Israel’s Political Right Sends Diplomacy to Hell

Netanyahu, Lieberman, Bennett and friends are not serving Israel's interests, but their own electoral agendas.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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From left: President of the Central Jewish Consistory of France, Joel Mergui, PM Netanyahu, French President Hollande and French PM Valls. In back: Lieberman and Bennett. Paris, Jan. 11, 2015.
From left: President of the Central Jewish Consistory of France, Joel Mergui, PM Netanyahu, French President Hollande and French PM Valls. In back: Lieberman and Bennett. Paris, Jan. 11, 2015.Credit: AFP
Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

The horrors of the terror attacks on Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher unified the free world. Dozens of heads of state came to march with millions of French to show fierce determination in the fight for liberty against the forces of darkness. The radical Islamist terrorists had hit a nerve so central to France’s ethos that it created almost total consensus.

There were two reactions that were insensitive, unproductive and uncivilized. The first was Marine Le Pen’s call to reestablish the death penalty in France. This is an absurd proposal when you fight suicide terrorism, because its perpetrators see their own death as part of their mission as shaheeds. It is obvious that Le Pen only wanted to mobilize her potential voters' hatred, not to contribute anything to the fight against radical-Islamist terrorism.

The second completely uncalled-for reaction was Benjamin Netanyahu’s immediate call to French Jews to leave France and move to Israel, which has been criticized on a number of grounds by many commentators. Chemi Shalev has correctly argued that Netanyahu’s call caves in to terrorism rather than standing up to it.

But Netanyahu’s call was not only wrongheaded as a reaction to terrorism; it also showed a singular lack of international finesse and diplomatic sensitivity, and the French wearily expected such a lack of tact. President François Hollande asked Netanyahu not to travel to the Paris memorial march because he was afraid Netanyahu would abuse the occasion to campaign for his reelection, as he did in 2012 when he traveled to France after the Toulouse shootings.

It is easy to connect Netanyahu’s faux pas to his personality problems, which have made him persona non grata in most government circles, from the White House to Angela Merkel’s office. But the problem runs deeper: It shows a deep flaw in the mentality of Israel’s right-wing politicians.

Avigdor Lieberman’s tenures as foreign minister are symptomatic of this flaw. For years he made every conceivable effort to offend his European colleagues and instructed Israeli ambassadors to talk tough to their host countries.

Naftali Bennett has been similarly harmful to Israel’s standing. In every interview and media appearance he makes sure to be the only one to speak, shouting down his interviewers and other program guests. It is unclear whether he thinks he has convinced anybody because nobody except him speaks. The fact is, his interlocutors, some of whom have spoken to me on condition of anonymity, have been flabbergasted by his lack of civility and are unconvinced by his verbal outpourings.

The argument that the lack of sophistication, diplomacy and finesse of Israel’s politicians reflects Israeli culture at large is wrong. Israel’s business sector, academia and senior security echelons all realized long ago how crucial cooperation is for the country's economy, security and cultural and political standing. In all these domains, diplomacy, finesse and respect for your partners and interlocutors are seen as essential for successful cooperation. This sophistication has paid off, particularly in Israel’s flourishing high-tech sector.

Unfortunately, the same does not hold true for Israel’s right-wing politicians. They see every international event as an occasion to show their constituencies at home how tough they are, how little respect they have for foreign governments, and how much chutzpah they have. In other words, they don’t give a damn about Israel’s policy interests. All they care about is their electorate at home.

Of course, I don’t have any illusions about whether politicians in other countries hone their foreign policies to suit their electoral interests at home. But the better ones realize that their countries need a foreign policy, and that good diplomatic and cultural relations are not a luxury but an existential necessity.

Israeli foreign ministers like Abba Eban and ambassadors like President Chaim Herzog, who served during very difficult times for Israel, knew how to strike the right balance between assertiveness and diplomacy, between standing up for Israel and being attentive to their interlocutors.

But Netanyahu, Lieberman, Bennett and friends are not serving Israel’s interests, they're serving their own electoral agendas only. This is one more reason why another Netanyahu government without a foreign policy would be disastrous for Israel’s future.



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