after all. Yet it is against that threat that Israel has the least to offer. When the United States needed allies to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, it turned to Kurdish and Arab forces, not to Israel. Even against Iran, Israel is not able to prevent the expansion of Iranian power and influence in the region. It has launched attacks against Iranian allies in Syria and Iraq only when its own interests have been directly threatened. This might be entirely justified, but it does not make Israel an asset to the United States.
Finally, when it comes to the dollars-and-cents issues that Trump tends to focus on when deciding U.S. foreign policy, Israelis should not be the ones talking about how the United States has been paying “Europe’s defense bill.” That is an inaccurate portrayal of how defense spending in NATO works, but it is an all-too-accurate portrayal of the U.S. military relationship with Israel. The United States provides almost $4 billion a year in military assistance to Israel — almost $40 billion has already been promised over the coming decade — and that money comes directly out of the pockets of U.S. taxpayers. It is literally the case that the United States is paying a substantial portion of Israel’s defense bill.
And Trump has noticed. On more than one occasion, the president has commented on the amount of aid the United States provides Israel (he apparently thinks it is $5 billion, not the actual amount of $3.8 billion), and he has hinted that between providing that aid and his decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, it will soon be time for Israel to pay something back. As he reportedly told French President Emmanuel Macron, “I gave Bibi a lot.” America First is nothing if not a transactional approach to foreign policy, as Netanyahu might now be learning.
The truth is, during the critical early years of Israel’s struggle for independence, it was the humane spirit of liberalism, guilt about the United States’ inaction during much of the Holocaust and the political pressures in a liberal democratic United States that led Truman to overrule Marshall and the United States’ closest allies and recognize the Jewish state. He made the decision, as he recalled, “not in the light of oil, but in the light of justice.” Nor did the founders of Israel make their case to the United States on grounds of interest. Chaim Weizmann’s closing argument to Truman was about morality and ideology: It would only be fitting, he said, “that the greatest living democracy should be the first to welcome the newest into the family of nations.” Weizmann would later become Israel’s first president.
The decision to support Israel, moreover, took place within a much broader shift of the United States’ attitudes toward its role in the world. It was a byproduct of the “liberal internationalism” that some Israelis today decry, the rejection of America First and the acceptance of “international responsibilities” in parts of the world that Americans had eschewed in the past. It was a response to the new circumstances of the Cold War, which helped convince Americans that they had to be involved in places such as the Middle East. Had the United States not already committed to a global role, to supporting with money and troops the imperiled and struggling democracies of Western Europe and to the rebuilding and transformation of postwar Germany and Japan, it is inconceivable that it would have taken on the responsibility of recognizing a Jewish state more than 5,000 miles from America’s shores. Only after World War II did Americans come to regard such far-flung matters as meriting their concern and involvement. And only then did Americans decide they had a broad interest in living in a liberal world, an “environment of freedom,” as Acheson called it, and a world in which the Jews, as Truman insisted, had “some place to go.”
A mouse among elephants
What makes Israelis think if the United States were to cease supporting the liberal world order and began shedding the alliances it created after World War II, that the only ally it would not shed would be Israel? (Amusingly, many Poles these days also seem to believe that if the United States pulled out of NATO, it would still maintain the security relationship with Poland.) And how would Israel fare in the kind of world that would emerge if the United States stopped trying to uphold the liberal order? Such a world would once again be a multipolar struggle for power and advantage, pitting Russia, China, India, Japan, Iran, the stronger European powers and the United States against one another — all with large populations, significant territories and vast economies. What would be the fate of tiny nations such as Israel in such a world, no matter how well they might be armed and no matter how advanced their economies? In today’s world, Israel is strong and successful. It outshines its weaker and less developed neighbors. But in the world of self-interested sovereign nation-states, a world with no liberal community, Israel is a mouse surrounded by elephants, all clamoring for a piece of the Middle East. Historically, from the Romans to the Ottomans to the British and French, the peoples of the Middle East enjoyed only such autonomy as the ruling empires granted them. Otherwise, they were pawns and victims in a much larger game in which they were hopelessly outmatched.
Could Israel, with its few million citizens, surrounded by enemies on all sides, and no longer living under the umbrella of the United States’ global hegemony, rely on the support of European nations ruled by right-wing nationalists? Is a divided, renationalized Europe good for Israel, or for anyone else? Would Israelis look to Hungary and Poland, to Britain, or to Russia and China for support? Can they depend on the friendship and stability of the Sunni Arab dictatorships? Israelis can complain about U.S. “liberal imperialism” while living in the world it created, much as many Europeans complained when they emerged from the Cold War and believed the new world had nothing to do with U.S. power but was their own miraculous creation. But just as Europe forgot that it owed its peace to U.S. power, Israelis might have forgotten that their own survival and success are not due only to their own heroic efforts.
There are, of course, other questions about the direction Israel seems to be heading, such as whether it is good for the millions of Jews who do not live in Israel. Anti-Semitism has been a constant in the Christian world for two millennia, and a common phenomenon among Muslims — especially in the decades before and after the creation of the Jewish state. It has appeared on both the left and right ends of the political spectrum in Europe and the United States. There is no political antidote to anti-Semitism, but the closest thing to an effective astringent has been liberalism. Even during the 18th century, Enlightenment ideals generally restrained the era’s pervasive anti-Semitism. States run by blood-and-soil nationalist regimes committed to the protection of a certain ethnic and national culture aren’t interested in the rights of individuals over the state. When a government seeks to protect a nation’s historical culture from contamination by “others,” the “others” have historically always included the Jews. There is no necessary correlation between nationalism and anti-Semitism, but there has certainly been a historical correlation, especially in Europe. Israel exists today, in no small part, because of the way German nationalism and anti-Semitism intermingled, and not just in the mind of Hitler. Hazony, the Israeli political theorist, might be the only person in the world who believes that an international system based entirely on nationalism will inculcate “an aversion to the conquest of foreign nations” and open “the door to a tolerance of diverse ways of life.”
Israel’s rapprochement with European right-wing nationalism has, so far, required winking at Poland’s law making it a crime to suggest Polish involvement in the killing of Jews during World War II — the joint statement signed by Poland and Israel last year was denounced by Yad Vashem as filled with “grave errors and deceptions.” It has required ignoring the history of Hungarian nationalism amid Orban’s profession of affection for Israel. When Orban and his party waged a campaign against Hungarian-born Jewish philanthropist George Soros that was riddled with anti-Semitic content, and the Israeli ambassador in Budapest lodged a protest, the Israeli foreign ministry overruled him and declared Soros a legitimate target (perhaps not least because Soros funds activities in Israel that are regarded as hostile to the Netanyahu government). Many leaders of the Hungarian Jewish community “felt abandoned by Israel.” As Oren noted, it might be tempting for Israelis to overlook the unsavory past of groups that now claim to love Israel, but “we should be very, very cautious about the way we are willing to trade our legacy for possible contemporary or future benefits.”
Israel’s relationship with American Jews has also grown more complicated. By far the largest segment of the Jewish diaspora, American Jews have also been the most liberal, in all senses of the word. This reflects their understanding that it is the essentially liberal nature of American society — with the protection of individuals and minorities enumerated in the Bill of Rights and generally protected by the courts — that has made the United States a haven for Jews and other minority groups. American Jews, of course, are also overwhelmingly Democrats and have, therefore, also been unhappy about close Israeli ties with Republican presidents, a fact that, historically, Israel has had little choice but to ignore. No one could blame Israel for trying to stay close to a U.S. president who has offered as much to Israel as Trump has. Yet, again, Israel has gone beyond pragmatism. A rising tide of white nationalism in the United States has accompanied Trump’s rise to office, and this has included an increase in the incidence of anti-Semitism, including, in some cases, violent anti-Semitism. Trump’s equivocal response to the violent confrontation in Charlottesville — at which participants in a “Unite the Right” rally chanted “Jews will not replace us!” — showed that, at the very least, Trump was unwilling to repudiate the anti-Semites among his followers. When Israeli officials stood up for Trump after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting last year, because, as one official explained, “the guy has been a huge friend” to Israel, many American Jews questioned whether the Israeli government cared about their concerns.
The answer is, not very much. In recent years, the Netanyahu government has increasingly turned to other allies in the United States, chiefly the evangelical Christian movement. There is a pragmatic side to this — there are many times the number of evangelical Christians than there are Jews. But it helps that, unlike American Jews, evangelicals don’t criticize Israel. They don’t worry how democratic or liberal Israel is. They don’t judge Israel by liberal standards. They support Israel because it fights Muslims, because it stands up to liberals and because it plays a critical role in biblical prophecies about the coming of the End of Days. Whether Israel can rely on evangelical support over the long run remains to be seen, however. Ben-Gurion once declared that “Israel’s only absolutely reliable ally is world Jewry.” He would have been surprised to see his successors deciding that Israel’s most reliable allies are evangelical Christians.
A United States committed to the defense of liberalism will generally be tolerant of Israel’s course, much as it is of other democratic allies. The United States maintained its close ties with France even after France pulled out of NATO’s military structure; it tolerated West Germany’s Ostpolitik and other acts of European neutralism during the Cold War; and it has tolerated Israel’s going its own way with Russia. The United States never supported Israel primarily because of what Israel could do for the United States. It supported it because, in the end, Americans, and not just American Jews, didn’t want to live in the kind of world where victims of genocide had no refuge and where a liberal democratic nation such as Israel could be destroyed, any more than they wanted to live in a world where Britain or France could be destroyed.
For Israel to wish for a different United States is foolhardy and possibly even dangerous. Americans are today engaged in soul-searching to discover again who they are as a people and what their role in the world should be. Insofar as Israelis throw their weight on the scales of nationalism and illiberalism, it makes it that much more difficult for Americans to be their best selves. Israel might succeed in deflecting some criticism by allying with those who won’t hold it to liberal standards. But if the United States were to go far down the road some Israelis now seem to favor, Israel might eventually suffer worse than criticism.
There is a certain shortsighted selfishness to the current Israeli approach to the world. The price Israel paid for being born into the liberal world order was that it would have to suffer liberal criticisms and be held to liberal standards. This might have been difficult and even, from Israelis’ perspective, unfair, but Israeli leaders have borne this burden for 70 years because they knew Israel had no choice, that there was no home for Israel except within the liberal world order. That many Israelis now believe they have a choice is a reflection of our times, but it is a dangerous illusion. Those Netanyahu campaign posters showing him shaking hands with Putin, Modi and Trump carry the tagline “A Different League.” Indeed, it is. Good luck.
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