Don't Gloat Over Brexit, It's No Good for Israel

Ultra-nationalists in Israel think the EU is an anti-Semitic hater but do they really think Russia or China would make better friends?

A pedestrian shelters from the rain beneath a Union flag themed umbrella as they walk near the Big Ben clock face and the Elizabeth Tower at the Houses of Parliament in central London on June 25, 2016, following the pro-Brexit result of the UK's EU referendum vote.
Justin Tallis/AFP

The glee with which the Israeli’s nationalist right celebrated Brexit
shows just how disconnected it is from reality.

The story line is this: Brexit will weaken the European Union, that
bastion of anti-Semites and Arab lovers, and Israel will be left in
peace to build settlements and deal with its internal enemies, like
the High Court of Justice and the media, without any interference
from Brussels. If we need friends, we can find them in China,
Russia and a Republican-controlled White House – to hell with the
EU.

The fault with this theory is the fault of extreme nationalism – let’s
call it hyper-nationalism – everywhere. It is so enamored with the
idea of national independence and national will (as the hyper-
nationalists envision it) that it can't get beyond simplistic flag-
waving patriotism and paranoia to deal with messy reality.

Hyper-nationalists always hold their national entity to be the best
and purest and most saintly, and subjected to insult and injustice
at the hands of inferior nations abroad and/or untrustworthy and
unpatriotic people at home.

Demonstrators from the far-right English Defence League (EDL) clash with police officers during a march in Leicester, central England, February 4, 2012.
Darren Staples/Reuters

Hyper-nationalists dismiss the idea that the world is subject to
economic and social forces that result in disturbing and
unwelcome change – say, the rise of the Asian powers and relative
decline of the West. They would much rather pick people or
institutions to blame for the vicissitudes of life. Just like the Leave
campaign, they have no solutions to offer, only enemies to fight, in
this case the EU.

EU hatred: Very impractical

The hyper-nationalist story, with some variations, can be found
among rightist nationalists in Russia, China, Japan, the Balkans,
the Arab world – in fact, just about everywhere. Donald Trump
peddles a version of it to American voters and Vladimir Putin offers
the same to Russians. It was an important element of the Leave
campaign in Britain.

In Israel, this world view is spewed by movements such as
Regavim, Im Tirtsu, Lehava and, in a somewhat more polished,
more dangerous form, by the right-wing of the Likud and much of
Habayit Hayehudi and among the most ideological settlers. And
there are disturbing signs that the paranoia of hyper-nationalism is
making inroads in the Israeli center, certainly in the form of hatred
for the EU.

Beyond the fact that extreme nationalism is faulty and easily slides
into ugly racism, it also, always, leads to a dead end.

In a world of interdependent economies, the kind of economic
autarky hyper-nationalism aspires is impractical. What modern
economy can survive without free movement of natural resources,
products, intellectual property and people? Certainly Britain can't,
and now it will have to negotiate trade and other agreements with
the EU, or face a bleaker economic future. And, with a low birth
rate who is going to fill all the jobs Britain needs to fill in the years
ahead? Unless those Leave voters are prepared to breed like
rabbits, Britain is going to need immigrants.

Rabbits are raised at the Goffle Road Poultry Farm in Wyckoff, New Jersey, U.S., on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2011.
Scott Eells/Bloomberg

With friends like these

The politics of ultra-nationalism leads to a dead end as well. Since
each country’s ultra-nationalists look at the world exclusively from
the vantage point of its homeland, it cannot see a world of give and
take, where compromises have to be reached and neighbors lived
with in a spirit of equality and fairness.

It’s easy to see how the self-destructiveness of hyper-nationalism
harms Putin’s Russia: The Kremlin makes incursions into Georgia
and Ukraine and plays rough with its neighbors, then acts
dumbfounded and offended if the countries adjacent to its victims
get nervous and seek protection from the West.

But, do Israeli ultra-nationalists understand that dissing the United
States and the EU at every turn might be risking important
friendships?

Of course not. Israel is the victim. It's just doing what it needs to
defend itself against its enemies in Washington and Brussels. If
Israel’s standing is European public opinion is suffering, that’s
because they are anti-Semites who never liked us to begin with. It
couldn’t have anything to do with our actions or policies, according
to the ultra-nationalist version.

But far from wishing the worst for the EU, Israel should be hoping
and praying the union can solve its problems, including keeping
Britain inside, if it’s not too late.

The EU is Israel’s biggest trade partner. Even in its weakened
state it is going to stay that way for many years to come. Israel
benefits from collaboration in agriculture, aviation, science and in
research and development projects. Hundreds of Israeli institutions
receive EU funding for innovative research, sharing their expertise
and knowledge with their European counterparts.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, left, speaks at a press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, following their meeting in his Jerusalem office, June 20, 2013
Abir Sultan/AP

The EU is no fan of settlements and disapproves of Bibi’s foot-
dragging on Palestinian peace, but in the big picture, it has done
little to punish Israel. A declaration here and settlement-labelling
requirement there, but compared to the economic benefits Israel
enjoys, this is a small price to pay.

In any case, far from being hell-bent on destroying Israel, Europe
still embraces it as a friend and fellow member of the Western
democratic camp – albeit an often badly behaved one – as the
trade and other agreements we have demonstrate.

The idea that official Europe – the bureaucrats in Brussels and
European national capitals, that is – is motivated by a fundamental
animus toward Israel isn’t backed up by the facts. But the hyper-
nationalist right ignores that, because facts aren’t supposed to get
in the way of its worldview.

Russia and China may be less fussy about human rights, but
neither can replace the EU as an economic partner any time soon,
nor would they be ideal political allies. And ask any of their
neighbors what it is like to cross them. You might find a Chinese
naval base on an island you thought was yours or find one of your
power plants shut down by mysterious hackers. Neither country
plays by the gentlemanly rules of the West and there is no
independent Congress to address in defiance of the president in
Moscow or an AIPAC in Beijing to help you out in times of crisis.

To Israel’s credit, reason still prevails over the dangerous fantasies
of the hyper-nationalist right. For all his faults, Bibi isn’t a part of it
and Israeli voters have shown restraint, preferring nice guys like
Yair Lapid and Moshe Kahlon to register their displeasure with the
establishment. But as the sudden rise of Donald Trump and the
surprise victory of the Leave campaign show, in troubled times like
these - it’s impossible to predict when the demons will suddenly
appear. Israelis should be wary.