By its silence on the Ukraine crisis, Israel has chosen dishonor to please Putin
Remember the op-ed Vladimir Putin published in the New York Times after Barack Obama threatened to punish Assad for his use of chemical weapons? In it, Putin explained that the use of force is legal only when authorized by the UN Security Council or in case of self-defense. Since there was no Security Council Resolution authorizing Russia to invade Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, Putin is evoking “self-defense” (the alleged need to protect Crimea’s Russian population) to justify his military invasion.
It is the same peculiar Russian definition of “self-defense” that brought Russian tanks into Budapest in 1956, into Prague in 1968, into Afghanistan in 1979, into Poland in 1981, into Chechnya in 1999, and into Georgia in 2008.
Joseph Stalin used to say that, when dealing with the West, he knew until what point he could exaggerate. Similarly, Putin is testing the West’s determination to contain his irredentist policies in the former Soviet Republics. Canada has bravely shown the example by recalling its ambassador to Moscow. The US and the EU can inflict economic pain on Russia. One is to hope that the Americans and Europeans will extract from Putin an economic price that will make his adventures too costly.
Israel, for its part, did not take a public stance on this issue. It should have.
Obviously, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Lieberman figured that Israel does not have a dog in that fight and cannot afford to cross Vladimir Putin when his cooperation is otherwise needed to curtail Iran’s nuclear program. This foreign policy decision, however, is morally wrong and strategically ill advised.
Morally, Israel should always make its voice heard loud and clear, together with other democracies, when thuggish leaders like Putin violate international law. Israel should emancipate itself from its “beaten wife syndrome.” While Israel is far from irreproachable and often deserves to be criticized, it is also unfairly, disproportionately and disingenuously accused of violating human rights and international law. This does not mean that Israel should feel embarrassed to condemn countries and leaders who actually do violate international law and human rights. Israel made a moral mistake by not condemning Putin’s bullying and total disdain for international law.
Strategically, Israel’s silence is ill advised, as well. Its attempts to sweet-talk Putin into downgrading his nuclear cooperation with Iran have been completely fruitless. Putin will do whatever it takes to poke America in the eye and to fill Russia’s coffers with the sale of hydrocarbons and nuclear technology. Israel’s existential angst is simply not on Putin’s list of concerns. Russia continues and will continue to vote with the Palestinians at the UN, to host Hamas leaders in Moscow, to help Iran with its nuclear program and to sell missiles to Syria (which happen to end up in the hands of Hezbollah). In 2008, Israel agreed to stop supplying weapons to Georgia because Putin promised, in return, not to sell an S-300 air-defense system to Iran. Instead, Putin sold the S-300 air-defense system to Syria.
Israel should remember the 1950 Korean precedent. When the Soviets and the Chinese invaded the Korean Peninsula, they clearly breached the UN Charter. Israel had recently been admitted to the UN. It had successfully fought its war of independence with weapons provided by the Soviet Union via Czechoslovakia. The Soviet Union had voted in favor of the 1947 UN partition plan and immediately recognized, in 1948, the newly declared State of Israel. Israel, therefore, wanted to stay neutral in the Cold War and tried to avoid condemning the Soviet invasion of Korea. Eventually, Israel added its voice to the UN condemnation of the Soviet Union and to the UN force that was sent to Korea. It was the right thing to do, as a matter of principle. But it was also the right thing to do in terms of Israel’s interests, because once the Soviet Union achieved its goal of driving Britain out of Palestine, it had no more reason to be supportive of Israel, regardless of Israel’s stance on Korea.
Israel’s Soviet-born Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, is partly to be blamed for this morally and strategically flawed policy toward Russia. After the rigged Duma election in 2011, Lieberman was the first foreign politician to congratulate Putin on his party’s “victory.” This statement was an embarrassment, and it certainly did not make Putin more amenable to Israel’s concerns over Iran.
Israel’s foreign policy toward Russia today may be summarized by paraphrasing Winston Churchill: Israel has chosen dishonor to please Putin, but at the end Israel has both dishonor and Putin’s middle finger.
Dr. Emmanuel Navon heads the Political Science and Communication Department at the Jerusalem Orthodox College and teaches International Relations at Tel-Aviv University and the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center. He is a Senior Fellow at the Kohelet Policy Forum.