Israeli foreign policy - Fighting for a seat at the table of nations

Israeli diplomacy arose from shtadlanut, the centuries-long intercessions of influential Jews with all-powerful rulers on behalf of their often defenseless and beleaguered communities.

THE UN Security Council debates a 2019 resolution condemning Israel (photo credit: SHANNON STAPLETON/ REUTERS)
THE UN Security Council debates a 2019 resolution condemning Israel
There is a profound difference between the objective outcome of a thought-through policy and the superficial sound bites of transient politicians. Uri Bialer’s excellent and well-researched Israeli Foreign Policy: A People Shall Not Dwell Alone (Indiana University Press 2020) provides any reader with an intelligent appraisal of landmarks in the history of Israel. It relies on fact and expertise – more public reality than public relations.
Israeli diplomacy arose from shtadlanut, the centuries-long intercessions of influential Jews with all-powerful rulers on behalf of their often defenseless and beleaguered communities. This diplomacy became internationalized when communal leaders abroad began to intervene, such as in the case of the proposed expulsion of Jews from Prague (1744) and the Damascus Affair (1840). Diaspora figures such as Sir Moses Montefiore and Nahum Goldmann followed this tradition as did Theodor Herzl and Chaim Weizmann in a Zionist context.
David Ben-Gurion believed that it was simply delusional to believe that the Jews were “a global, political factor” that shaped the courses adopted by major states. He believed that diplomacy was more an art than a science, and that Israel’s only true ally were the Jews of the Diaspora.
Harvey Firestone, of the famous tire company, had commercial interests in Liberia and was able to convince its government to support the UN vote for a Jewish state in November 1947. As Uri Bialer, a Hebrew University of Jerusalem professor, points out in the title, Israel indeed does not dwell alone. It must fight for a seat at the table of nations. A contemporary reflection of Israel’s isolation is the fact that Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017 was condemned by 14 out of the 15 members of the United Nations Security Council, and 128 votes to nine by the UN General Assembly.
As Bialer illustrates, Israel has always had to pursue realpolitik, yet the remarkable odyssey of this Zionist endeavor has been a mixture of both “realism and unrealism.” It has always had to maneuver between national interests and international morality.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during an important trade visit to China in March 2017, laid a wreath at the Monument to the People’s Heroes in Tiananmen Square, and studiously avoided any mention about the mass killing of students there in 1989.
Yet Israel rebuffed any recognition from fascist Spain until well after dictator Francisco Franco had died. The historic memory of his alignment with Hitler and Mussolini during the 1930s was a red line that could not be crossed. The capture of Adolf Eichmann from Buenos Aires was deemed more important than Argentina’s anger afterward.
Bialer points out that hard choices had to be made. Golda Meir’s cultivation of emerging countries in Africa during the 1960s collapsed dramatically after the Yom Kippur War due to Arab financial pressure. Israel suddenly found itself dangerously isolated by the Soviet bloc, the Muslim nations and the developing world. In response, Rabin and Peres quietly sold Israeli arms to apartheid South Africa, whose prime minister John Vorster had been pro-German during World War II.
THE SALE and transporting of arms certainly became an important instrument in the arsenal of Israel’s diplomacy. According to the author, the Defense Ministry has fewer qualms about selling weapons to unsavory dictators, while the Foreign Ministry was far more critical. This criticism extended to the Mossad.
A fascinating chapter in Bialer’s, titled “Let My People Go,” deals very much with the ingathering of the exiles in Israel’s early, halcyon days. Jews from Communist Eastern Europe, Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary were paid for by Israel, often with Diaspora money. The old, the infirm and the disabled had a lower price than the able-bodied and the professional. Boys cost more than girls. Antisemitism in Poland was downplayed in order to secure emigration from the graveyard of Europe. Bialer estimates that Romania under Nicolae Ceausescu was paid $100 million between 1968 and 1989, when the communist regime fell.
The stories of unsung heroes such as the British Jew, Henry Jacober, who traded goods for Romanian Jews, and the Canadian Jew, Judy Feld Carr, who purchased Syrian Jews, recall the passion that fueled rescue attempts. In addition to the Brichah (illegal flight) after World War II, Bialer also mentions the unauthorized emigration from Turkey and Morocco, when small boats brought Jews to Israel.
For the newly installed communist parties in Eastern Europe, it solved many problems. It secured foreign currency, created a more homogeneous society, rid them of troublemaker Jews and theoretically brought them closer to Washington. Although Ben-Gurion and Israel’s first foreign minister, Moshe Sharett, periodically mentioned the plight of Soviet Jewry to the Kremlin, they actually refrained from openly working for them until after Stalin’s death.
Bialer suggests that any intervention straight after the war’s end would have inevitably stopped the emigration of Jews from the other countries of Eastern Europe. It was only after this emigration had been completed that Israeli diplomats in the USSR began to promote the idea of a Jewish state among Soviet Jews, with the result that some were arrested and expelled.
It is remarkable that many figures were willing to take bribes, “greasing the wheels of aliyah,” to allow Jews to leave their countries. One Iranian prime minister pocketed $500,000 to do so.
Bialer recalls that the Vatican has always regarded the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE as a clear sign of God’s wrath and a theological basis for the Christian “New Israel.” Sovereignty could therefore not be restored to the Jews. Sharett described the stand of the Catholic Church toward Zionism as “a search for vengeance over an ancient sin and a 19-centuries-old grudge.” Ties with the Vatican only solidified after the Oslo Accords in 1993.
This book is a real eye-opener that places Israeli history in context. It reveals the hard work and deep thought that takes place behind closed doors. It is an absorbing book for the reader who wishes to go beyond the shallow slogans of the public arena and understand the rationale for a state of the Jews.  
The writer is an emeritus professor at SOAS, University of London.
By Uri Bialer
Indiana University Press
356 pages; $48.54