Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Coddling Up to Dictators: A Losing Cause

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Whether Einstein really said or not is not important (there’s no evidence that he did, but it sure sounds like him) – it rings very true. A case in point: Israel’s foreign policy support for dictators and other reprehensible regimes.

The list is long and varied, but the eventual results are the same: sooner or later such support will boomerang badly. Here’s a not complete list: The Iranian Shah; Apartheid South Africa; Putin’s Russia; Contemporary Hungary; Communist China…

This list actually indicates how many different things can go wrong when one chooses to curry favor with non-democratic regimes. The first and most frequent problem is that particularly reprehensible regimes (e.g., the Shah; apartheid South Africa) will eventually succumb to internal revolution, and the government that takes over will be highly hostile to anyone seen to have supported the previous, now overthrown leadership.

Moreover, such antipathy lasts a very long time. The Iranian mullahs have been in power now for 45 years, and their antagonism hasn’t lessened any – it probably has grown worse. South Africa is now post-apartheid for thirty years, but the picture is the same: taking Israel to the International High Court of Justice over a spurious “genocide” charge is merely its way of paying Israel back for supporting the former apartheid regime. This from the country of Nelson Mandela, a symbol of peaceful reconciliation – something that Hamas is against in principle, regarding Israel. But the emotion of “revenge” against the Jewish State’s earlier pro-apartheid stance vis-à-vis South Africa in its darker, all-white incarnation, is obviously too strong – even if 30 years after the fact.

Another problem with supporting, or at least having very friendly relations with, autocratic regimes is that their only value system is self-interest, pure and simple. In other words (pun intended), they will be “friendly” with Israel as long as this is to their benefit. If the situation changes, they can – and will – turn on a dime, and lo and behold Israel is now the enemy or its actions are castigated publicly.

Examples of this abound. We were on quite good terms with Russia until Oct. 7 when for international realpolitik reasons (getting closer to the Arab world; anti-anyone in the American camp) Russia is now voting against us in the UN and other venues. Similarly, China is no longer a neutral, economic partner with Israel; its votes in international bodies follows the Arab world’s lines almost to a “T.”

Hungary is an even more curious case of Israeli support. First, in the past few years it has gone anti-democratic within the larger European democratic world. It is one thing to support a regime that has always been autocratic to some extent; but to curry favor with a leader who has pulled his country away from democracy is an even greater diplomatic error. Second, PM Netanyahu seems to have a policy that the more a country is anti-Muslim, the better for us. However, when that regime is anti-Muslim because it is fervently against any “non-Hungarian” ethnic group, the Jews will not be very far behind in that country’s discriminatory policy. And indeed, PM Orban’s bête noire is “the Jew” George Soros. If Netanyahu is serious about fighting anti-Semitism worldwide, he could start with sternly admonishing his erstwhile “buddy” Victor Orban for employing classic anti-Semitic tropes.

Which brings us to the third problem with such a foreign policy. Israel still has quite a few friendly and supportive countries on its side who not only offer material help during wartime but are actively fighting anti-Semitism during war and peace. Why should they do so when the Jewish state itself is coddling anti-Semitic regimes? Can they be holier than the pope (or rabbi, in this case)? Moreover, if Israel wants to continue staying in our friends’ good graces politically, then it has to show in clear and consistent fashion whose side it sides with. Israel’s having become too “friendly” with China could not be good for our image in the US; ditto, our “warmish” relations with Putin’s Russia until very recently.

To be sure, a country’s international relations and foreign policy will never be completely consistent. Dilemmas abound; situations change, demanding some fudging and obfuscation. But democracies should have red lines – and certainly two of Israel’s is not undermining the support of democracy and also fighting antisemitism. By looking away at these “shortcomings” in other countries, the short-term benefits are sure to be ultimately outweighed by the long-term costs.

At least PM Netanyahu has been consistent in his domestic and foreign policy. In both cases, he has consistently looked at the short-term: close by, letting Hamas rearm so that he could argue that Israel has no “partner” for peace; further away, sucking up to non-democratic (and some profoundly anti-democratic) regimes just because there’s some immediate gain to be had. Post-Oct. 7 the chickens have come home to roost. Mixing my metaphors, on the international front future Israeli leaders would do well to stop acting like a chicken, and instead grab the bull by the horns to do what is in Israel’s best interests over the long term.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published four books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see:
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