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Avidan Freedman
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Netanyahu’s China turn: A strategic and moral mistake

Israel's strength is its values, so it shouldn't be cozying up to a cruel, morally indefensible regime, not even for realpolitik
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, March 21, 2017. (Haim Zach/ GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, March 21, 2017. (Haim Zach/ GPO)

Netanyahu is heading to China, for his first visit in six years. According to a report published last week, a diplomatic source explained that “Netanyahu is not going to stand and wait for an invitation that is not forthcoming to visit the White House. He is also working in parallel channels.” In other words, this visit is meant to signal to the Americans that if they are not interested in our continued friendship, we have other options. We can strengthen our relationship with China, as Netanyahu has been doing more and more in recent years. China, a country that Freedom House gives a freedom rating of 9 out of 100. China, a cruel regime that has interred one million of the Uyghur in “re-education” camps under inhumane, horrifying conditions. China, a regime with no elections, no freedoms, no protection of human rights. China, Israel’s new best friend.

This flowering relationship is one in a long list of friendships with cruel and dictatorial regimes with shameful human rights records. The many examples include Azerbaijan (Freedom rating: 1/100), which just recently opened a new embassy in Israel, African countries like South Sudan (1/100) and Cameroon (15/100), and Myanmar (9/100), to whom Israel sold weapons before, during and after they committed genocide against the Rohingya minority. These relationships have a clear rationale. Israel, surrounded by enemies, under constant existential threat, needs all the friends she can get. As European criticism of Israeli policies steadily increased, the extent to which such relationships could be relied upon forced Israel to find friends in places that would be less ready to criticize her. And if, in the wake of the proposed judicial reforms, Israel finds herself being criticized by the United States as well, we would seem to have no choice but to find new friends with less sensitivity to the state of our democracy.

This is the approach of realpolitik, and it is understandable. States work based on self-interest and power dynamics and nothing else, it states. That’s just how the world works, and in this world, there’s nothing that an idealistic, romantic, moral vision of the world can do except cause trouble. But there is a problem with this approach when it comes to the State of Israel.

Certainly, those within the government who constantly speak about the meaning of Israel as a Jewish state (and there are more than a few of those) should oppose this approach on religious grounds. In the coming weeks, as the Jewish people traditionally mourn the destruction of both Temples, the religious community will affirm and reaffirm that what caused these tragedies was not the military strength of the Babylonians or the Romans. On the contrary, according to the prophets, the delusion that the kings of Israel maintained — namely, that what would save them would be a pact with one superpower or another — is precisely what brought about their destruction. A religious perspective insists that it is not realpolitik which is ultimately the deciding factor. That is not to say that the Jews don’t need an army or that they can rely on Divine miracles — from the time that we entered the land of Israel, that was never the case. But it is to say that not every policy can be justified by the claim that “this is just how politics works.”

But even if we leave aside the religious philosophy that should animate the government’s religious parties, the approach of realpolitik is problematic in the Israeli context. David Ben Gurion, himself a realist in many ways, nevertheless formulated the problem with great clarity. Ben Gurion claims that, for Israel, our only quantitative advantage is our qualitative advantage.

Always, throughout the generations, from the time of Joshua until the current wars of the IDF, we stood as the few against the many. Even if we succeed — and I believe that we shall — to bring another million Jews to Israel, we will be the few against the many. We will survive only if we remain faithful to our historic Jewish destiny, and loyal to its vision. In our moral and intellectual qualities, the small and wondrous Jewish nation is no less than the greatest of nations. Our education must nurture these qualities to their maximum potential. Only by their strength will we survive in a world of competition, hatred and oppression, and by their strength, nothing will stop us from showing the world a new path, a path of peace, justice, freedom and human solidarity.

In other words, Ben Gurion claims that if we try to play on the quantitative, realpolitik field of strength, we will always be at a disadvantage. We will always be fewer and weaker. But when we speak of the quality of our moral and intellectual abilities, we have the potential to stand as equals among the greatest of nations. Thus, Ben Gurion takes a claim that is usually seen as idealistic and naïve and transforms it into a realistic argument. It is not realistic to think that Israel will survive on the playing field of political power and self-interest. With all due respect to our success as a start-up nation and a high-tech superpower, it is still a dangerous delusion to think that we can compete in this field without a foundation in values and morality.

Yet that is precisely the dangerous delusion that has led Israel over the years to develop friendships with cruel, dictatorial regimes, friendships which included not only economic support, but also military support and training for armies committing human rights atrocities. Netanyahu’s turn to China, with its hints to the possibility of replacing our strategic relationship with the United States, is a natural continuation of this path. Even the greatest cynic must admit that our common interests with the United States are primarily grounded not in power politics, but in basic shared values of democracy and freedom. It is not surprising that, as the Israeli government furthers reforms that undermine democracy, it finds itself forced to look for new alliances. But we must understand that this shift in friendship is not only morally problematic, it is a strategic error. In fact, as Ben Gurion taught us, and as the Torah teaches as well, it is a strategic error precisely because it is morally problematic.

About the Author
Avidan Freedman is the co-founder and director of Yanshoof (www.yanshoof.org), an organization dedicated to stopping Israeli arms sales to human rights violators, and an educator at the Shalom Hartman Institute's high school and post-high school programs. He lives in Efrat with his wife Devorah and their 5 children.
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