Commentary Magazine

Israel Experiments With Non-Identification:
Will the “Global” Policy Supplant the “Citadel”?

Now that our country claims, or has had thrust upon it, the leadership of the free world, it finds it must learn to understand the dominating (and often conflicting) concepts and points of view motivating the foreign policies of other nations, whether England, France, Yugoslavia—or Israel. This is an “inside” report on what Israel thinks of its position in the world, at a juncture when Arab-Jewish tensions are high, and when alarming rifts have opened up between Israel and the United States and the United Nations. It is “inside” in the sense that Jeremiah Ben-Jacob is an Israeli, and that his article reports the thinking of leading officials and opinion-molders of the Israeli government on foreign policy. (An analysis of the long-term ideals and political heritage of Israeli officialdom will be found in Judd L. Teller’s article in this issue.)




Two different concepts struggle today for ascendancy in Israeli foreign policy: the “citadel” and the “global.” The first looks towards close cooperation with the Western democracies, through the United States. The second would avoid any choice between “the two giants,” the USSR and the USA, and would seek to find allies and friends wherever they could be found in the world, and chiefly in Asia. An understanding of these two concepts will tell us more about the motives underlying Israel’s foreign relations than any perusal, no matter how exhaustive, of official statements.

There is no question that the “citadel” concept—in at least some of its presuppositions—was implicitly, and often overtly, part of the traditional thinking and propaganda of Zionism in the pre-state period of settlement, especially under Weizmann; and since the establishment of the state it has, so far, generally had the upper hand. But at no time has it gone uncontested. In fact, Israel’s foreign relations in their first phase, sometimes described as the “age of innocence,” were dominated by the wish to avoid taking any side in the Cold War. The United States and the Soviet Union had acted as midwife and godfather to the new state; there was the tradition of Zionism as a world movement whose congresses were held by preference in neutral Switzerland; above all, there was the history of world Jewry, parts of which had so often been hostages to warring powers—as the two million Jews behind the Iron Curtain would be in case of another war.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry, it is true, frowned upon the term “neutrality.” “The Jews are incapable of a neutral attitude,” a high Ministry official declared. Foreign Minister Sharett himself preferred to use the word “non-identification.” But the difference between the popular and the official definition of this position was one of emphasis rather than of basic purpose. In the first glow of success in 1948, with good wishes coming in from both East and West, Israel felt she could ask for economic and military aid from the Soviet as well as the Western world, and for freedom of communication and movement, to and fro, with Diaspora Jewry wherever it was. A vision arose of Israel as a bridge or link, and this produced in turn the brief illusion that she could stand alone as providential arbiter between the two great hostile camps.



“Non-identification,” though never disavowed officially, soon ceased, how-ever, to be the mainspring of Israeli policy and thought. The cold war, as it proceeded, made it “unrealistic,” especially with respect to the USSR. As tension mounted between East and West, the Soviet leaders began to refuse Israel the aid she sought and the liberties she demanded. Least of all were they in a mood to encourage Utopian pretensions on her part.

Bolshevism, it should be remembered, has an old grudge to settle with Zionism. Both movements were born at more or less the same time, and not infrequently as competitors for the allegiance of the same discontented Jewish idealists in Czarist Russia. Before 1914 Weizmann and Lenin had debated before Jewish students at Swiss universities. The relation between the two movements was one of hostility intensified by familiarity. That the USSR’s sudden friendship for Zionism in 1947-48 was merely tactical was revealed as early as the fall of 1948, when a grim Pravda article, signed by Ilya Ehrenburg, warned Russian Jews not to misinterpret Soviet support for the new State of Israel.

Communist dissatisfaction with Israel became open when she associated herself with the UN in the Korean war. Talk of Israel’s “ingratitude,” “insolence,” and “ties with imperialism” spread in the Communist world. Then came the Prague Trial and the Moscow “doctors’ plot” on the eve of Stalin’s death, with Israel cast in the role of incubator of global anti-Soviet conspiracies.

As bad feeling increased between Israel and the Soviet world, and the “cold war” with the Arabs showed no signs of abating, “non-identification” became meaningless. Israel found it hard to contemplate the future except in military terms. The possibility of a third world war and the probability of local upheavals became governing assumptions. The collapse of the Utopian dream of becoming an arbiter among the nations left a void that was filled by a military idea, and by the concept of Israel as a citadel or bastion.



