Should Israel expand its power? It is not an easy question to ask or an easy expectation to bear. Israel is a small country that has seen it as an imperative to punch above its weight and maintain a qualitiative strategic edge against its enemies. But as the country has prioritized self-preservation since its independence, the challenges are great and at times seemingly overwhelming.
While the rise of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt may have somewhat changed things, Israel could have been said to have rivals in Cairo, Ankara and Tehran all at the same time before Sisi took power. At this same moment in history, a resurgence of anti-Semitism has extended pressure on the Jewish Diaspora for whom Israel is conceptually a mainstay and security guarantor. With the emergence of Islamic State (ISIS) and Iran, Israel is in search of friends - but might it be too weak to make them?
There is precedent to teach Israelis how they might view their own international “power,” Professor Shmuel Sandler, researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, told Arutz Sheva.
“Ben-Gurion spoke of Israel as an or lagoyim – a light unto the nations – in a very spiritual way,” says Sandler, “but we have never had a chance to project that because we have been fighting for survival.”
Sandler illustrates that Jews over time have shown themselves to be more advocates for international peace and order, a realm that is “usually the lot of imperial powers” and not “small nations.” Yet, it would seem that in an ideal situation, Jewish Israel would support international institutionalism.
He cites Michael Waltzer’s lecture Universalism and Jewish Values, the Biblical prophet Amos’ rebuke to the nations as well as prophecies by Yeshayahu (Isaiah) and Micah as illustrating support for an international system of order and law. This clearly presents issues for Israelis today, not because Israel is in violation of international law, but because of the widespread consensus among international law specialists in Israel and abroad that Israel could never get a fair hearing if it ever had to present itself to an international court like the International Criminal Court (ICC).
But the striving for international order still weighs heavily on any sense of interventionism that might exist for Israelis. Plenty of essays about Passover illustrate there is a stream of liberation theology in Judaism.
“Judaism is revolutionary only when the political order is based upon repression, not when it is based upon mutual obligation,” says Sandler in his essay Toward a Theory of World Jewish Politics.
The multi-dimensional conflict between Syria and Iraq has solicited calls from other observers for Israel to be more assertive in the region - at least covertly - in order to aid the weak against the aggressive (i.e., numerous minorities in the region versus forces like ISIS). But many observers who might hope Israel would pursue a more assertive policy consistently comeback to needing to resolve the Palestinian question.
In his book Regional Powers in the New Middle East, Robert Kappel states that "Israel is a lonely power. It needs a more assertive regional foreign policy." Is Israel capable of incorporating military intervention into its Middle Eastern strategy?
“Yossi Beilin talked about intervention after peace with the Palestinians, then he said we should go for humanistic delegations as intervention but not military intervention; that is, not without a professional volunteer army.”
Here, Sandler describes that the current mission of the Israeli Defense Forces does not envision foreign intervention as a form of defense, and hence would be hard to justify to ordinary Israelis.
“When you have a draft you cannot ask some Jewish mother to send her son to fight some dictator in Somalia or some other place.”
A Vanguard for Global Jewry
“Whether or not Israel should prioritize Jews outside of Israel, that’s a good question,” Sandler told Arutz Sheva. “I bring some examples of that dilemma as a conflict between Israeli interests and Jewish communal interests like South Africa.”
“In all those cases posing no actual existential threat to the State of Israel, the Jewish state took world Jewish interests into account,” says Sandler. “The very fact that the Jewish interest in Israel’s foreign policy was at least considered supports the thesis of a Jewish foreign policy on the normative level.”
Sandler points to pidyon shvuim – the redeeming of captives – as having a strong influence on Israel’s foreign relations.
Israel has spoken out on behalf of world Jewry consistently, whether those communities abroad welcome Israel’s intervention or not. French Jewish leaders were put off by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's assertive comments after the attack on the kosher Hyper Cacher market in January when he called on French Jews to make Aliyah and implicitly abandon France.
Alternatively, it could be looked at that Netanyahu leveraged his own popularity among French Jews to create public pressure on French leaders to be more aggressive toward anti-Semitism in order to avoid further embarrassment at the words of Netanyahu.
There are also numerous examples of Israel lobbying on behalf of Soviet Jewry and Algerian Jews, both displayed as situations where Israel had to balance its Jewish interests with its national interests.
Sandler points to one example where Israel not only intervened diplomatically, but was willing to spend treasure to free Jews trapped behind one country’s border.
“I’ve spoken with several diplomats influenced by Jewish-specific concerns. I know for a fact the Romanian Aliyah we paid money to the government - (the) Jewish foreign minister (communist) made a deal in the 1950s where Israel paid upwards of $100 a head.”