A State in Need of a Spine

By Marla Braverman

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Last January, courtesy of YouTube, millions of viewers around the world watched Turkey’s prime minister lose his cool. Speaking on a panel on Gaza at the usually punctilious World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Recep Tayyip Erdogan capped a series of recent tirades against Israel—he had alternately decried its “inhumane” actions against innocent Palestinians during Operation Cast Lead and demanded its ejection from the United Nations—with an outraged response to Israeli President and co-panelist Shimon Peres’s defense of the military campaign in the Strip. When moderator David Ignatius of the Washington Post repeatedly cut short Erdogan’s attempts at a rebuttal, the Turkish premier stormed offstage, declaring this his last appearance in Davos. Israel quickly shifted into crisis-management mode, with Peres insisting to reporters afterward that the spat was “nothing personal.” Turkey, he claimed, remained an important ally of the Jewish state. Erdogan, by contrast, donned a kaftan of indignation. “My responsibility,” he proclaimed to flag-waving supporters upon his arrival in Ankara, “is to protect the honor of the Turkish nation.”
Unfortunately, the Turkish premier’s theatrics were merely another maneuver in a surprise offensive that left Israelis smarting at their treatment by a supposedly key partner in the region. Just weeks before Davos, Erdogan had openly snubbed prime minister Ehud Olmert’s conciliatory overtures, and refused foreign minister Tzipi Livni’s offer to fly to Ankara for a visit. In October of last year, Turkey barred Israel’s air force from participating in a routine nato exercise in what Erdogan admitted was an act of protest against Israel’s handling of the Gaza campaign. That same month, Turkey’s state television aired an inflammatory series showing IDF soldiers in Gaza killing Palestinian babies and lining up civilians before a firing squad. This past November, Erdogan remarked that he would rather host Omar al-Bashir, indicted for orchestrating crimes against humanity in Darfur, than meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Judging by its initial response to Turkey’s series of below-the-belts, Israel seemed content simply to absorb the blows—and try and avoid further injury. Indeed, instead of expressing outrage, Israel rushed to put out the fire. Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned the Israeli government against harming the country’s fragile relations with Turkey, insisting it was a central player in the region and that it would be “inadvisable to be drawn into criticizing it.” Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon played down the effects of Turkey’s decision to exclude Israel from its air drill, telling reporters that “Turkey has been and remains an important strategic anchor of stability.” For his part, Minister of Industry, Trade, and Labor Binyamin Ben-Eliezer flew to Ankara that month bearing assurances that Israel did not object to Turkey’s renewed role in peace talks with Syria.
To be sure, for a brief moment early this January, Israel’s Foreign Ministry volleyed—albeit clumsily, being out of practice. Following the broadcast of yet another anti-Israel series, this time depicting Mossad agents as baby-snatchers, Deputy Foreign Minister Ayalon summoned Turkish ambassador to Israel Ahmet Oguz Celikkol to his office for a taped dressing down. When Ankara responded furiously, Israeli government officials, politicians, and media rushed to excoriate the ministry’s uncouth conduct and assuage Turkish ire. After Peres reportedly convinced Netanyahu that a written apology was in order, a humiliated Ayalon was forced to declare that in the future, he would “clarify [his] position by more acceptable diplomatic means.”
For better or worse, then, Israel has decided not to make an issue of Turkey’s mistreatment. So determined, in fact, has Israel been to prevent any further deterioration in relations between Jerusalem and Ankara that no politician or diplomat saw fit to point out, either to his Turkish counterpart or the community of nations, that baseless accusations of genocide should probably not emanate from the country responsible for the extermination of the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire during World War I—to say nothing of the ongoing and oftentimes brutal suppression of Kurdish nationalism in its southeast.
Sadly, Israel’s sheepishness toward Turkey is far from unique. It is, rather, a symptom of a much larger problem, one reflective of a mentality unbefitting a sovereign state. Put simply, Israel’s leadership has failed to grasp the crucial distinction between diplomacy and lobbying, or between conducting foreign policy and attempting to sway others in one’s favor. The Jewish state has instead opted for a politics of submission and accommodation, one that not only harms its reputation abroad, but also, and perhaps more dangerously, demoralizes its citizens at home.
Ever alert to its tenuous standing in world opinion, Israel is understandably reluctant to engage in diplomatic confrontation. Yet as recent history has shown, this reticence frequently dissolves into sheer self-effacement, and rarely helps advance the country’s political goals. A poignant example is Israel’s pathological fear of rocking the dinghy that is its cold peace with Egypt. In October 2008, then-MK Avigdor Lieberman took advantage of a Knesset meeting marking the seventh anniversary of the assassination of military commander-turned-parliamentarian Rehavam Ze’evi to vent his impatience with Egypt’s insolence toward the Jewish state.
