Israel’s invasion of Lebanon was ready to roll when Tommy Lapid, in his capacity at the time as head of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, gathered its journalists and, determined to reconcile journalism and patriotism, told them: “We are objective, but we are not neutral.”
Now, as Russia appears ready to invade Ukraine, Israelis must set aside their Western identity, Jewish memories and historical analogies, and do the opposite of Lapid’s dictum, because in this case we can’t be objective, and must be neutral.
BEING NEUTRAL on Ukraine is difficult, first of all because this land of fertile soil, endless plains and vast horizons is permeated with Jewish life, and even more so with Jewish death.
The troops Russia deployed along Ukraine’s border face the historic Pale of Settlement. In the outskirts of Donetsk – Natan Sharansky’s birthplace and one of the current conflict’s main flash points – more than 90,000 Jews were murdered by the Nazis.
Such memories make it impossible for many Jews to be indifferent to what is happening in the same land today. No, Ukraine isn’t our homeland, but it is also not what Vietnam, Angola or Nicaragua were for us back when wars raged there. Ukraine is part of our history.
Ukraine is also difficult to ignore strategically. In what has emerged as a major theater of Cold War II, Israelis automatically identify with the West, which is home to the democratic ideas we espouse, the economic system to which we belong and the American nation, which is our closest ally.
This is besides the current situation’s diplomatic dynamics, which are so reminiscent of what preceded World War II. No, Russia is not Nazi Germany, but its tactics, strategy and rhetoric concerning Ukraine sadly bring to mind Hitler’s treatment of Czechoslovakia.
So yes, emotionally, Israelis want to take sides in the Ukrainian conflict. Rationally, however, that is a luxury the Jewish state cannot afford.
NEUTRALITY, INCREASINGLY an Israeli condition and aim, has come historically in two versions.
One form of neutrality is Switzerland’s, which harks back centuries and has become a diplomatic ideal and a national trademark. Stemming from the Swiss Confederation’s unique location, topography and ethnography, this kind of neutrality is not an option for Israel, and indeed for most other countries, which are not as centrally located and not as impregnably mountainous.
The other version of neutrality is circumstantial. That is what happened to Sweden after the Napoleonic wars, in which it lost vast territories to Russia, including Finland; that is what happened to Finland itself after World War II, when it lost territories to the Soviet Union; and that is also what happened to Austria, which the same war’s victors left wedged between their East and West, unaligned.
Israel’s circumstances are different, but in recent years it increasingly finds itself similarly neutral in multiple arenas. The first context of Israel’s evolving neutrality is regional.
The number of local wars currently surrounding us, from Libya through Yemen to Syria, is dizzying. Last century, Israel repeatedly took sides in such conflicts, most notably in the Kurdish rebellion in Iraq in the 1960s, the Palestinian insurrection in Jordan in the 1970s and the civil war in Lebanon in the 1980s.
This century, however, Israel is keeping above the Middle Eastern fray, even that of the Syrian Civil War, which is on its doorstep.
Yes, when its Iranian nemesis is involved Israel intervenes, and yes, Israel offered medical treatment to the Syrian war’s victims, but in terms of the Assad regime’s future it took no side. The same goes for the rest of the current intra-Arab wars, with the lone exception of the Moroccan-Algerian conflict, in which Israel effectively took Morocco’s side as part of the peace deal between Jerusalem and Rabat.
Israel’s Middle Eastern neutrality is circumstantial, the result of its Lebanese misadventure last century. Betting on a prospective ally’s victory and loyalty in this region is not worth the risk, we learned, and reshaping the Middle East is beyond our abilities.
Despite this attitude’s lack of idealism, its humility has been rewarding. While other parts of the region turned on themselves, Israel planted embassies from the Maghreb to the Gulf.
The second context of Israeli neutrality is global.
As noted here recently in the context of China’s challenge to the West (“What after NATO?” September 24, 2021), it took Israel 44 years to establish full relations with all the superpowers, all of which now treat Israel with very hard-won respect.
Other countries, especially those that are part of multinational groupings like NATO or the European Union, can afford straining relations with some superpowers. Israel can’t, unless of course its own security is at stake. That’s not the case with the Ukrainian conflict.
Finally, Israeli neutrality has a Jewish context.
BEFORE ISRAEL’S establishment Jewish soldiers often found themselves fighting each other, for instance in the American Civil War and in World War I. Curiously enough this tragedy did not happen in any of the hot wars that followed Israel’s establishment.
The Russian-Ukrainian war is different also in this regard. There are sizable Jewish populations on both sides of this conflict. If Israel takes sides it would expose the other side’s Jews to antisemitic hostility, which in this part of the world takes little effort to inflame.
It is a concern Israel cannot ignore. This, too, explains why when Russia annexed Crimea eight years ago Israel didn’t join Western sanctions on Moscow, despite pressure from the Obama administration.
Led by then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his foreign minister at the time Avigdor Liberman, and backed by then-opposition leader Isaac Herzog, the neutrality that blended Jewish responsibility, diplomatic realism and political humility was Israel’s only choice back then, and such it remains today.
The writer’s bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019), is a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s leadership from antiquity to modernity.