Israel’s military prowess has been one of the notable surprises of the century. Visiting Jerusalem in the early 1920’s, G. K. Chesterton saw “Islam crying from the turret and Israel weeping at the Wall,” and lamented the fact that the studious and un-military Jews should rely on British bayonets for their protection and defense. Chesterton, of course, entirely misread the signs. And in any case, the earlier history of the Zionist colonization of Palestine should have been enough to show him where he was wrong. (But many Jews, too, misread the signs.) At any rate, 1948 saw the founding of Israel as a military nation almost Spartan in aspect.

The concept of Israel as a tough little nut in an area where all else is chaotic has frequently been advanced in the West as an important selling point on her behalf. (At the same time, some Israelis wonder whether Israel might not, by resuming her Second World War role as workshop of the Allied armies in the Middle East, relieve herself of unbearable burdens and escape from a cruel isolation.) It has been claimed that in case of war she could put 200,000 troops or more in the field. But this has also been a somewhat embarrassing concept insofar as it has drawn the fire of Communists and pro-Soviet supporters in Israel, who are able, with some success, to appeal to the natural reluctance of most Israelis (as of other peoples) to involve themselves in a struggle between the great powers that would put them in the role of instruments rather than prime movers. But the citadel concept has also suffered from attrition from the West. Even during the Truman administration there were always those in Washington who were not particularly enthusiastic about the idea.

By and large, however, in the days following Israel’s establishment, the serious doubts that had been felt in Washington about her stability, democratic character, and fundamental loyalties were to a large degree dispelled by her triumph over the Arabs and her introduction of democratic institutions. Washington then urged her to put an end to continuing tension with her neighbors by making substantial concessions to them. In May 1949, the American government delivered a stern note to Tel Aviv protesting against Israel’s stand on territorial boundaries and the Arab refugees. Soon afterwards, however, Washington softened its policy and in May 1950, with Britain and France, guaranteed the territorial status quo in Palestine.

The years 1950-52 became the honeymoon period of American-Israeli relations. America gave Israel substantial economic aid and, with but few dissenting voices, proclaimed her the citadel of democracy in the Middle East, its missionary and protector, its “shield” and “spearhead.” Israel, it was held, would not be just another planet in that area but a source of power and light. Her inferiority in area and population, it was believed, would be counterbalanced by her capacities as a colonizer and diplomat, by her military prowess and dynamic character. However, the concept of Israel as a military bastion was still regarded with caution; given the explosive international and local situation, it was deemed neither wise nor timely to try to translate it into the hard facts of alliances and defense encampments.1



The advent of Eisenhower has resulted, it would seem—at least to Israelis—in a new emphasis and intonation in American policy towards Israel. In Israel herself there is a growing conviction that her honeymoon with the United States is over. When he was still a general, Eisenhower held definite views on the role of the Middle East in a possible third world war—views that boded ill for the citadel concept. On August 8, 1951, he told the Senate: “We must bring the Middle East to our side. So far as the area is concerned, there is no region in the world, strategically speaking, as important as the Middle East. . . . We must mobilize all our ability, our organizing genius, above all, our leadership to bring the Arab world to our side.” On his visit to the Middle East last spring, Dulles presented General Naguib of Egypt with a pistol as a gift from President Eisenhower. When in Israel he did not respond to an invitation from the Israeli Ministry of Defense to inspect an exhibit of Israeli’s weapons, excusing himself with the plea of pressure of engagements. These incidents, though probably without real political significance, have in the last few months taken on at least symbolic significance for most Israelis.

The political atmosphere in Israel these days is somewhat reminiscent of the time of the political skirmishes with the British government following the publication of the 1939 White Paper. It is already being called the period of “friendly struggle with the United States.” Israeli officials have ascribed the growth of violence on Israel’s borders and the discontent of the Arab minority within her borders to the Arab belief, encouraged by the State Department, that America has withdrawn her support from Israel. This interpretation was officially referred to in an Israeli army communiqué following the search conducted by Israeli forces in the Arab village of Tira last summer. Meanwhile every setback and every reassuring gesture from the United States is prominently featured and avidly discussed in the Israeli press, in an atmosphere of consternation alternating with hope, of defiance alternating with second thoughts.

