Eric Leskly

Turning West in the New Cold War

Even as the dust has not settled from the crisis in Israel, events around the world make it increasingly clear that a new cold war is rising.  The path forward should address not only Israel’s judicial and governance issues, but also the need to stay allied with the West as the curtain descends this time around.

The United States once again finds itself at the onset of a new geopolitical rivalry, between democracy and autocracy, led by an assertive China, and flanked by Russia, Iran, North Korea and other countries seeking to overturn the neoliberal global order that has prevailed since 1945.  Regional powers like India, Brazil and Saudi Arabia remain unaligned, straddling the two camps.  While the United States is still the only global superpower, its relative power has diminished – and the unipolar moment is over.

While the new cold war will be fought in conventional domains – as we are seeing in Ukraine – it will also be contested across new ones such as space, cyber, genetic engineering and artificial intelligence.  China’s crucial place as the major trading partner of much of the world means that economic warfare will play a much larger role than was the case with the Soviet bloc.  Principally though, the new cold war will once again be about competing ideas and worldviews: liberal democracy, individual rights, economic freedom and rule of law on the one hand, and authoritarianism, state ownership and surveillance capitalism on the other.

Throughout the last Cold War, Israel was firmly in the American camp – and until recently, there would have been no question where it would land this time around.  The US is Israel’s principal benefactor, having provided it with over $150 billion in military aid since 1948 (inflation-adjusted), continued diplomatic backing and the most critical economic partner for its remarkable technology sector, which accounts for one-fifth of Israel’s GDP.  The European Union is Israel’s largest trading partner, and Israel’s parliamentary and judicial systems are derived from the United Kingdom and the British mandate.  Zionism itself was the brainchild of German intellectuals.  Culturally and otherwise, Israelis look to the West.  The heightened sensitivity in Israel to criticism from the West is precisely because sensible Israelis understand they are still part of it – and dependent on it.

But the crisis has highlighted deep fractures and disturbing trends which challenge Israel’s place in the West.  If the current judicial “overhaul” or anything like it is passed, Israel would cease to be a liberal democracy.  Its governing coalition would have nearly absolute power, with no effective check on its authority.  Israel would thereby become an illiberal democracy, veering between populism and totalitarianism, like Poland or Hungary, but not part of the EU or NATO, and therefore lacking the inherent moderating protections those memberships afford.  A large segment of the Israeli public – exclusively on the right – seems willing to accept this in order to ensure its political dominance, without giving thought to the consequences for Israel’s place among nations.

Perhaps even more disturbing than the judicial reforms is the extremism of Israel’s far-right, and the push for theocracy from the ultra-orthodox sector.  The far-right parties embrace views that are openly fascist and racist, outside the boundaries of any legitimate discourse or a state inspired by Jewish values. Their leaders are chaos monkeys, whose statements and actions will drive Israel towards annexing the West Bank and becoming an apartheid state.  The ultra-orthodox parties meanwhile are pursuing ever-aggressive encroachment on Israel’s secular institutions, with the goal of establishing a state governed by Jewish rather than civil law.  The ultra-orthodox are still a minority, but growing at three times the rate of the rest of Israel.  If either the far-right or ultra-orthodox prevail, Israel will be cast out from the West.  In this sense, then, its fate might not even be that of Poland or Hungary, but rather of Turkey or Lebanon.

The Ukraine War, and in particular the unprecedented sanctions and the massive supply of Western arms and intelligence, has once again demonstrated the West’s primacy in the global order. Because of that support, what otherwise would have been an easy victory for Russia has stalemated into a war of attrition, with no end in sight.  Russia’s economy is now expected to shrink over the next decade.  The impact of the flight of the country’s remaining human capital (including to Israel) and the reality of over Russian 100,000 casualties in what was supposed to be a two-week war will hasten its decline as a forever junior partner to China.  And a Chinese invasion of Taiwan has likely been deterred, at least for now.

The West’s unmatched power derives from its nexus of economic vitality, military/technological dominance and shared liberal democratic values.  It is the last of these which gives it a cohesion, a unifying purpose.  Yes, the West has shortcomings – MAGA and wokeness in the United States; sclerosis and the threat of Islamism in Europe – but its power and promise is far beyond anything China can offer.  The West may not be universal, but neither is it defined by “whiteness” or limited to European civilization – as Japan, Taiwan and South Korea can attest.  For the West to prevail, the United States must lead.  Ukraine has once again reminded the world of that fact.

