Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had earned himself a negative reputation among Democrats long before President Barack Obama entered the scene, but for many, his seemingly shameless pandering to the Republican Party culminating in his speech before Congress during Obama’s second term crossed all lines of decency and endangered bipartisan support for Israel.  Since then, Netanyahu has continued playing political favorites in American politics, and, more troublingly, has expanded this problematic behavior to the rest of the international arena where he regularly courts controversial leaders with questionable commitments to democracy and human rights.

Much has already been written about how the current Israeli government’s obsequiousness towards the Trump administration and its warm embrace of other right-wing populists makes a mockery of past Jewish suffering under nationalist governments. In the present day, it may in fact endanger Jewish citizens living under said governments, and is likely to inflict long-term diplomatic damage if and when the pendulum swings back towards political moderation. However, there is another facet that is too often unexplored regarding these alliances and the damage they cause to the Jewish state’s legitimacy, one that, however unwittingly, gives off a stench of desperation and emboldens its most strident detractors.

Critics are often quick to point out that Israel’s relations with questionable or simply unpopular regimes are hardly a new phenomenon. Indeed, during the waning days of the Cold War, Israel often found itself in the company of Latin American military juntas (a number of which showed more than a little disdain for their Jewish citizens), and was infamously late, even among Western states, in cutting ties with apartheid South Africa.

But in addition to often coming from a place of bad faith, these arguments usually leave out historical context and geopolitical considerations, dubious as those may be in justifying relationships with repressive governments. Dubbed the “nightmare years” by some Israeli scholars, the 1970s saw the oil-producing states of OPEC bringing the brunt of their power against Israel, decimating the latter’s foreign relations with the overwhelming majority of non-aligned countries. When one combines this state of affairs with a hostile U.S.S.R. arming even more hostile neighbors encircling a much weaker Jewish State and a United States less intrinsically committed to its defense, the calculus becomes more complicated and may better explain why Israeli leaders at the time felt that scruples in their foreign relations were a luxury they could ill afford.

Fast forward a few decades and Israel finds itself in a far more enviable position: it has unquestionably transformed into a regional hegemon with a highly dynamic economy largely untouched by 2008’s global recession. In comparison to its diplomatic nadir 40 years ago, it boasts relations with the overwhelming majority of the international community, few of whose members question its right to exist or seek to turn it into a pariah. Despite the very real dangers posed by Hamas and Hezbollah, the country is in no danger of being overrun and destroyed by its enemies. And for all noise that the BDS movement elicits, it is a marginal phenomenon whose real harm comes in the way anti-Israel sentiment is exploited and magnified by the Israeli right in order to reinforce an already formidable siege mentality.

Perusing the above facts, one could easily predict a cheery future for the country. And yet, you might not guess that from the prime minister’s deliberate courting and hosting of highly controversial leaders who are often shunned in other parts of the West, or in his political favoritism. Instead of acting like the leader of a powerful state that punches well above its weight on the international stage, Netanyahu has of late treated foreign relations the same way the leader of a breakaway region might: as primarily short-term gains that must be cashed in immediately regardless of long-term ramifications that may never come.

In the case of breakaway statelets propped up by Russia like Abkhazia and South Ossetia who are desperate for approval or regions with aspirations of separatism like Bosnia’s Republika Srpska, any and all sources of support are worth the price, even if they come from autocrats and serial human rights offenders. For Israel, this embrace simply calls into question its own self-image as a confident state that no longer fears its existence is a temporary anomaly.  Worse still, it erroneously confirms for the country’s enemies what they have long suspected: that Israel’s success is nothing but a veneer, under which lies a state whose flimsy legitimacy rests on the approval of an international rogue’s gallery.

In the past, Israeli politicians and military strategists were often accused of being incapable of planning for the long-term, constantly in a state of existential crisis, oftentimes justifying decisions that would haunt them in the future. Today’s Israel is strong enough to be pickier with the company it keeps and the friends it chooses to embrace. Failure to internalize this fact will continue to damage its reputation and simply encourage those who view Israel as an irreconcilably malignant force.

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