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 sometimes counter-productive.
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-à-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 cynicism.