[Ze’evi] would never agree to the self-effacing attitude of Israel vis-א-vis Egypt. Time after time, our leaders go to meet Mubarak in Egypt, but he has never agreed to come here for an official visit as president. Every self-respecting leader would have made those meetings conditional on reciprocity. If he wants to talk to us, he should come here; if he doesn’t want to come here, he can go to hell.
To be sure, the rhetoric was impolitic. Yet the sentiment Lieberman expressed—Egypt’s refusal to uphold its end of the normalized-relations bargain—has long been an Israeli grievance. Nevertheless, then-prime minister Ehud Olmert and President Shimon Peres phoned Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak immediately to express regret, the former stressing that Israel viewed Egypt as a “strategic partner and close friend.” Ministers, journalists, and academics couldn’t pen the damning editorials fast enough. Egypt demanded a verbal apology from Lieberman—which the Israeli media, in near-unison, insisted he proffer. The irony, if not absurdity, of Egypt’s taking umbrage was clearly lost on them: Its government-controlled media are rife with virulent antisemitism, Holocaust denial, and blood libels, not to mention the ubiquitous cartoons of Israeli leaders as bloodsucking monsters—to which Israel has, invariably, bitten its tongue.
Indeed, Israel has displayed a policy of determined docility in the face of even the most flagrant Egyptian behavior. In July of 2007, Israel’s southern neighbor nominated Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni, who threatened the next summer to burn Israeli books if he found them in Egypt’s libraries, as a candidate for the directorship of unesco. Leading Jewish intellectuals in America and Europe, such as Elie Wiesel and Bernard-Henri Lévy, condemned the candidacy and published an open letter encouraging nations to prevent Hosni from obtaining the post. National organizations such as the German Culture Council insisted that the choice of Hosni would run counter to the ideals of cultural freedom and diversity. Yet Israel, the very butt of Egypt’s diplomatic joke, declined to speak out in its own defense. Following a personal request from Mubarak, Netanyahu agreed not to oppose Egypt’s selection. Fortunately for Israel—and for the entire enlightened world—Hosni was passed over for the desired position. Not surprisingly, he immediately blamed a Jewish conspiracy for his loss, declaring a “culture war” against the Jewish state. This, too, Israel swallowed in silence, so strong was the force of habit.
Israel’s tendency toward excessive restraint has also been evident in the face of a series of threats by European courts to arrest prominent Israeli political and military leaders while in Europe. Under the principle of “universal jurisdiction,” which holds that war crimes are so heinous as to justify local prosecution even if they have been committed elsewhere, Arab and human-rights organizations have lobbied in countries such as Britain and Spain for the arrest of Israeli officers who took part in military operations in which Palestinian civilians were killed. While Ehud Barak went ahead with his trip to Britain last September despite attempts to issue a warrant for his arrest, several other high-profile Israeli officials, including MK Moshe Ya’alon and former Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter, were advised to cancel their visits there rather than chance legal trouble. Worse, in 2005, retired general Doron Almog was ordered to stay aboard his plane at Heathrow after a tip-off that police were waiting for him outside. Almog, who had gone to Britain to raise money for a home for autistic children, never reached his destination; two hours later, he was unceremoniously flown back to Israel. These legal threats, along with the now-dropped attempt of Spain’s High Court to investigate accusations against Israeli officials for war crimes, have been met with much hand-wringing on the part of Israeli statesmen. Netanyahu was sufficiently worried about the precedent to raise the matter with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown during the former’s visit to Britain last August, for example, and Ehud Barak assured Israeli citizens that he would “appeal” to the Spanish foreign minister, the Spanish minister of defense, and even the Spanish prime minister “if need be” to override the court’s decision to pursue its probe. While there is no doubt that diplomatic backdoor channels can prove effective in preventing these sorts of incidents, Israel’s displays of concern are itself cause for unease. A country that advises its generals against setting foot on European soil is not a country that projects confidence in its actions; so, too, a country that hustles its generals back to its borders rather than declaring them protected by the full weight of their government is bound to appear sheepish, even furtive, in the eyes of the rest of the world.
