Israeli foreign policy must not forget its ethical roots

Co-authored by: Max Webb and Yael Sternberg

Over the past several weeks and months, conflict and compromise across the wider Middle East has drawn Israel into a series of evolving power dynamics. On one end, Israel and the Arab world have embarked on a journey of warm normalization, with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain leading this charge and other nations, most notably Sudan, presumed to follow soon. On the other end, the deeply protracted conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh region has ignited a bloody flare up, drawing attention to Israel’s military support to its Muslim majority ally, Azerbaijan. 

What commonalities do these seemingly-exclusive developments share? In both scenarios, Israel finds itself sacrificing its founding principles for short-term diplomatic wins. As Israel seeks to rapidly expand its circle of diplomatic relations with the Arab world, it has begun a process, led by the United States and the UAE, of engagement with Sudan that requires the appeasement of leaders associated with the genocide in Darfur.  Meanwhile in the Caucasus, Israel’s weapons are aiding Azerbaijan in their aggressive campaign against Armenia, a people who, like Jews, have also historically faced genocide and persecution.

As a nation founded on the heels of one of the greatest atrocities in humanity, and the home to a people who have faced persecution in every era of history, Israel has a moral responsibility to stand up for fellow persecuted peoples. By pursuing policies that embrace regimes that are committing atrocities, the fibers of legitimacy that ground Israel as a nation are at risk. If Israel wants to preserve its founding principles and secure true regional stability, it must pursue a balanced foreign policy that prioritizes strategic regional relationships while supporting victims of oppression similar to that of the people of Israel and rejecting those committing crimes against humanity. 

War and flare-ups between Armenia and Azerbaijan have been commonplace since the Soviet breakup in the 1990s. At the center of the conflict is the verdant and strategically located enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory home to an ethnic Armenian majority. Responsibility for the conflict’s most recent escalation has been attributed to both sides, but it is unlikely that Armenia, who benefits from the status quo and whose military expenditures are significantly smaller than Azerbaijan’s, would have struck first. Israel’s involvement in this conflict is the outcome of a making of strange bedfellows, as Azerbaijan was historically one of the only majority Muslim nations to recognize Israel, and the two countries continue to benefit from prosperous relations since Azerbaijan declared independence in 1991. Today, Israel is Azerbaijan’s top arms supplier and has been shelling out weapons en masse to this conflict for the past several weeks. 

However, it is in Israel’s interest and ethical obligation to support Armenia in this latest dispute and better strengthen its relations with Yerevan. Jews and Armenians around the world have frequently been compared in academic literature for the similarities they share, including dispersion in the Diaspora, the desire for self-determination in their own ancestral homelands, and most importantly, the collective memories and traumas of the two people’s respective genocides. Nevertheless, Israel continuously falls short of making this destined allyship a reality through their inability to officially recognize the Armenian Genocide and continued assistance to Azerbaijan’s military capabilities. Furthermore, Azerbaijan is backed by Turkey, the very nation that committed the Armenian genocide, refuses to recognize that it took place, and runs threatening campaigns to block other countries from doing the same. At this point, Turkey has effectively taken control of the confrontation, while somehow dipping its toes into several other proxy wars at once, and rejecting the self-determination of numerous of its own inhabitants and neighbors. As Turkey’s regional alliance with Israel has considerably deteriorated since Erdogan accused Israel of genocide and apartheid in 2018 and the countries expelled one another’s diplomats, Turkey increasingly poses innumerable threats to regional security, most recently with the deployment of a proxy army of Syrian mercenaries into Nagorno-Karabakh

Even so, Israel still allows itself to be manipulated by Turkey’s attempts to prevent recognition of the Armenian Genocide, and has been, perhaps inadvertently, complicit in the unjust attack on Armenian sovereignty. But despite these shortcomings, Armenia and Israel are not enemies, and rather have been on a friendly diplomatic trajectory for some time. But in order for this progress to continue, Israel must decide if commitment to one of its founding principles, supporting “the natural right of all nations to be masters of their own fate,” will be echoed by its foreign policy.

Meanwhile in Sudan, Israel finds itself in the midst of another diplomatic tiff. In the wake of successful normalization with the UAE and Bahrain, both Israel and the United States are eager to secure more diplomatic victories with other nations in the region, or as Prime Minister Netanyahu calls it, “expanding the circle of peace”. On the top of their list is Sudan, an economically starved country attempting to recover from decades of war and regime change, that is also seeking to shake its State Department designation as a state sponsor of terror. As recently as September 23, the US, UAE and the leadership of the Sudanese Sovereign Transitional Council held meetings in Khartoum to discuss the possibility of normalization with Jerusalem. For Israel, the possibility of establishing relations with the country home to the famous “3 No’s” have serious short term benefits for security and stability. 

However, in pursuing this process with such gusto, Israel is starting down a dangerous path. Most notably, the leaders of Sudan’s transitional military council, President Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Vice President Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo (aka Hemeti) are complicit in human rights atrocities. Both leaders have deep connections with the genocidal crimes committed at Darfur. Al-Burhan has been accused of recruiting the Janjaweed militia in Darfur and directly participating in the genocidal crimes carried out against the people of Darfur. More notably, Hemeti, a Janjaweed war chief himself who has a large influence in the decisions of the transitional military council, is in charge of the Rapid Support Forces, the paramilitary force created by rebranding the Janjaweed militias, that, as recently as June 2019 were accused of attacking, murdering, and raping sit-in protestors in Khartoum. 

These are leaders that Israel, a nation founded as a safe haven for victims of global persecution, are meeting with and attempting to establish relations with. What’s more, the idea of normalization among Sudanese citizens is not that popular, with protesters in Khartoum gathering outside the government headquarters to stand against “the betrayal that was represented in the meeting with the head of the Zionist entity.” Even others in the government, including Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdock, don’t believe now is the time for this bold move. The divisions this issue could cause in an already unstable country could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, creating a ripple of instability and uncertainty in the country and region. Is the short-term trophy of rushed normalization truly worth the risks? Does Israel truly benefit from cozying up to leaders who are antithetical to her values as a nation of survivors? As a nation of survivors of persecution and genocide, Israel’s consistent engagement with these dangerous leaders is nonstrategic and wrong. 

The recent geopolitical developments in both the Caucasus and Sudan have highlighted a dangerous trend in Israeli foreign policy. As a country built on the heels of a genocide, embracing perpetrators of genocide and persecution is a moral stain on Israel’s founding principles that will ultimately result in long-term damage to Israel’s character as “a light onto the nations”. Of course, one can’t deny that there are strategic diplomatic benefits to a relationship with Azerbaijan and increased normalization with the Arab world. However, rushed diplomatic processes that perpetuate violence and hurt survivors of similar oppression to the ones faced by Israel’s own citizens are strategic blunders that will result in regional destabilization by exacerbating conflict and undermine Israel’s legitimacy on the international stage. Israel must take a more balanced approach to its pursuit of international alliances to ensure that it does not jeopardize the fibers of its morality by siding with those perpetuating dangerous policies. This will allow Israel to live up to its potential to be a nation that espouses and practices its values as it empowers those around the world who also find themselves victim to ethnoreligious persecution. 

About the Author
Max Webb is the former President of GW for Israel, the largest pro-Israel organization at The George Washington University. A rising senior, Max studies International Affairs with a dual concentration in International Development and Conflict Resolution. Max is an alumni of Young Judea Year Course, where he spent the a year living and working in Bat Yam and Jerusalem. This past summer, Max returned to Israel where he worked for the Reut Institute in Tel Aviv.
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