The atmosphere was particularly electric in July and October. In July the Israeli press reacted with alarm to the announcement by Under-Secretary of State Byroade that the United States would supply more arms to the Arab states than to Israel. Haboker, organ of the General Zionists and one of the most pro-American papers in the country, took the occasion to criticize the geopolitical school of strategical thought in America because of its obsession with the disparity between Israel and the Arab states in population, territory, and natural resources. According to this arithmetic, the paper said, the Americans should have supported the Chinese instead of the Koreans in the Far East. Al Hamishmar, organ of fellow-travelling Mapam, moralized that the new American policy was Israel’s “reward” for her collaboration with America’s foreign policy and her readiness to join the proposed Middle East Command. Herat, mouthpiece of the militant nationalists, urged Israel not to wait until attacked by Arabs with American arms, but to take immediate action.

In October, Secretary Dulles announced that the United States had suspended the program of mutual security aid with Israel because of the latter’s refusal to abide by the UN Commission’s ruling enjoining her to stop work on the Jordan River scheme. This move did not come as a surprise, being the climax of a series of disagreements, moves, and countermoves between the State Department and the Israeli Foreign Ministry; Israel’s defiance of General Bennike, UN Chief of Staff, and the Kibya raid on October, 14, merely brought matters to a head. Nevertheless, Dulles’s announcement aroused a storm of protest and indignation in Israel such as would have been inconceivable a year ago.

Israelis have also been agitated by what they think is the new climate of public opinion in America. The “let’s have a change” school, which doesn’t like foreigners and deplores America’s foreign relations; the “power politics” school, which is overawed by the vastness of a Moslem world that stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific; the “emotional” school, which has used, not without effect, the plight of the Arab refugees to indict the State of Israel; and the “political theology” school, which has accused Israel of flagrant disregard of the claims and aspirations of Christendom in the Holy Land, particularly on the issue of Jerusalem—all these appear to many Israelis to have converged in a formidable anti-Israeli offensive in the United States. Some Israelis hope that this will soon exhaust itself; some hear only the rumblings of a new “crusade against the Holy Land”; some have begun to see a serious challenge in the making.



What manner of “citadel” is it, anxious Israelis are asking today, when even those who helped found it seem anxious to strengthen outsiders whose avowed aim is its destruction? If America—they point out—does not need or desire such a citadel, or if she considers it more liability than asset, or if she would have it only on condition that the cost and the risk be small, then Israel must clearly renounce the citadel concept and seek a better path.

The resumption of diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and Israel in July 1953 must be seen in the light of such murmurings and misgivings. The events following Stalin’s death have not transformed the climate of the world but they have modified it to some extent. The pessimists who saw the shape of things to come as that of a frozen world in the grip of a long, long Ice Age seem to have been refuted. The spring floods have not come, but there is some evidence of a thawing. The withdrawal of the Moscow accusations against the Jewish doctors made, of course, a particular impression. The idea of a world polarized between the rival power centers of Washington and Moscow is no longer so dominant. Even before Stalin’s death that idea had been challenged by the revolt of Yugoslavia and the rise of China as a world power. Since then it has been shaken further by the East Berlin uprising and the increasingly restive mood and independent attitude towards America of her European allies. Now that the international situation seems to have become less a state of siege than an open field, Israel feels she has greater freedom of maneuver. Hence the dispatch with which her government acted on a satellite diplomat’s hint that the Soviet regime would be agreeable to the resumption of relations. Outwardly, at least, Israel’s isolation has been lessened by this, her international position strengthened, and the grip of predominantly military ideas on her policy loosened or challenged.

The fading of the military idea has again left a vacuum, which, slowly, painfully, and incoherently, is being filled by the alternate idea: the global concept. Zalman Aranne, an influential Mapai Knesset member and foreign affairs specialist, sums it up as follows: “The foreign policy of a small or middle-sized country in our time is addressed for the most part to the state or states nearest her borders. To the extent that her geographical position is linked with the international situation, she seeks refuge under the wing of a Trig brother’ to the East or to the West. The paradox inherent in the foreign policy of the State of Israel lies in the fact that after the United States, the Soviet Union, and Britain, our country is the ‘fourth power,’ and as such must adopt a global policy.”