Not surprisingly, this was exactly how Israel looked in the wake of the infamous Goldstone Report’s release last September, when the country’s attempts to quarantine the document within the confines of the United Nations Security Council and ensure America’s help in preventing it from reaching the International Criminal Court merely made the Jewish state seem craven. In light of Israel’s flurry of lobbying activity in Washington, declarations by Israeli politicians that the report was one-sided and rife with falsities and distortions lacked all courage of conviction. Had it announced that other nations should feel free to discuss the document ad infinitum, as any resolution at which they might arrive would carry no moral weight, Israel would have radiated confidence in its conduct of the Gaza campaign. Furthermore, it would have sent a clear message that efforts to undercut its sovereignty would not be abided. Regrettably, Israel did neither, and emerged with its reputation, and its honor, in tatters.
If Israel finds it hard to put traditionally unfriendly nations in their place, it is even more reluctant to demonstrate resolve toward those it considers friends. Its behavior toward the United States demonstrates this all too well. This past November, the Israeli media was abuzz with reports of Netanyahu’s grumbling over a delayed invitation from the White House during his long-scheduled visit to Washington. Nahum Barnea, one of Israel’s leading commentators, described the vibe emanating from the corridors of power in a Yediot Aharonot column: “For days the White House refused to set a date for a meeting. It was embarrassing and humiliating. Netanyahu was angry. Not mildly angry. He was incensed.” In the end President Obama agreed to a meeting, likely in order to spare Netanyahu further embarrassment. Thus was Netanyahu’s ultimate victory in securing a meeting a Pyrrhic one: The far-from-prime-time slot, the clandestine entry and exit, and America’s insistence that the contents of the discussion be kept secret—all these only served to make Israel’s premier look like a salesman trying to wheedle his way through a half-open door, and not the leader of a proud sovereign state.
Why has Israel adopted a near-reflexive policy of self-effacement? Some will point to its particular dependence on the goodwill of other nations. As influential Israeli columnist Ari Shavit explained in an October 2009 article titled “Israel Needs Legitimacy to Wage War and Peace,” the 1917 Balfour Declaration and 1947 United Nations partition resolution laid the diplomatic foundations on which the Jewish state was established. If Israel’s actions, as unpopular as they have been of late, render it an international pariah, those foundations may give way—harming its chances for survival dramatically. No doubt, this is an important factor in Israel’s belief that it must, perhaps more than other nations, tread lightly in the diplomatic arena. Yet there is another factor at work here, more psychological than practical. To locate its source, we must look much farther back, to that period in history in which the Jewish people did not enjoy the privilege of life in its own nation-state.
Until the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Emancipation brought them out of the ghettoes and into civil society, Europe’s Jews relied on a politics aimed merely at securing or sustaining their ability to live as a distinct religious group within a foreign, and often hostile, society. In other words, theirs was a politics of accommodation and deference, of reaction rather than assertion. It was a politics designed to curry favor among those in power so as to ensure the continued legal, and even physical, protection of the Jewish community. The Jews’ existence as a distinct religious and ethnic group was never a given; it was, in almost every time and place, a gesture of goodwill (and, more often than not, calculated interest) made by the powers that be. Indeed, in the collective memory of Eastern European Jewry is still etched the humiliation of life under the pritzim, the oligarchs on whose lands the Jews lived as “guests” of a charitable host. In such a volatile climate, it is no wonder the success of the Jews depended on a skill for obsequiousness, and was measured by how much abuse they could bear.
This dependence on a sympathetic protector also characterized much of the early Zionist efforts to establish a Jewish national homeland. Just as the shtadlanim, or intercessors on behalf of their Jewish communities, had once sought to win the favor of powerful patrons, so had Theodor Herzl tried—however futilely—to gain the support of a key European power for his plans for a Jewish state, certain that only through such backing would his dream gain legitimacy. True, Herzl’s political Zionism eventually took a backseat to the more practical approach of Labor Zionism, which sought to establish a Jewish presence in the Land of Israel as a fact on the ground, with or without foreign permission. Nevertheless, the early Zionist leadership never abandoned its search for outside support. And in light of the weakness of the ongoing national enterprise in those years, it was unquestionably the logical thing to do. So, too, is it beyond question that the modern State of Israel would not have come into being absent the Balfour Declaration and the United Nations’ adoption of the Partition Plan on November 29, 1947.
Unfortunately, a mentality born of powerlessness still exercises a tenacious, if unconscious, hold on Jewish politics today, even after sixty-one years of sovereignty and a succession of impressive military victories. Many Israelis simply have yet to acknowledge the need for a nation to present itself as a dignified, self-respecting player in the international arena. Of course, the Jewish state does not hesitate to demonstrate its strength when its enemies force its hand. Yet it consistently demonstrates pitiable behavior toward its allies and supposed “friends.” It would seem that Israel’s current leaders have forgotten one salient fact: Diplomacy, unlike lobbying, does not mean simply being manipulative, or engaging in covert efforts to influence decisions behind the scenes. It also, at times, means taking a clear stand in defense of one’s interests and reputation—even if doing so raises hackles.
