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Choosing the Right Strongmen Allies

Israel’s alliance with illiberal regimes can be necessary and justified but not when they embolden anti-Semitic dog whistles

Lahav Harkov
January 29, 2019
Photo: Ronen Zvulun/AFP/Getty Images
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, during their meeting in Jerusalem, Sept, 3, 2018. Photo: Ronen Zvulun/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Ronen Zvulun/AFP/Getty Images
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, during their meeting in Jerusalem, Sept, 3, 2018. Photo: Ronen Zvulun/AFP/Getty Images

“Israel’s foreign relations are at a record high,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boasted in the Knesset in December. “There were 300 visits by [foreign] leaders to Israel this year. Presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers, senators, leading members of parliament. A flood … We have great achievements in the world, including the Arab world that we never had before.”

This is a common talking point for Netanyahu, who has claimed repeatedly over the past year that he has expanded Israel’s foreign ties to unprecedented levels. But there is a flipside to it, a recurring theme in criticisms of Israel: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is cozying up to “strongmen.” From the newly elected Bolsonaro in Brazil, whose inauguration Netanyahu attended this month, to Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Polish Premier Mateusz Morawiecki, world leaders are lining up to meet with Netanyahu. In fact, relations have so warmed with Poland and Hungary that their prime ministers are attending a summit in Jerusalem next month, along with the premiers of Czech Republic and Slovakia. Since not all of them are democratically inclined and some are outright human rights abusers and authoritarians, this is supposed to indicate that something is rotten in Jerusalem.

There are two elements at play in the claims of a nefarious new direction in Israel’s foreign policy: One is a pearl-clutching disgust at Netanyahu’s supposed embrace of illiberal regimes; the other concerns relations with leaders whose policies specifically impact Jews and, as has grown increasingly common in Eastern Europe, distort the memory of the Holocaust. An example of the first is Netanyahu’s willingness to engage with the government in the Philippines, which has engaged in extrajudicial executions of alleged drug dealers while Duterte has said he hopes to be to drug abusers what Hitler was to Jews. On the other hand, the Hungarian government, which Netanyahu has also courted as an ally, has engaged in institutional Holocaust revisionism while publicly glorifying Nazi collaborator and former Hungarian leader Miklos Horthy.

A weakness in all this new talk of Netanyahu and strongmen is that it conflates these two categories, mistaking the necessary compromises of conducting international relations, including with nations that have less-than-stellar democratic norms, with the troubling assaults on the legacy of the Holocaust. Moreover, many analysts who lament Israel’s cozying up to strongmen ignore research showing that Eastern European Jews feel safer from anti-Semitism than those in the West, which may be because they perceive the greatest threat to their lives coming from Islamist violence rather than the populist right.

Just over the past few months, there seemed to be a major push against Israel’s increasing alliance with illiberal governments—Palestinians exempted from that category, as usual—a move that started in the Israeli press before migrating to the Jewish diaspora press and from there to the mainstream American media in a big way.

In early December, Michelle Goldberg used her New York Times column to argue that “Israel is evermore willing to ally itself with foreign leaders who share its illiberal nationalism.” The assertion was embedded in a column devoted to defending the political legitimacy of anti-Zionism; in other words, defending the view that the concept of a Jewish nation-state is inherently illegitimate. Goldberg takes Netanyahu’s ties to Orban, which she calls “particularly close” without any proof or explanation, to indicate that “being pro-Israel and pro-Jewish are not the same thing.” A little less than a month later, an analysis by the Times’ self-proclaimed expert on anti-Semitism, Jonathan Weisman, posited that a growing rift between Israeli and American Jews “may come from the stance that Israel’s leader is taking on the world stage.” At which point Weisman runs through the usual litany of authoritarians Netanyahu has embraced: Orban, Duterte, Bolsonaro and the Polish government.

