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Israel and Russia are getting along. Have the neocons noticed?
On friendship and double standards
 
Best friends forever?
Best friends forever? (Illustration by Lauren Hansen | Image courtesy AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service)

Russia and Israel seem to have a growing affinity for each other. A few weeks ago, Israel abstained from a vote in the U.N. censuring Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that this is a sore spot for the White House and a diplomatic novum on the world scene:

A senior Israeli official said that Israel's absence from the United Nations vote was viewed around the world as an extremely irregular measure, a departure from a long-standing Israeli policy of voting with the United States in the UN. While the Americans viewed Israel's behavior as ungrateful, in light of Washington's unshakable support for Jerusalem in the UN, in the Kremlin and in the Russian media Israel's action was seen as an expression of support for Moscow, or at the very least a lack of opposition to the invasion of Ukraine. [Haaretz]

This report and Israel's warming relations with Russia became an occasion for Andrew Sullivan to reflect on the similarities between those two nations. The political leaders in both countries conceive of themselves as leaders of distinctive ethno-nationalist states and both have expansionist tendencies justified on the protection of co-ethnics living outside their current borders.

Borrowing from a smart post by Daniel Larison, Sullivan says that if Israel were to agree to the American-supported resolution, it would condemn itself, since it does not hold to the same strict interpretation of territorial sovereignty on which the condemnation of Russia relied. Sullivan puts a very fine point on it.

Russia, like Israel, has no real commitment to diplomacy unless it can act as a cover for military expansionism or as a delaying tactic while it entrenches its grip on the West Bank and makes it permanent. Large swathes of the Israeli corporate and political establishment have extremely close ties to Russia, in the wake of the post-Soviet influx, and the Russian immigrants are among the most hardline with respect to the Palestinians. And you can see the rapport between Netanyahu and Putin as clearly as you can see the lack of chemistry between Netanyahu and Obama. [The Dish]

This is all true so far as it goes, but it is a bit rich to say that Russia and Israel employ "exactly the same strategy" when it comes to territorial expansion, as Sullivan does. Part of the attraction of this argument for Sullivan and Larison (and myself, I admit) is that it highlights how little the U.S. seems to get in return for an alliance with Israel, that is expensive in both dollar terms and diplomatically.

But there may be something even juicier beneath even that. Neither Sullivan nor Larison mentions this explicitly, but it would seem that this tilt of Israel toward Russia puts American neoconservatives in an uncomfortable position. Neoconservatives have treated Russia's bid to become a stronger regional power as a direct threat to a U.S.-led world order and the possible reintroduction of fascism into Europe.

For some neoconservatives, Benjamin Netanyahu is the totem of "moral clarity" on the international scene. And yet, these same writers will say that Obama is being played for a fool over Crimea. If Obama is a fool for not opposing Putin strongly enough, what does that make of Bibi's moral clarity? Bill Kristol worries that Obama is placating Russia, and has said that Obama's "weakness" has invited Russia's aggression in the Ukraine. What has Israel's silence done? When Kristol says that America should be making Putin's friends pay a price, surely he doesn't mean Israel.

In fact the magazine Kristol edits never even mentioned Israel's non-vote. And within a week of Israel's abstention on the Ukraine question, the Standard only noticed Netanyahu to praise him for his ability to "get it" on the question of Palestine. And by "get it" they mean, he understands Palestinians to be irredeemable moral villains, undeserving of a peace process.

All that hypocrisy may be interesting, but it probably says more about how neocons feel about Obama than they do about Israel. After all, why should Israel stand up to Russia, a nuclear superpower? Israel isn't the guarantor of the neo-liberal world order, the U.S. is. And Israel has enough problems in its near abroad: Why should it pay a price for a conflict in which it has no interest?

This also wouldn't be the first time that there was a significant split on an international question between American neoconservatives and Israel's leaders. Just compare how Netanyahu felt about the Arab Spring to the feeling of the neoconservatives. For the former it was a nightmare, for the latter, a dream come true.

Any moral contradictions aren't as deep as they seem, either. As easily as Sullivan links Israeli and Russian ethno-nationalist expansionism, they can be pulled apart almost as quickly. Both Israel and Russia may feel the need to act beyond or even redraw their borders, but they do so for very different reasons. Israel views itself as a besieged nation that is deeply vulnerable to terrorism, and to a combination of demography and ideological changes in the region; it acts out of existential angst. Russia is a kind of second-world kleptocracy, a nuclear superpower that has suffered humiliations and acts with a wounded ego.

Even if there is a growing political affinity between Russia and Israel, this doesn't necessarily become a moral burden for U.S. neoconservatives. Although, it sure makes you wonder if they think Israel "gets it" on Russia, as the country certainly gets plenty from the United States.

 
Michael Brendan Dougherty is senior correspondent at TheWeek.com. He is the founder and editor of The Slurve, a newsletter about baseball. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, ESPN Magazine, Slate and The American Conservative.

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