Notable Israeli figures once understood this distinction. On November 10, 1975, Israeli ambassador Chaim Herzog awed the world with his speech to the UN in reaction to the latter’s infamous “Zionism is racism” resolution. Declaring defiantly that he had “not come to this rostrum to defend the moral and historical values of the Jewish people,” because “They do not need to be defended. They speak for themselves,” Herzog went on to say that “For us, the Jewish people, this [resolution] is but a passing episode in a rich and event-filled history. We put our trust in our Providence, in our faith and beliefs, in our time-hallowed tradition, in our striving for social advance and human values, and in our people wherever they may be. For us, the Jewish people, this resolution based on hatred, falsehood, and arrogance is devoid of any moral or legal value.” And then, with a flourish, he concluded, “For us, the Jewish people, this is no more than a piece of paper, and we shall treat it as such,” and tore a copy of the resolution in half.
Many would argue that such displays of self-assurance are all too easy at the UN, a body that has long since proved its incontrovertible anti-Zionist credentials. What, it could rightly be asked, does Israel have to lose by defiance at such a forum? Overcoming the tendency toward self-deprecation is far more difficult with regard to those countries with which positive relations are a strategic interest. Former prime minister Menachem Begin faced just such a challenge in 1982, when American president Ronald Reagan suspended his country’s strategic cooperation agreement with Israel after the Jewish state applied its law to the Golan Heights, a territory it captured from Syria in the Six Day War. This punitive measure prompted Begin to cancel the agreement altogether and respond in anger, “Are we a vassal state of yours? Are we a banana republic? Are we fourteen-year-olds who, if we misbehave, get our wrists slapped?” Former prime minister Ariel Sharon showed the same tenacity when, at the height of the second Intifada, he cautioned president George Bush that Israel would not sacrifice its security on the altar of America’s good relations with Arab states. “Do not repeat the dreadful mistake of 1938, when the enlightened democracies of Europe decided to sacrifice Czechoslovakia for the sake of a temporary, convenient solution,” he warned. “Do not try to appease the Arabs at our expense. We will not accept this. Israel will not be Czechoslovakia.” These words, it must be noted, were directed at the president most Israelis consider the best friend the Jewish state has ever had in the White House. Today, when the same office is occupied by Barack Obama, a president with a very different perception of both American and Israeli interests, the risk of taking a more independent and uncompromising stance is clearly much higher. Nonetheless, it may well be that such an approach has never been more necessary.
To be sure, Israel cannot afford to jeopardize ties with those whose support is vital to its security. Furthermore, it cannot be denied that behind-the-scenes diplomacy may sometimes prove more effective than public protest. It was not merely Herzog’s rousing speech before the UN that led to the cancellation of the “Zionism is racism” resolution in 1991, after all, but years of activity in different channels, including vigorous lobbying. Moreover, some issues are simply too sensitive to be handled in the public eye, and Israel will undoubtedly have good political reasons to swallow its pride at certain junctures. Yet experience shows that a country’s lack of decisiveness and self-respect is all too easily seized upon by its enemies as a sign of weakness, urging them ever forward on their violent path. And there is still another danger: Demoralized citizens soon lose faith in their country’s leadership, along with the willingness to put the collective interest before their own.
David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, understood the delicate balancing act that would always be Israeli foreign policy. On the one hand, a small, beleaguered nation cannot afford to ride roughshod over public opinion and must strive to be on good terms with those in a position to help. Indeed, his insistence that Israel go to war only if it had the backing of at least one foreign power demonstrates more than anything his acute awareness of Israel’s precarious status. Nevertheless, he coined the famous expression “Oom shmoom” (loosely, “Who cares about the UN?”) in response to Moshe Sharett’s warning in 1955 that if Israel drove the Egyptians out of the Gaza Strip on account of a ceaseless string of fedayeen terrorist infiltrations, it would face massive international censure. Ben-Gurion’s nonchalance was somewhat exaggerated, of course, but its spirit of courage and confidence is sorely lacking among those who today call themselves his heirs. Clearly, Israel would be wise to pay heed to world opinion. But it should not grovel, nor should it apologize for wrongs it did not commit. After all, the age of the pritzim is over.
Marla Braverman
February 2010

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