Does Israel have a moral foreign policy?

Zionism and the Jewish people's return to sovereignty have presented Jews with ethical and moral dilemmas that were irrelevant for centuries.

 A SCHOOL chair litters the remains of the bombed Lyceum No. 25 School in Zhytomyr, Ukraine, earlier this week. The school was hit by a Russian cruise missile in early March and waits to be rebuilt or demolished. (photo credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
A SCHOOL chair litters the remains of the bombed Lyceum No. 25 School in Zhytomyr, Ukraine, earlier this week. The school was hit by a Russian cruise missile in early March and waits to be rebuilt or demolished.
(photo credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Israel is a resilient nation, remarkably so.

Over the past 20 years it has shown this in the way it coped with the Second Intifada from 2000 to 2005, the rocket fire from Lebanon during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, the mobilization of reserves during the various mini-wars in Gaza, the so-called knife intifada of 2015-2016, rockets from Gaza during last year’s Guardian of the Walls Operation, and even the recent mini-wave of terrorism.

There is the physical aspect of resilience, being able to stand up physically to the challenges and defend oneself, and there is the psychological component as well. The psychological elements, according to the former defense minister and chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon, are no less important than the physical elements.

“The belief in the righteousness of the path, unity, solidarity, mutual responsibility, mobilization of individuals for the sake of the common good – these are the ‘soft’ elements of national resilience, whose importance is invaluable,” Ya’alon wrote in the Institute for National Security Studies annual strategic survey in 2017.

“The belief in the righteousness of the path, unity, solidarity, mutual responsibility, mobilization of individuals for the sake of the common good – these are the ‘soft’ elements of national resilience, whose importance is invaluable.”

Moshe Ya’alon

“Belief in the righteousness of the Zionist path is of the utmost importance to the existence of a Jewish national home,” Ya’alon wrote, adding that “this position must rest on a strong moral basis.”

 Former IDF chief of staff and politician Moshe (Boogie) Ya’alon  (credit: Yoram Gutman) Former IDF chief of staff and politician Moshe (Boogie) Ya’alon (credit: Yoram Gutman)

The belief in the righteousness of the path, in other words, is rooted deeply in the sense that the country is moral and ethical, and acts morally and ethically. If that belief wanes, then a key component of the country’s national resilience is weakened.

At a Jewish People Policy Institute conference this week titled “Ukraine as an example: Ethical consideration in Israel’s foreign policy,” JPPI researcher Shmuel Rosner presented findings of a survey conducted among just over 1,000 Jewish Israelis that shows an overwhelming belief in the morality of the country and the army.

What is interesting in the findings is that this belief in the country’s and the army’s morality comes despite a steady barrage from actors both overseas and domestic arguing the exact opposite: that Israel is rooted in the immoral act of taking another people’s land, is practicing apartheid, and that its army is guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

CNN may believe its own “investigation” that the IDF intentionally murdered Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, something that would make it an immoral army, but the vast majority of Israelis – who know the army, have served in the army, send their sons and daughters to risk their lives in that army – is not buying it. And that is extremely important. Because while it is important what the world thinks of Israel, it is even more important what Israelis think of themselves.

According to the findings, some 65% of the Israeli Jewish public believed that the country is much more (38%) or pretty much more (27%) ethical and moral than other countries in the world, while only 16% said it was not very moral (10%) or not moral (6%) in comparison with the rest of the world. Another 18% said Israel’s morality was equal to that of the rest of the world.

When it comes to the army, 72% of the public agreed with the statement that the IDF is the most moral army in the world, while 23% did not agree.

Zionism, and Israel’s return as a sovereign state to world history, have presented Jews with ethical and moral dilemmas they did not have to deal with for centuries.

Political scientists talk about two schools of foreign policy thought: the realists and the idealists.

The realists place national interests above ethics and morality, while the idealists argue that foreign policy must reflect the values, morals and ethics of the state.

For 2,000 years in the Diaspora, Jews could be idealists, because they had no state of their own whose interest they had to promote. Now, however, with Jews in control of a state and that state holding enormous power, things are not so simple, and the moral juggling over the use of power, which Jews did not have to deal with in lands where they were subjects, they do have to deal with today.

“There are compromises, and there are rotten compromises,” Hebrew University philosophy professor Moshe Halbertal said at the JPPI conference. “We are measured not only by our decisions but also by our compromises, what we do and do not compromise on.”

