‘The wolf huffed and puffed, but – having grown weary from blowing down the house of straw and the house of sticks – returned home to write haiku” ended no fairy tale ever. As is clear to all: once a wolf, always a wolf – lest stopped or deterred.
Bringing this closer to home, Israel faces a dilemma regarding its response to Russian aggression in Ukraine. Does it have an obligation to take a clear, strong stand against Russia? Or should it aim lower, focusing only on its own, narrowly defined interests?
Amotz Asa-El has argued that Israel must remain essentially neutral in its approach to Russia (“Is Israeli neutrality immoral?” The Jerusalem Post, May 20, and “Above the Ukraine fray?” Jerusalem Report, April 11).
Amotz Asa-El’s points are compelling and in line with the extremely cautious policies adopted by Israel at the outset of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But these policies lead Israel down a dangerous path, making it increasingly vulnerable to aggression, including by Russia. The decision to cleave to what amounts to a neutral position on the war weakens Israel’s stature amongst Western democracies, diminishing its credibility as a steadfast ally. It is an error to conclude that since Israel isn’t paying a price at the moment, that there is no price.
Neutrality increases risk
Remaining neutral also increases Israeli vulnerability by further undercutting the battered norms-based international system upon which Israel was founded, in 1948 – imperfect as this system is. This system and the robust qualities of Israel’s alliances with Western states – especially the extent to which they are based on a sense of shared values and purpose – serve as a powerful bulwark against aggressors such as Russia, whose relations are based on shallow transactions and the cynical application of brute force.
On its own, Israel cannot prevent the deterioration of the post-World War II international order. But Israel should certainly recognize its strong interest in working in concert with other states, especially longstanding allies like the US, to preserve the international system as best as possible and the safety net it provides.
Czech writer Milan Kundera claimed, in a January 2007 essay in The New Yorker titled “Die Weltliteratur,” “What distinguishes small nations from large nations is not the quantitative criterion of the number of their inhabitants, it is something deeper. For small nations, existence is not a self-evident certainty but always a question, a wager and a risk. They are on the defensive against History – that force which is bigger than they, does not take them into account and does not even notice them. ‘It is only by opposing History, as such, that we can oppose today’s history,’ Witold Gombrowicz wrote.”
Kundera highlights the universality of Israel’s dilemma, as well as – by implication – the legitimacy of Israel’s very real fears of oblivion.
Regarding Russia, Israel has reason to fear: Russia is large, strong and has demonstrated a willingness to apply extraordinary brutality in defense of its perceived interests. Moreover, Israel wants coordination with Russia in Syria, especially the continuation of the deconfliction mechanism, which facilitates Israeli air force operations within Syria.
Responsibility to Russian Jews
Israel also feels a responsibility towards Russia’s sizable Jewish community, which is vulnerable to retribution.
Despite these fears, Israel should not be deterred from taking more robust steps to demonstrate its solidarity with Ukraine and the coalition working to thwart Russian aggression against Ukraine. To connect to Kundera’s insight, Israel can stand up to the threats of History, writ large, only by making a difference in today’s history.
It must do this wisely, recognizing current power relationships. But it also must pay attention to the deeper sources of power on which these relationships are constructed. These sources are the shared values upon which solidarity within Israel is based, as are Israel’s robust relations with like-minded, free societies.
It is by failing to adhere to these values that Israel truly risks destruction and oblivion. The fact that Russia is presently tied-down in Ukraine should not lead Israeli decision-makers to think that it is safe – even for the time being. This is the false safety of Odysseus’ comrades waiting in Cyclops’ cave to be eaten. Israel was founded on an ethos of initiative – of standing boldly for its principles and interests – that should not be abandoned.
Israel’s reported latest moves in Syria – especially the June 10th attack on Damascus’ international airport attributed to Israel – seem to indicate a willingness to press Russia, which is heavily invested in Syrian stability. This is good and must be continued.
As necessary, Israel should remind Russia of its own vulnerabilities in Syria. Russia’s whole position in Syria relies on the success of a relatively small investment to date. The cost of maintaining this investment can rise significantly. Russia, too, has reason to be concerned.
But Israel’s interests in Syria are only part of the equation. Israel has a compelling interest in the broader strength of the international system and needs to demonstrate that it is a reliable ally – precisely because it is a relatively small, vulnerable power.
This is especially important in the context of President Biden’s visit to the Middle East. Israel stands to gain by reinforcing its robust special relationship with the US. It can only do this by demonstrating its loyalty as an ally, its fidelity to shared values and its respect for international norms and institutions. Israel can further differentiate itself from the other states of the region by showing how it stands with the broader coalition that actively opposes Russian aggression in Ukraine. Given the scope of Russian aggression, Israel sending helmets, medical supplies and a field hospital is woefully insufficient.
Israel should fulfill its obligations and cease being a free-rider, benefiting from others’ investments and sacrifices. Israelis should have no expectation that this plague of international insecurity will not touch our homes, should we fail to act.
None should ask whose baby is bouncing slowly down the Odessa Steps – for from Moscow to Minsk, from Beirut to Beijing, from Tehran to Tel Aviv, it is all ours.
The writer is a strategic and organizational consultant focusing on peace and development issues. He served as a General Staff officer in the Israel Defense Forces’ Strategic Planning Division, where he worked on the peace process and Israel’s defense-oriented international relations.