The caution of the Israeli government’s policy toward Russia following its invasion of Ukraine arouses resentment among journalists, intellectuals and Jews whose entire Jewish identity is tikkun olam (repairing the world).
However, the simplistic righteous calls for Israel’s government to be on the right side of history reveal historical ignorance and moral relativism.
History has no right side and it does not evolve according to moral imperatives. Nevertheless, some Marxists believe in historical determinism leading to the rule of the proletariat. This is the Marxist paradise, which can be said with confidence to have failed.
The liberal version of progress culminates with the theory of Francis Fukuyama of the End of History, which argues that the rise of Western liberal democracy since WWII would lead to the universalization of its values. The Ukraine crisis clearly demonstrates it did not happen yet.
Like it or not, the victors write history; but, unfortunately, those who achieve victories are not necessarily righteous. History would indeed have looked different if Hitler had invested his energy and money into building a nuclear bomb rather than long-range missiles. This possibility was reasonable, and fortunately, it did not occur. It is also true that the Allied victory in World War II could be attributed to the General Motors Company, which was exemplary in creating war machines.
Is it desirable to be on the side of the victors? Of course, it is not always clear who will come out on top. For example, does Israel know the outcome of the Russia-Ukraine war and its broader implications? In any case, Israel announced its alignment with the West. It even voted with the West at the UN despite the grave Western error in ignoring Russia’s security needs regarding NATO expansion.
Therefore, the onslaught against any government that does not get on the right side of history is puzzling. How can we ignore that Russia sits on Israel’s northern border and allows attacks on targets of Iran and its proxies in Syria? Iran poses an existential threat to Israel. Russian cooperation is too important to risk for issues not directly related to Israel’s national security.
The open channel with Moscow allowed Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to mediate between Ukraine and Russia. It is hard not to praise the Israeli government for choosing a mediation role to prevent an escalation in the war.
It is not easy for Israel to maneuver between different interests and moral preferences that are sometimes contradictory. The test is always in the result – is it beneficial to the state’s national interest? Even in retrospect, policy outputs are not always quickly discernible.
The supreme moral order of a nation is to survive in the international jungle. The nation has no moral right to commit suicide. No country is allowed to gamble on its very existence.
A lesson can be drawn from Rabban Yohanan Ben-Zakai, who deserted from the battle against the Romans and asked for Yavne and its scholars, instead of dying in a losing battle. Was his decision the embodiment of morality? Uncertain, but as a result, he created an alternative for Jewish polity and its continuity.
Niccolo Machiavelli’s significant contribution to political thought was the insight that a state should not be expected to behave in the international system as a worthy priest should behave towards his flock. Individuals operate in a different social framework.
For example, we expect family members to show pure altruism and take care of each other. Yet, altruism is not expected of a bank. It is also inconceivable that a university dedicated to excellence would look favorably at favoritism based on factors other than merit. Moreover, it is accepted practice that a person bargaining in the market will behave with complete selfishness by intending to buy as cheaply as possible and at the seller’s expense.
At the international level, the good of the state is the guide to desirable behavior. The opinion of the various moralists is of secondary consideration.
The writer is president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS).