Our friendship with dictators reflects weakness, not strength

When the lonely, embattled, socially isolated kid in the playground realizes that if he curries favor with the playground bullies he will be safe, he does so out of weakness, not out of strength.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Chad President Idriss Déby (photo credit: GPO)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Chad President Idriss Déby
(photo credit: GPO)
Headlines this week giddily declared the historic visit to Israel of Chad’s president and suggested that ties with Sudan may be next in a long line of diplomatic victories that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will brought home from the African continent and around the world. Suddenly everyone wants to be our friend. And this, touts Netanyahu, comes not because of concessions, but “through our strong and steadfast standing.” Netanyahu’s policy of outreach saves Israel from its sense of diplomatic isolation, from the feeling that everyone is against us.
But does this policy really come from a place of strength?
When the lonely, embattled, socially isolated kid in the playground realizes that if he curries favor with the playground bullies he will be safe, he does so out of weakness, not out of strength. If he were strong, he would be able to stand up to the bullies, and for the bullied. In truth, he is not even really safe, because for a bully the need for power will always trump loyalty, and when the enabler ceases to be useful he will be discarded.
The problem with our friendships with the bullies of the world, whether they be African or South American dictators, or far-right parties in Europe, is that they come from weakness, from anxiety and fear, and therefore lack any moral spine. In Europe, this translates into turning a blind eye to the antisemitism of nationalist groups. In Africa and South America, it means selling weapons to dictators bent on maintaining their power by brutally crushing any voices of opposition. And at times – most recently in conflicts in Myanmar, South Sudan, and Cameroon just to name a few – it means selling weapons to governments involved in gross human rights violations, massacres, ethnic cleansing and genocide.
In all these cases Israel refrains from raising any moral protest, lest we anger the bullies and endanger our friendship. Trying to justify this silence by pointing to the importance of these relationships is simply a cover for moral cowardice motivated by a lack of self-confidence and a sense of weakness.
That sense is misplaced. The truth is, Israel really is stronger than ever before and has much to offer the nations of the world in the fields of science, technology, agriculture and defense. We are a desirable enough product. We don’t need to sugar coat ourselves with appeasement that compromises our moral values 
What would a self-confident friendship offered from a place of strength look like? Minimally, it would need to begin with legislation that would end arms sales to governments involved in gross, unchecked human rights violations. Perhaps an argument can be made for exporting products which increase human well-being, even to dictatorial regimes. But it is quite another matter to provide them with the weapons and training for the travesties they perpetrate.
Such a law, in fact, has been proposed by MK Hilik Bar, and will be voted on in the coming weeks. 
Anyone who cares about Israel’s strong and steadfast moral standing; anyone who believes the time has come to stop supporting the bullies and to start standing up to them, should be looking for ways to ensure that it passes.

The writer is an activist for moral limits on Israeli arms exports, and the rabbi of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Hevruta program.