According to this concept, Israel, though a small and hard-pressed nation, is an international factor and must become so increasingly; though situated in the Middle East, she must make friends and cultivate ties with nations in other regions and continents; though to a considerable extent the creation of the diplomacy of the great powers, she is no satellite but a potential, and to some degree already an actual, world power; though deeply absorbed in problems of national reconstruction, she must express distinct views on international issues and evolve a distinct policy and program for the problems of mankind.

Perhaps the clue to the current vitality of this concept is that it was not a preconceived theory but a reaction to the latest events. It has few roots in previous Zionist thought, which tended to emphasize the escape from anti-Semitism and a sinking world. Now the global concept comes as a sudden reversal to those who used to regard the Jews as a “people dwelling apart” and Israel as a glorified ghetto state. But this perhaps only increases the force of the concept.

Another paradox is that this new desire to look abroad for new friends has emerged as a sequel to failure in the crucial field of Arab relations. Israel’s position today is like that of a chess player with grandiose strategy but a highly exposed king.



As a matter of fact, Israel does not consider herself completely isolated in the Middle East. She has courted Turkey, Greece, and the British Colony of Cyprus successfully, and her relations with the British in general are better than ever, despite the Kibya affair. The speed with which Israel hurried help to the victims of the earthquakes in the Ionian Isles and Cyprus won her much acclaim. And the echoes of Winston Churchill’s unprecedented tribute in his speech of May 11, 1953 still ring throughout the Mediterranean. But Israel has not been content with that: her envoys have gone on special journeys to India, the Far East, and Latin America, and many of her leaders have practically become commuters to the United States.

Israel’s ambassadors and ministers are unique in that they are envoys, not only to foreign governments, but also to the Jewish communities in the countries of those governments. Not infrequently, an Israeli diplomat has become in effect the spiritual leader of a Diaspora community. Thus the practice has grown in recent years in the Israeli Foreign Ministry of making diplomatic appointments on the basis not only of diplomatic qualifications but also of capacity for communal leadership, and knowledge of the Jewish community in the country of assignment.

The scope of the activities of the Israeli Foreign Ministry is demonstrated by a sample of Foreign Minister Sharett’s calendar. In September 1952 he met Chancellor Adenauer in Luxembourg to sign the Israeli-West German reparations agreement. In January 1953 he journeyed to Rangoon to attend the Asian Socialist conference, at which he played a distinguished role. In April 1953, he met President Eisenhower and State Department officials in Washington and discussed the Middle East situation with them. Next he went to Argentina as guest of the government, where his time was divided, rather symbolically, among state banquets, lunches in gaucho fashion, synagogue services, and conferences with leaders of the government and of the Jewish communities. He also visited Chile, Uruguay, and Brazil, and saw the presidents and foreign ministers of those countries as well as the local Jewish communal leaders.



But why, it was asked in some quarters in Israel, should the Foreign Minister go wandering over the earth at such a critical time, when the very survival of the new state was being threatened by developments in Washington and Moscow? Sharett’s defenders pointed, in answer, to the importance of Asia, the awakening giant, to a country which belonged to it geographically and, in part, culturally—and to the international weight of Latin America with eighteen votes in the United Nations. They also mentioned the not inconsiderable financial contribution to Israel made by the Jews of Latin America.

In 1953, after Sharett’s return from Rangoon, Israel became Asia-conscious as never before. This was expressed in the appointment of David Hacohen, member of Knesset and a leading figure in the powerful Histadrut cooperative, Solel Boneh, as Minister to Burma. Israel has at the same time become a kind of Mecca for Burmese politicians, trade-union leaders, and newspaper editors, who come there for inspiration, instruction, and official entertainment. Yet Israel has very few real economic and cultural ties with Burma (Rangoon has only a handful of Jewish families). The whole phenomenon makes sense only in terms of the new global concept, which at this moment has a Socialist tinge. With Burma and Israel the only two countries in Asia whose governments are led by Socialists, the Mapai leaders in the government seek in democratic socialism what they hope will be a long-term international lever.