But another more serious line of criticism has also emerged recently in the wake of news that Israel was negotiating with Orban’s government over the content of a Hungarian Holocaust museum called the “House of Fates.” To the consternation of the local Jewish community, the museum is attempting to whitewash Hungary’s participation in the genocide of European Jewry, including sending 100,000 Jews to forced labor camps, where 40,000 died, and turning 20,000 Jews over to the Nazis, all before the Germans invaded Hungary.

Within days of the announcement, the Times published an article by Israeli journalist Matti Friedman quoting anonymous workers at Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial, on their discomfort at “right-wing politicians who might stoke animosity to Jews and other minorities at home.” And shortly after that, The Forward‘s Batya Ungar-Sargon lamented “Netanyahu’s crimes against Diaspora Jews” in holding talks with Orban and Morawiecki in an attempt to mitigate those countries’ policies distorting the Holocaust to try to exonerate and even glorify their local populations and leaders during World War II.

But this isn’t the first surge of criticism of Israel’s foreign ties, and it’s not all about the Holocaust. In honor of Duterte’s visit to Israel in September, a column in Bloomberg said, “Strongmen are no problem for Netanyahu,” and the Associated Press described “Netanyahu’s roster of tough-guy pals.”

It is no defense of human rights violators to say that Israel must sometimes hold its nose and keep up ties with strongmen leaders. As Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Chairman Avi Dichter—a Likudnik and former Shin Bet chief who could never be accused of being a bleeding heart—said before Duterte visited: “We may have to take a pill against nausea to receive him.”

But there are some too pure for such distasteful compromises. Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg wrote a letter to Netanyahu telling him not to strengthen relations with one of the largest economies in the world because Brazil elected a president from the far right, months before Bolsonaro even began his term. Yet Zandberg has also been photographed visiting the grave of Yasser Arafat, not a leader known for his exemplary human rights record. And neither she, nor anyone else on the left, has called on Israel to cut ties with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who wrote his dissertation denying the Holocaust, and whose regime jails people for criticizing him online or, God forbid, selling land to Jews.

When Netanyahu visited Oman and other ministers traveled to Abu Dhabi and Dubai this year, suddenly everyone seemed to understand putting realpolitik before an idealistic human rights agenda.

“Generally speaking, of course, we seek to be a light unto the nations, but when you put it into concrete policy, it’s more complicated,” said one senior official who works in Israel’s foreign ministry and spoke on condition of anonymity.

“We’re not in a situation to judge other countries and snub them because we don’t like their governments, or we’d have no relations with 80 percent of the world,” he added.

Expanding Israel’s partnerships around the world staves off the dangers of economic and diplomatic isolation that it faced in the not-so-distant past. And there are still vast swaths of the globe that want nothing to do with the Jewish state and automatically vote against it in any international forum.

However, this still leaves the more serious charge that Israel is endangering diaspora Jewry by normalizing relations with illiberal governments like the one in Hungary and endorsing attempts to whitewash history, like the one carried out last year by the Polish government.

On Jan. 27, 2018, news broke that Poland was passing a law to penalize people for using the phrase “Polish death camps” or suggesting that Poland and Poles were in any way responsible for the Holocaust.

The Israeli government came out strongly against the Polish Holocaust law, leading to a crisis in Israel-Poland ties. It ended five months later when Poland voted to lessen the sentence for people convicted of saying the country was responsible for Nazi crimes by taking prison off the table but keeping the act classified as a crime punishable by fine. The Polish government ran advertisements in major Israeli newspapers with Netanyahu’s statement announcing the agreement: “I’m pleased that the Polish government … decided today to fully rescind the clauses that were signed and caused a storm and consternation in Israel and among the international community.” But in the same statement, the prime minister essentially endorsed the underlying position of the Polish law, declaring: “We have always agreed that the term “Polish concentration/death camps” is blatantly erroneous and diminishes the responsibility of Germany for establishing those camps.”

The same issues raised by the Polish law have arisen again with the recent “House of Fates” controversy and Netanyahu’s engagement with Orban’s government.

