Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Dancing With Giants

In personal relations, a ménage à trois is always difficult to maintain. Imagine, then, how hard it must be in international relations to sustain a ménage a quatre! Israel is trying to do just that – so far with a great amount of success.

There are three world superpowers, national giants bestriding the world: the US, China, and Russia. Israel has relations with all three, but at different levels of intensity. To continue the personal relations simile, America is Israel’s “wife,” while China and Russia are mistresses. Keeping the wife happy with the other two somewhat satisfied takes a lot of diplomatic work, especially when the three are not on the best of terms.

Not much needs to be added regarding the excellent relationship Israel has with the US, despite their infrequent contretemps (which marriage doesn’t have an argument on occasion?). This might not be a marriage made in heaven, but it’s just about as good as it gets on Earth.

If this were a straightforward matrimony with no one else involved, not too much effort would be needed to keep it “heavenly.” However, life is more complicated than that – as is the world.

Israel has a relationship with Russia that can best be described as “civil,” in no small part due to President Putin’s clear philo-Semitism and the million former Soviet citizens now living in Israel. Nevertheless, Israel has to tread lightly, given that: 1- Russia supports (or at least is a titular ally of) Israel’s two greatest enemies: Iran and Syria; 2- Russia and the US are slowly moving back to a Cold War relationship.

Luckily for Israel, the US understands Israel’s need to maintain good relations with Russia, precisely because of this situation. For instance, Israel does not much worry about Syria’s military threat, but it is very concerned about Iran’s infiltration into Syria as a base for attacking Israel. Given that Russia is heavily involved in Syria, its ongoing communication with Russia is of critical importance – so that the Russians don’t think Israel is attacking their “advisers” on Syrian soil (when it is actually bombing Iranian targets in Syria), and Israel can be sure that it doesn’t mistakenly attack Russian “advisers.” As for the major areas of potential Russian/American conflict (e.g., the Ukraine), Israel has stayed decidedly neutral or non-committal, something that the US understands and is willing to swallow.

Israel’s relationship with China, however, is far more fraught from an American perspective – for two main reasons. First, China has a lot more to offer Israel economically e.g., the new Haifa port the Chinese will be managing for Israel for the next 25 years. As the Times of Israel reported a couple of months ago (https://www.timesofisrael.com/israel-inaugurates-new-haifa-port-terminal-in-expected-boost-for-economy/): The project’s proximity to Israel’s submarines, among other issues, raised security concerns, especially after reports revealed that neither the cabinet nor the National Security Council had any input on the deal. The project also raised the ire of the US, which sometimes docks military vessels in Haifa.

Second, and potentially far more problematic for Israel’s relationship with the US, is the growing strategic tension between these two world superpowers. From telecommunications (Huawei 5G) to human rights violations (Moslem Uighurs), the world is watching anxiously from the side as a new, dangerous Cold War seems to be emerging. Thus, the US expects its junior ally Israel to side with it whenever an issue demands international involvement as occurred recently with the UN statement expressing worry about Chinese treatment of its Uighur minority – a statement that Israel circumspectly did not sign, with an Israeli diplomatic official explaining that Jerusalem has “other interests that it has to balance” in addition to its concern over human rights in Xinjiang (https://www.timesofisrael.com/in-effort-to-placate-china-israel-refrains-from-signing-un-statement-on-uighurs/). If and when US/China tensions continue to increase, and certainly if (God forbid) they turn into a “Hot War,” Israel will face a stark choice that will have significant domestic, economic consequences.

Complicating the situation even more is the historically interesting (and almost unique) fact that today all three of these world superpower governments have clear pro-Israel, non-anti-Semitic policies. As noted, Putin is actually philo-Semitic; China never had any anti-Semitic sentiments (very few Jews lived there over the millennia); the US government, of course, has been pro-Israel for at least the past fifty-plus years, notwithstanding some residual anti-Semitism in the country.

Such a relatively pro-Israeli stance on the part of the world’s superpowers has broader implications for Israel’s standing in the Middle East. It is not coincidental that the Abraham Accords were recently formulated and signed, at the same time that Israel is in all the superpowers’ good graces. Indeed, some see making peace with Israel as a way to get Washington’s ear (e.g., Sudan), or improving its already peaceful relationship with Israel as a way to better its standing with the US Administration (e.g., Egypt).

In sum, if Clausewitz opined that “war is a mere continuation of policy by other means,” Israel is finding that the opposite is true too: Diplomatic acumen is a continuation of war by other (more peaceful) means.

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 three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book will be published in early 2022 (Springer Nature): VIRTUALITY AND HUMANITY: VIRTUAL PRACTICE AND ITS EVOLUTION FROM PRE-HISTORY TO THE 21ST CENTURY (https://www.springer.com/gp/book/9789811665257#aboutBook). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com
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