Furthermore, in August 1953, Morgan Phillips, Chairman of the Socialist International and Secretary-General of the British Labor party, stopped off in Israel on his way back from India, where he had attended the Asian Socialist Conference, and he told a Mapai audience in Jerusalem that Israel must serve as a main link between European and Asian Socialists. (His plea was well received by labor leaders but drew protests from those who look on international socialism as a false doctrine and lost cause—and also from those who hold the West to be Israel’s real center of gravity, and Asia still but a mirage.)



Israel may be said to be groping towards her global concept with very inadequate moral and intellectual instruments. Israeli Socialism and Marxism—looked towards as the dynamos of the concept—still peer out on the world through the doctrinaire glasses of the 19th century, and their spokesmen are on the defensive and without real enthusiasm. A small group of earnest intellectuals centered around the Hebrew University in Jerusalem interpret Israel’s mission in terms of universal Judaism, but they have little influence with the mass of people.

The nearest thing Israel has to an international statesman in the Anglo-Saxon sense is the South African- and British-trained Abba Eban. As Ambassador to the United States and Chief of the Israeli delegation to the United Nations, he holds the key diplomatic assignments abroad. But he has no discernible political following in Israel, and hardly reflects national currents. Eban once suggested, before an American audience, that “Israel’s place in the world of geography reflects a corresponding centrality in the realm of ideas, and the far-flung Jewish dispersion gives us a sense of universal mission in space, which is further deepened in time by long and continuous memories.” Had these rather unorthodox sentiments been addressed to an Israeli audience, eyebrows would probably have been raised in incomprehension or disapproval.

When Eban came back to Israel for a visit at the end of last summer he was told that Israel, being small and poor, should not meddle in international affairs. These views he denounced in public addresses in the major cities of the country, affirming that it was a greater offense to shirk the duties of international citizenship than to be outspoken, and that the value of opinion in the international forum depended, not on a country’s size, but on its moral stature.

Israel has not, however, found it a simple task to carry out a consistent global policy, if by this is meant neutrality between East and West. In the UN Political Committee, on August 22, 1953, Eban pleaded for Russia’s and India’s presence at the Korean peace conference, but on August 27 Israel abstained on the issue of India’s participation. Before the Israeli delegation set out for the General Assembly session in September, a Foreign Ministry spokesman indicated that it would support the admission of Communist China to the UN because Israel stood for the principle of the universality of UN membership. But in the end she abstained from voting on Vishinsky’s proposal to seat Communist China.



It remains a formidable fact that the United States and Great Britain are Israel’s best trade customers, that about 75 per cent of her donated funds comes from the United States, and that she has by no means given up hope of holding on to American grants-in-aid. A chart of Israel’s shipping and airlines shows that her ships sail westwards and that the El Al planes have their terminals in New York and Johannesburg. So long as Israel is not independent economically—and, according to government estimates, that is not likely to come about in less than ten years—it will not be easy for her to follow a genuinely independent line in international affairs.

And at home the decline in morale, the increase in tensions, and the undiminished strength of chauvinism make the global concept still something inorganic and artificial. The concept is by no means alien to the intensity and prophetic fervor of a people that has traversed the ages and the earth, but the leaders of Israel have as yet failed to expound it with any coherence or really eloquent persuasiveness.

Anti-Semites have sought to show in Israel’s effort sinister and sordid motives, but as a matter of historical fact, she has fought “the powers of darkness,” and not with the aid of world Jewry alone, but in alliance with Christian, labor, and liberal groups. The paradox is that she is a world factor only insofar as she can draw upon the ethical heritage of the enlightened world and the support of the forces of decency. Without that, and without the support of a moral idea, the global concept becomes impotent, a vain attempt to play power politics without having power.



American-Israeli differences would certainly be lessened by ending the cold war with the Arabs, but responsible leaders in Israel see no real hope of that in the near future. The most they expect is a relaxation of border tension and the cessation of border violence. Today more than ever, Israel relies for her security in the Middle East upon her army, called Zahal (reported to be in excellent shape), and for her internal development on the national irrigation plan worked out by her Water Planning Authority, called Tahal; it is assumed this plan can be carried out without the cooperation of the neighboring Arab countries.

