Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman left little doubt this week that there’s a cogent reason behind Israel’s silence on the Russian-Ukrainian dispute. Israel wasn’t inadvertently remiss. It consciously chose not to take sides in one of the more acerbic East-West confrontations since the Cold War.
This neutral stance, however, did not earn Israel instant accolades. The US State Department, for example, is far from pleased. Its spokeswoman Jen Psaki told the press: “We were surprised Israel did not join the vast majority of countries that voted to support Ukraine’s territorial integrity in the United Nations” on March 27. Israel pointedly stayed away from the vote that called on all states and international organizations not to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Liberman made it clear that this was no transitory position but an expression of deliberate policy. All this has brought to the fore a quandary that last plagued Israel in the 1950s, when the Cold War was at its hottest. It was then far from clear that Israel should automatically align itself with every American standpoint.
A curious coalition of Left and Right proposed that Israel retain an independent stance and play its cards as it sees fit, despite its acute needs and vulnerabilities at the time. This was what both Communist Moshe Sneh and his ideological adversary Yitzhak Shamir recommended, along with others of their respective camps who shared their views.
Then-prime minister David Ben-Gurion decreed otherwise and since then Israel has been routinely taken for granted as unquestionably in America’s pocket. To be fair, that was where Israel felt most comfortable in terms of it system of beliefs, and this was considerably before America showed any inclination to commit to Israel materially.
Nevertheless, now may be the time to demonstrate a bit more nonpartisanship.
This is not because we share fewer values with America or because we had discovered the hitherto unrecognized allure of Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin. Quite the contrary.
All the same, maintaining the best possible (under the circumstances) relations with Russia may be the best for Israel at this particular time. Israel’s relations with Moscow are quite good currently and it would make no sense for Israel to robotically join the anti-Putin chorus just to impress the US and the EU.
Not every American policy has proven itself as above reproach. America erred egregiously in our region – from its embrace of the misnamed Arab Spring to its attitudes toward Turkey and Iran. It played a detrimental role in both Egypt and Syria and we will not even enter the mire of American strategy vis-à-vis Ramallah and Gaza.
On none of the above did Israel toe the American line and there is no denying that Israel’s judgment was repeatedly vindicated.
At least in theory, Israel must diversify its orientations.
Ours is no longer the bipolar world ruled by two superpowers.
From Israel’s vantage point there are no outright substitutes for America. The flipside of the coin, though, is that in the current configuration the goodness of the good guys is a bit less obvious and the bad guys are not quite as unapproachable and as sinister as their predecessors.
For one thing, we do these days have sustainable diplomatic relations with Moscow and these have yielded in several key instances beneficial understandings for Israel.
Russia is not the outright enemy that the Soviet Union once had been.
International relations should not be determined on the basis of sentiment. Washington surely did not exude gratitude for the steadfast loyalty of the Middle East’s sole democracy.
Israel would only be prudent to not allow itself to be taken for granted. In cases where no conflict of absolute good and evil features, some maneuvering may be a good thing even if it nets no immediate gain.
There is no shame in taking advantage for now of Putin’s evident aim to restore his country’s superpower status. It would be a worthwhile gambit even if we win nothing more than a bit more time and some limited leverage.
There would be no pain for Jerusalem to occasionally signal to Washington that Israel’s allegiance is not always unconditional or for free.