You have to give Kadima credit for loyalty: As the Bush administration was destroying any remaining credibility, and undermining its country's interests, by abandoning a loyal and strategically important ally to Russia's tender mercies, Israel's ruling party decided it could not allow its American friends to shoulder the disgrace alone; it, too, should betray Georgia at the expense of its country's interests. So the minute Russia invaded - just when Georgia needed arms most - Israel, which had hitherto been a prominent Georgian supplier, halted all arms shipments.
One might legitimately ask how this undermined the national interest. After all, Israel desperately needs Russian help on several crucial issues, ranging from Iran's nuclear program to Hizbullah's rearmament, and Israel needs Georgian help not at all. Moreover, Russia has made its unhappiness with arms sales to Georgia clear. Thus Kadima seemingly made the correct realpolitik choice.
The problem is that, according to government officials themselves, not only did the country receive no quid pro quo for halting the shipments, but Russia has repeatedly and explicitly declared that it will continue its anti-Israel policies regardless of whether or not Jerusalem sells arms to Georgia. Thus Israel gained nothing by betraying Georgia, while undermining two secondary but still significant interests.
RUSSIA IS currently harming vital Israeli interests in at least four ways. First, it is the main opponent of significant diplomatic sanctions against Iran's nuclear program. It has used its Security Council veto to ensure that all sanctions approved to date are too toothless to affect Iran's behavior, thereby bringing Israel ever closer to an unpalatable choice between a nuclear Iran and a military strike of uncertain benefit but certain costs.
Second, Russia has actively facilitated Iran's nuclear program by building and supplying fuel for the reactor in Bushehr. Third, it is planning to supply advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran, which would make any Israeli military strike far more dangerous. And finally, it is already supplying advanced weaponry to Syria, which Damascus is sharing with Hizbullah. Thus anything that could alter Russia's behavior on any of these four points would clearly be worth Israel's while.
However, government officials told the local media last week that while Russia has repeatedly complained about arms sales to Georgia in response to Israeli complaints on these issues, it has also refused to make a deal. On the contrary: It has consistently declared its current policies nonnegotiable.
Nevertheless, the government decided to unilaterally halt arms shipments to Georgia in the hopes that, despite Moscow's repeated declarations to the contrary, it might still change its mind. As one official put it, "The day we want to prevent a future deal with Iran, our hands must be clean." In other words, it sacrificed concrete assets on the altar of wishful thinking.
But given that Georgia has nothing Israel really needs, what assets did the country sacrifice? The answer to that is twofold.
First, betraying an ally in its hour of greatest need always entails a price: It deters potential future allies, by showing that allying with Israel does not pay. And the effect is compounded when the betrayal is in favor of a party that, like Vladimir Putin's Russia, has been consistently hostile to Israel's interests: This shows that not only does befriending Israel not pay, but working against it does, because it will then seek to appease you.
GRANTED, ISRAEL has already betrayed allies in favor of enemies so many times that one might think one more example could make no difference. Just consider, for example, its abandonment of the South Lebanon Army to Hizbullah; its ongoing budgetary neglect of loyal Druse communities even as it allocates extra funds to Arab communities that reject the Jewish state's very existence; or its willingness to release hundreds of prisoners to Hizbullah and Hamas while refusing to release a paltry two dozen to our most reliable regional ally, Jordan.
Yet like any bad habit, each repetition only makes the habit harder to kick - and any attempt to kick it has to start somewhere. A decision to stand by Georgia despite Russia's displeasure might have signaled players closer to home that this country was starting to rethink this destructive pattern of behavior. And precisely because Russia made it clear that it would continue its hostile policies regardless of Israel's relations with Georgia - meaning that supporting this particular ally entailed no costs - this would have been a uniquely easy place to start.
THE SECOND asset Israel sacrificed is its reputation as a credible arms supplier. After all, who would want to buy arms from a country that will suspend shipments just when you need them most? And given the importance of the local arms industry to national security, this is nontrivial.
Israel originally developed an arms industry because other countries routinely suspended shipments to it when it was most in need. Over the last four decades, it has largely replaced the doctrine of self-sufficiency with dependence on American arms, but it still relies on its own industry both for solutions to problems ignored by American companies - Israel, for instance, began developing specialized urban counterterrorism equipment long before the US did - and for equipment that Washington refuses to sell it.
However, the IDF is not a big enough client to support a sophisticated arms industry on its own. Thus to be financially viable, the industry must export. And that will not be possible if it develops a reputation for cutting off supplies just when the client needs them most.
Had Russia been willing to accommodate Israel on any of its main concerns, one could have argued that the benefits of sacrificing Georgia outweighed the costs. But to incur the costs without gaining anything in exchange, merely in the delusional hope that Russia might then be grateful enough to sacrifice what it views as its own strategic interests for our benefit, is sheer folly.
But then, what else would you expect from a government that has built its foreign policy largely on the hope that throwing steaks to tigers will eventually turn them into vegetarians?