The Israeli foreign policy official who spoke with Tablet defended his government’s position: “We have no other option but to negotiate and discuss. We don’t accept everything they do or say, but we have to take into account that this is their government. It was the same with the Poland Holocaust memory law, and it may happen with other countries, as well.”

But the issue is not whether to engage, it is whether those countries can then go and say they have Israel’s imprimatur when the result of those talks are inadequate. In the case of Poland, the government in Warsaw ran a victory lap with Netanyahu’s statements.

Something similar happened in 2017 when Orban ran a campaign ad that announced: “Let’s not leave Soros the last laugh.” The reference was to George Soros, the Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor and billionaire who is a major funder of pro-democracy NGOs in post-communist states, but also of far-left political organizations around the world. Israel’s ambassador to Hungary said the ads were anti-Semitic, as did Hungarian-Jewish leaders. But the Netanyahu-led Foreign Ministry undermined that sentiment by stating that it “deplores any expression of anti-Semitism” but “in no way was the statement meant to delegitimize criticism of George Soros, who continuously undermines Israel’s democratically elected governments by funding organizations that defame the Jewish state and seek to deny its right to defend itself.” Of course, Soros is a legitimate target of criticism but when local Jews are concerned about anti-Semitism, it’s probably not the right time to focus on that point.

At the moment, the only far-right group with any relevance that Israel is boycotting is the Austrian Freedom Party, founded by ex-Nazis, a member of the ruling coalition in Vienna. But ties with the rest of the government remain on track.

In general, it appears that Eastern European Jews may not view their situation in the dire terms used by some of their self-appointed advocates in Israel and the West.

As Evelyn Gordon reported in Commentary in November, a study by the Joint Distribution Committee International Center for Community Development found that 96 percent of the Jewish leaders and professionals polled in Eastern Europe felt safe, as opposed to only 76 percent in Western Europe. In addition, Western Europeans were more than twice as likely to see terrorism and violence against Jews as a threat; 47 percent of them cited it, as opposed to 22 percent of Eastern Europeans.

One possible reason for the discrepancy cited in the study is that anti-Semitic violence in Europe is more likely to come from Muslims, of which there are very few in Eastern Europe—in part because of strict immigration policies enacted by the very right-wing governments that are being called dangerous for Jews. But don’t expect to see that reality acknowledged in the popular moralizing about Netanyahu and strongmen.

The same study also found that 56 percent of Eastern European Jewish leaders were pessimistic about increasing anti-Semitism, while in Western Europe the number jumps to 75%.

Another reason, or at least a correlation, is that 88 percent of Western European Jewish leaders found their media to be hostile to Israel, while only 36 percent said the same in the East. As Gordon noted, “Whenever Israel launches a major counterterrorism operation, anti-Israel sentiment spikes along with anti-Semitic attacks.”

That brings us to why Israel is especially interested in maintaining a positive relationship with Eastern European countries, beyond staving off isolation as mentioned earlier. The European Union is Israel’s biggest trading partner, and the EU’s Western members tend to be more critical of Israel than those in the East, who can help veto policy decisions that may be harmful to Israel.

Eastern Europe is “a good partner that creates a counterbalance to Brussels,” the government source said. “This enables us to deal with Europe without constant criticism. We take it as a positive diplomatic tool, and we don’t judge when we don’t need to.”

This “counterbalance to Brussels” is Jerusalem’s explicit goal in hosting the summit on Feb. 18-19, upgrading ties with the Visegrad states—Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, and Slovakia—thought to be the most right wing in the EU.

The challenge and moral mandate for Israel’s government is to ensure that in pursuing enhanced relations with countries that can strengthen its security and political position, they’re not endorsing the anti-Semitic dog whistles—or bullhorns—of their governments.


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Lahav Harkov is the diplomatic correspondent for The Jerusalem Post. She tweets at @LahavHarkov.

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