Here in Israel we are blessed with a strong civil society that keeps our democratic institutions accountable to the people. Our political parties, over a dozen of which are currently represented in the Knesset, reflect a wide range of views on issues such as social policy, the role of religion in government, and, most prominently, security. Strangely, one of the areas in which there isn’t significant disagreement between political parties is foreign policy.
This is largely a product of the country’s status around the world: encumbered by the bloody, century-long conflict with the Palestinians, our diplomats are forced to operate on the defensive, constantly making the case for Israel in the face of vicious slander and cementing our relationships with sorely needed allies. Until we reach a lasting peace with our neighbors, we will not have the requisite latitude to expand our foreign policy beyond our current needs-based paradigm. One of the most significant outcomes of a peace accord with the Palestinians would be our newfound ability to champion a progressive, human rights-centered foreign policy.
Since even before independence was declared in 1948, Israel has been on the defensive, surrounded by enemies who economically isolated us and waged wars of aggression against our fledgling state. Therefore, acquisition of arms and retention of allies remain to this day central pillars of our international relations. The covert yet astoundingly warm relations with pre-revolutionary Iran and the violently controversial reparations agreement with West Germany were each results of Israel’s complete regional isolation and need to secure allies and money from even the shadiest players.
Today, geopolitically isolated despite our peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt, Israel’s frequently unstable ties with Turkey are regarded as somewhat sacrosanct. Scared of damaging an already tense relationship, the Israeli government refuses to formally recognize the Armenian Genocide nor does it recognize the independence of Kurdistan, despite its potential as a future ally. Not wanting to be on the bad side of China, a power with rising influence in the Middle East, Israel extends no support to Taiwan, Tibet, nor to the Uyghur Muslims languishing in Chinese concentration camps. And as Western European sympathy for the Palestinian cause grows, the current Israeli government has gone so far as to foster strong relations with Orban in Hungary and Duda in Poland, two of the most autocratic and blatantly anti-semitic rulers in Eastern Europe.
These policies are sources of national shame. After thousands of years of brutal persecution, it’s reprehensible that we don’t attempt to alleviate the suffering of other voiceless people, whether by speaking out against oppressive regimes or lending a hand to those nations seeking freedom. Our foreign policy should be based on a set of moral imperatives: primarily, the safety of Diaspora Jewry, peace and cultural exchange with our neighbors, support of independence movements, and the defense of human rights everywhere. The rights of women, LGBT people, people of color, and all persecuted minorities must play an integral role in our relations with the rest of the world.
To be sure, great strides have been made. Despite the wars and massive waves of immigration that caused the near collapse of the state, merely a decade after independence Golda Meir already understood the potential of our foreign policy to help define Israel on the world stage. As Foreign Minister and then as Prime Minister she spearheaded what became to be known as MASHAV (The Center for International Cooperation), which to this day sends Israeli professionals in innovation and agricultural to developing African nations. In the 21st century, Israel is consistently one of the first responders in areas affected by natural disasters and Israeli diplomats and academics have taken a leading role in the international fight against climate change, particularly through the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification and the World Heritage Convention.
These are valiant attempts to express our values through foreign aid and activism and to redefine Israel beyond the confines of our geopolitical struggles with the Palestinians. Still, present conditions do not lend themselves to a total redefinition of our foreign policy. We cannot abandon alliances nor upset superpowers that at present play a critical role in our security, especially if, G-d forbid, we have to face a three front war with an Iran-backed Hezbollah in the north, Hamas in the south and a massive popular uprising in the West Bank.
However, a radical human-rights based foreign policy would be the modern-day political manifestation of the call of our ancient prophets to be a light unto the nations. By placing not economic prosperity nor political expediency but the sanctity of human life at the center of our relations with the rest of the world, we would prove that nation-states too can be guided by divine values.