Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, speaking in his role as president of the organization, Socialist International, was roundly condemned for sending a short clip aired at Saturday’s weekly pro-democratic protest against the Israeli government’s proposed judicial changes. He highlighted the values of freedom, equality, justice, and democracy. Foreign Minister Eli Cohen responded by attacking this attempt to interfere in Israel’s internal affairs and stating categorically that “no foreign entity will decide for the public in Israel.”
The Spanish leader is not the first to be berated in this manner. The same reactions have been voiced by coalition spokespeople to similar reservations regarding authoritarian measures initiated by the new government, voiced either publicly or privately, by almost every democratic leader since the inauguration of Benjamin Netanyahu’s sixth government, barely four months ago, including: Rishi Sunak (UK), Emmanuel Macron (France), Olaf Scholz (Germany), not to speak of the heads of most other veteran democracies in Europe, Australia, southeast Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Special attention has been given to avowedly pro-Israel Americans — especially from the Democratic Party and its leader, President Joe Biden. Is Israel trying to build a wall between itself and the global community? Probably not, but it is doing a very good job of it anyway.
Official Israel’s recent rebuffs of any hint of external criticism of its policies smack of a mixture of hypocrisy, counter-productivity, and self-defeatism, with nothing short of calamitous consequences. The essential duplicity of Israel’s attitude towards external intervention is everywhere evident. While coalition supporters bridle at even the mildest hint of discomfort emanating from abroad, its emissaries outside the country — ranging from self-appointed advocates of judicial “reform” and government envoys to the prime minister himself — have been busy garnering support wherever it can be found, and touting it widely in the media.
Israeli leaders have gone out of their way to secure as little as a photo-op with potentially sympathetic politicians (Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, for one) or to cajole a positive statement from long-time illiberal fellow-travelers, such as Victor Orban of Hungary and some of his neighbors in central Europe. They are constantly cultivating relations with blatantly anti-democratic potentates throughout the world (including Russia’s Vladimir Putin, former president Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, several of Africa’s most autocratic despots, and recently the leaders of some central Asian republics hardly known for their democratic propensities). The efforts of this government to bolster support in anti-Biden circles — especially in the heart of the Republican party — have been especially notable (vide the honor bestowed on potential Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis and Speaker of the House of Representatives Kevin McCarthy).
In all these instances and many more, a Janus-faced message sounds loud and clear: foreign involvement of a supportive sort in Israel’s affairs is welcome; anything else is rejected out of hand. But Israel cannot have it both ways. Either the country is a part of the global community and acts accordingly, or it is actively leading itself into splendid international self-encapsulation.
Indeed, even the most autarkic elements in Israel’s new government (especially Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich who revel in Israel’s capacity to go it alone) are not totally oblivious of the global context. They too, just like Prime Minister Netanyahu, who until recently basked in his broad international accessibility, understand that they need outside support. The strategic significance of the US relationship is not lost on them, nor is the necessity to forge alliances with partners in the region (Egypt, Jordan, and signatories of the Abraham accords). The palpable dangers emanating from Iran and its allies make such interactions almost mandatory.
If security considerations are not sufficient to press home this point, then economic considerations make the case for interdependence even more compelling. Untold pressure was exerted to prevent a change in Moody’s rating to the Israeli economy, and the seeming dismissal of its downgrading of Israel’s economic rating from positive to stable has not stemmed the flight of capital (including of Israeli corporations) to firmer terrain elsewhere. Given rising inflation and the alarming escalation of the cost of living in the country — the key immediate concern of the majority of Israelis today — the additional burden of elevated interest rates is now in the offing.
Yet Israeli responses on this, as on the security front have, far from quelling concerns, proven to be decidedly counterproductive. Of special note are aggressive statements (and concrete initiatives) regarding Iran and Israel’s precarious northern front, as well as the populist form of extreme economic neo-liberal policies needed to keep the ruling coalition in step.