Halbertal, a coauthor of the IDF’s code of ethics, said it is impossible to be purists, and that the managing of interests demands compromises. The question, he said, is where are the limits, what is each country’s “sacred space” where it is unwilling to compromise?

If that “sacred space” is security, then potentially a situation could be created where you take measures that make the country safe, but are then left with a country that may not be worth defending.

Forget the high-profile moral dilemmas posed by the situation in Judea and Samaria and by the conduct of soldiers during military operations. There is also a myriad of other moral issues Jews for centuries did not have to fret over – such as the morality of selling weapons, sometimes to unsavory regimes, or the morality of picking sides in a battle between warring nations, a dilemma Israel has faced since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

REGARDING WEAPONS sales, Amos Yaron, the former director-general of the Defense Ministry, said that in a perfect world the intellectual energy that Israel expends on developing weapons systems that it needs for its survival could be diverted to other, more benign spheres. But we do not live in a perfect world.

Israel is a weapons superpower, he said, one of the top four or five countries in this area in the world. All of this, he said, “is a result of our situation. We are threatened up until this very day, and the threats develop and obligate us to give answers. This is not a game.”

Yaron dismisses arguments that Israel selling weapons is inimical to Jewish values, and stresses that the country abides by all the necessary OECD and UN conventions on where it is permitted to sell arms.

Israel’s weapons industry – an industry he said last year turned over $11.5 billion in sales – is critical for the country’s survival. How? Because this industry is designed to create weapons needed for the Israeli army. Some of these weapons need to be tailor-made for Israel’s unique circumstances, Yaron explained, while others Israel simply cannot get elsewhere.

To develop and produce those weapons takes money – a lot of money. Israel, he said, needs to export 70% of the weapons and systems it manufactures to pay for the research, development and production of the other 30%, which are the weapons it needs for its survival.

So is that immoral, or unethical?

Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, head of the Tzohar rabbinical group’s ethics committee, doesn’t take issue with arms exports per se, but says that big money – and weapons exports are a big-money industry – invites corruption. He also said there is too little transparency involved in the sales, and too small a security clique involved in making the decisions.

Cherlow argued that an ethics committee needs to be established to monitor the sales – not, as is the case now, primarily to ensure there is no leaking of technology, but to judge the morality of the sales themselves. And not only weapons sales, but also to ensure that ex-officers who train unsavory actors in foreign countries cannot remain in the army. That, too, he argues, is an element of ethics in foreign policy.

Regarding the war in Ukraine, Israel – since the invasion began – has been trying to dance between the raindrops, on the one hand condemning Russia’s aggression and the devastation it is causing to innocents in Ukraine, while on the other hand not wanting to antagonize the Russians to the point where they will harm Israel’s interests, either in making it more difficult for the IDF to operate in Syria, or in making it more difficult for Russian Jews and those eligible to come to Israel under the Law of Return to do so.

An interesting statistic emerged this week from a meeting in the Knesset’s Labor and Welfare Committee. According to figures presented at the meeting, some 32,000 Ukrainian nationals have entered Israel since the war began in February, of whom 8,000 have since left. During that same period, some 38,000 people came to the country from Russia, of whom 19,000 have left. One of Israel’s considerations, much less discussed when looking at its position in the war, is what moral responsibility it has not only to the Ukrainians but also to the Jews in Russia.

THE QUESTION of the degree to which morals and ethics should guide foreign policy is a complex one, but so is the issue of morality itself. What one person deems moral, someone else may view as the complete opposite.

For example, said Avi Gil, a former director-general of the Foreign Ministry, senior aid to Shimon Peres and an architect of the Oslo Accords, Peres – the father of Israel’s nuclear program – believed that the Oslo process “was the most moral act Israel could do for Israel and the Palestinians.” But, he acknowledged, many Israelis thought it was completely immoral.

Leaders, he said, make decisions in that space where there is a great deal of uncertainty, and the consequences of their actions may be felt only years later. He recalled a trip he took with Peres to Prague two months after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US, where Peres met former president Bill Clinton.

Clinton told Peres that while he was the US president al-Qaeda head Osama bin Laden was at one time squarely in the US military’s crosshairs, and he had to decide whether to pull the trigger. Since bin Laden, as was often the case, was surrounded by dozens of innocent people, Clinton decided it would be unethical to give such an order.

“In Prague that night,” Gil said, “Clinton said to Peres, ‘I’m not sure if that decision was right.’”