China’s challenge to world order is based purely on power politics, and a policy of what the Chinese euphemistically refer to as “non-interference” – putting Uyghurs in concentration camps, allowing millions to starve in North Korea, turning a blind eye to war crimes and genocide in Ukraine.  That is the vision for world order that the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership can offer.  While China has been stumbling considerably since the pandemic, its relative rise will still prove the greatest challenge to the US and the West in modern history.

Israel should not take the special relationship it has enjoyed with the United States for granted.  Until 1967, Israel was somewhat irrelevant for the United States.  It was only after the Six-Day War that Israel proved its prowess and criticality as a check to Soviet power in the region, and became a symbol to American Jewry, who developed institutions and organizations to shape US policy in Israel’s favor, through bipartisan support in Congress.  The partnership grew closer still through the strong personal relationships with Israeli prime ministers in the Clinton and George W. Bush White Houses.  And as the Biden administration has recently and pointedly reminded Israel, that relationship has always been underpinned by the shared liberal and democratic values between the countries.  They are not a talking point.

The recklessness shown by the Netanyahu government seems to have forgotten all of this.  The same elements within the Israeli right behind the judicial overhaul and who support or turn a blind eye to the radicalization within their ranks pretend that Israel could survive or even thrive in a more multipolar world, without US support.  Like right-wing parties elsewhere, they admire and envy autocrats like Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin and their supposed ruthless effectiveness.  They think, wishfully, that this world would not care so much about Israel’s “internal issues” (as if the Palestinians were in fact part of Israel).  This is of course a fantasy.  The Chinese may like Israeli innovation and technology, but that does not make them an ally: they are only a power broker, indifferent to the well-being or even the existence of the Jewish State.

Israel cannot afford a weakening of its ties with the US, or to be unaligned in this cold war.  Iran is a country of 90 million people, the state sponsor of the terrorist groups on Israel’s borders, and a potential nuclear power. It is an adversary that Israel cannot defeat unilaterally.  Air strikes in Damascus and daring covert missions in Tehran are not substitutes for deterrence and effective alliances.  Twenty years after the Iraq War, the “Shiite Crescent” now runs through most of that county, as well as Syria and Lebanon.  The recent China-brokered rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia clearly shows Beijing’s priorities for the region and is a major blow to US and to Israel.  The US is already reducing its commitments to the region, pivoting to Asia while conducting a proxy war in Ukraine.  Perhaps the current Israeli government should have spent more time on foreign policy and building international alliances, and less on a judicial putsch, with nothing gained except a deeply divided country at home and a tarnished image abroad.

To strengthen its regional position and solidify its standing in the West, Israel should seek a bilateral defense treaty with the United States, similar to ones in place with Japan and South Korea.  That would provide the credible deterrence to Iran and its proxies that Israel cannot achieve on its own.  In exchange, Israel should immediately reaffirm its commitments under the 2005 disengagement plan and a permanent freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank.  It could also offer to reengage the Arab League’s 2002 peace plan, to be brokered by the US, and sponsored by Saudi Arabia and moderate Arab states.  This plan was controversial twenty years ago, but it is in line with territorial concessions to which multiple Israeli governments have already agreed.  It should also legislate an absolute ban on far-right parties being allowed in the Knesset.  It should refrain from selling any military, dual-use or otherwise sensitive technology to China, avoiding past mistakes and maintaining the commitments it has made to the Pentagon in this area.

This will likely be the task of a post-Netanyahu Israel, perhaps through a national unity government that brings together the center-left and center-right, and responsible leaders who understand the precariousness of the present moment.  There is a time to tear down, which Netanyahu excels at – but now it is a time to build up.

Israel’s national anthem Hatikvah expresses the hope of “eyes turning to the East, looking forward to Zion.”  But when it is sung on Independence Day this year – the 75th anniversary of the country’s establishment – those in Zion who are looking forward should be turning to the West.

About the Author
Eric Leskly is a serial entrepreneur and has worked in Israel's high-tech sector.
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