Zahal and Tahal have become key words in Israel today, and they reflect a “get tough” attitude. They also pertain to the global concept and the present “irritations” (an Israeli Foreign Ministry term) with the Western powers. To the latter, Israel is saying in effect: “If you can’t help us, please don’t hinder us. Above all, don’t upset the balance of power in the Middle East by supplying arms to the Arabs. If you can’t get them to work with us in exploiting the region’s water resources, please don’t put obstacles in the way of our own national water plan.”

The Kibya incident and the clash with Syria and the UN over the Jordan hydroelectric scheme show that Israel is determined to avoid a soft policy towards her neighbors. Her present policy is a dynamic one, and without a shred of illusion. Perhaps the disillusionment has gone too far, for it breeds a tendency to disregard world opinion and minimize the power of ideas. It is one more paradox that the new global concept, with its quest for friends, should be emerging in Israel on a distinct note of defiance.

Ben Gurion said recently: “Give me another two million Jews in Israel and I guarantee the best possible relations with all the nations of the world.” This view is shared by other Israeli leaders. When asked where the two millions are to come from, they sometimes reply prophetically: “One million from the Moslem and Oriental countries and another million from the Soviet Union and her satellites.” At the same time they seek to give the definite impression that the seemingly fantastic idea of an exodus of Soviet Jews has some basis in fact and inside information. An original and independent line in world affairs, it is claimed, will aid this plan, which, they hint, is on the agenda, provided the international situation does not deteriorate. It is also claimed that this unprecedented migration from a “closed society” might contribute signally to human freedom and the concept of an open world.



According to other leaders, Israel’s most urgent task is to achieve economic independence. While aware of America’s immense contribution, actual and potential, to the building up of the land, they hold it would be unhealthy if Israel were to become over-dependent on her, whether commercially, philanthropically, or diplomatically. Thus the global concept appears to harmonize with the present quest for new trade contacts and contracts, a quest that is diligently fostered by Israeli diplomacy. The contacts found in Turkey, Yugoslavia, Finland, and Belgium, and the imminent “trade offensive” in Asia, have got detailed publicity and discussion. Before his departure for Rangoon, David Hacohen said that Burma would be an excellent “observation post” for trade possibilities in India, Thailand, and Indonesia.

But as yet trade with Asia is mere talk. The migration of “one million Jews from Russia” remains an intriguing slogan based on nothing more than a hint, which may or may not have been made, and which may or may not prove to mean anything. And it would still be the height of folly to equate the United States with Russia. Whatever her faults, the United States does stand for individual and national liberties, for magnanimity in international life, and for the true concept of an open world. And she herself is the center of whatever there is of the latter. An elementary but overwhelming fact in modern Jewish history is often overlooked. Nearly half the Jews of the world live in the United States on a soil congenial to their traditions and spirit. They are free agents, and have done extraordinary things in making possible the birth and development of Israel. They have often had, and no doubt will continue to have, the ear and the good will of the American people and the American government.



It is, in any case, usually a mistake to look for new, untried friends in exchange for old, powerful, and tested ones. Ten Uruguays plus ten Burmas do not equal one United States; nor is the impact of India or China on the world’s destiny by any means commensurate with the size of either’s population. And not only does the material power rest with America, but also the dynamism and the moral creativity. It is there that the soil is most fertile for the nourishment of the best purposes of our century. Israelis should beware, therefore, of the kind of mathematical thinking that sees Asia’s bulk as an adequate counterweight to the West.

And it is wrong to exaggerate the present shift of mood in America away from Israel, and even wronger to regard it as final and irrevocable. No new concept, global or otherwise, ought to distort the basic fact that the relationship between Israel and America is as enduring as it is unique, that it is a relationship of peoples as well as governments, a confluence not only of interests but also of long-range objectives with a common element of “Hebraic mortar.”

On the other hand, the United States and Israel are both groping for a new direction in foreign policy, and American policy-makers may find themselves in a blind alley in the Middle East if they minimize Israel’s dynamic role in the area. Israel’s policy-makers may, in turn, commit a similar blunder if they misread America’s role in the world in the years ahead.




1 See Hal Lehrman’s two articles on United States-Israeli relations in COMMENTARY, October and December, 1952.

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