Israel’s closest allies and supporters have articulated their qualms openly. They are not only worried about the judiciousness of many Israeli actions, both economically and in the security sphere, but they are also queasy about their implications for Israel’s stability. They also correlate regime-related changes that undercut Israeli democracy with the decline of the country’s reliability as a partner. The flailing value basis of these alliances leaves only constantly shifting interests as the basis for future cooperation. And regardless of whether present decision-makers like it or not, they connect Israel’s democratic backsliding to both the ongoing occupation and the annexationist aspirations of key coalition partners.
This combination is extremely disconcerting. There is no reason to presume that the pattern it portends will change in present circumstances, even though there are indications that Netanyahu is aware of the issues. Individual Israelis (and in particular those with internationally marketable skills) are taking matters into their own hands, capitalizing on the additional passports so many possess to “relocate” for the time being. Israel’s global interdependence since its inception only serves to underline the ludicrousness of the claim that, if push comes to shove, Israel can rely only on itself. No country can.
Above all else, Israel’s contradictory attitudes to the outside world are inherently self-defeating. They defy many of its intellectual, cultural, historical, and ethical roots. Israel’s foundational document, the Declaration of Independence, highlights a not-always-easy combination of its Jewish and universal underpinnings. The right to self-determination of the Jewish people is asserted within a normative framework that pledges a commitment to freedom, justice, and peace — and guarantees full equality to all citizens, regardless of national identity, ethnic origin, gender, and religious persuasion.
For many years, the Jewish and democratic elements were closely intertwined, although the paradoxes inherent in this package were magnified after the Israeli takeover of the territories captured in 1967. The dilemmas posed by close to 56 years of Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and people and the systemic discrimination of Arab citizens of Israel expanded the breach between these two threads. This friction has peaked in recent years, reaching a boiling point with the installation of the present government, a majority of which believes deeply in the notion of a greater Israel. Coalition proponents subsume basic democratic values to this goal, while the broad, diverse, and persistent pro-democracy protesters view Israel’s democracy as the cornerstone of its survival.
These strains within Israel have significantly affected the relationship between Israel and Jewish communities throughout the world who have supported Israel, both as the articulation of their Jewish identity and as a source of pride stemming from its liberal values. This friction has come to a head with the constitution of a militant religiously-driven government. As Shaul Magid analyzes so skillfully in his article in +972 (“Why are American Jews so shocked by Israel’s far-right turn?”), they chose to underestimate or ignore the centrality of the fundamentalist mode in Israeli politics.
Those who have not given up on Israel before now are forced to choose between maintaining support for the Israel of their identity or backing the Israel of their values. Most have opted to redefine their connection to Israel by supporting the pro-democracy camp in its opposition to what they hope is a temporary racist glitch. The confrontational events at the recent gatherings of the World Zionist Organization and the General Assembly of the JFNA are indicative. But this leaves them, much like many of their Israeli counterparts, in a major conundrum: if they are consistent, they have to admit that Israel can never be true to humanistic values while ruling over another people against their will.
These issues raise fundamental questions about the shape of Israel and its nature. They also prompt reassessments not only about the basis of the links between Jews outside and within Israel, but also about the definition of what it is to be a Jew in the 21st century. Liberals struggling with these dilemmas are developing different forms of Jewishness which align with their values and may further distance them from Israel. More conservative groups are veering to the messianic strains that have always existed in Jewish history and contain strong apocalyptic currents. If the government pursues these radical impulses, Israel will be neither Jewish nor democratic, and the Jewish world will have to redefine itself once again.
An Israel that pursues a policy of willful isolation is fallacious to the core. It is fundamentally hypocritical and misleading, it is unrealistic and foolhardy, and it is a sure route to collective implosion. This myth cannot hold water for one minute. This does not mean that it cannot happen. The issue is not whether foreign governments can speak out on Israel: they have and will continue to do so. The main challenge is whether Israeli policymakers will pay attention to their messages, or whether they will cast Israel into precisely that pariah status that no country can afford. There is little time left: the choice and all that it entails is still in the hands of all the inhabitants of the land.