Israel Hayom was up in arms this week. In an interview with a Swedish daily, Israel’s new ambassador to Sweden had stated the obvious: Israel is shunning the Sweden Democrats, a far-right party with fascist and neo-Nazi roots that is still associated with similar positions. But for the Israeli Hebrew-language daily, this was a “controversial statement.” Why? Here is the wonderful explanation the paper gave: “In the past, the Sweden Democrats did adopt far-right positions, including sympathy for fascism and Nazism. However, in recent years it has become a staunch supporter of Israel.” That “however” says it all: Okay, they have a neo-Nazi past and perhaps a neo-Nazi present as well – or so says the Jewish community there (a bunch of leftists, no doubt), but, hey, they’re our neo-Nazis!
In the past decade, under Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership, Israel cultivated warm ties with far-right parties across Europe. Parties that, in the spirit of the times, directed their racism primarily against immigrants, Blacks and Muslims, and found an ideological partner in the Israeli right. The “Judeo-Christian alliance,” some of them call it, as a way of marking the common enemy who is absent from this alliance.
And these parties’ newfound closeness with the Israeli right came with a sweet bonus: the perfect whitewashing of their antisemitic past and present, courtesy of far-off Jews in the Middle East who aren’t disturbing them with their unwanted presence in Europe. Such dubious ties were formed with parties in Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Hungary, Poland, Italy and Spain, among others. Sometimes openly, by Netanyahu himself, sometimes through institutions of his Likud party, with these connections always sending shock waves through the local Jewish community.
Foreign Ministry officials broke out in hives on more than one occasion at the sight of this cozying-up, which violated one of the most sacred principles of Israeli diplomacy: Make no allowances for neo-Nazis. Ministry personnel tried to convey the message that Israel’s position was unchanged, but their declaration stood in stark contradiction to the warm embraces extended liberally by Netanyahu’s party and government (and often by his son Yair as well).
It’s easy to make the case that things have changed since Yair Lapid took over at the Foreign Ministry: policy toward Poland was changed, relations with the European Union are being mended and so far no red carpets have been rolled out for any blatantly anti-liberal racists. But the problem runs deeper than Netanyahu or Lapid. Israeli foreign policy has always moved between the desire, on one hand, to belong to the liberal world – to proclaim our “shared values” at meetings with liberal-democratic leaders, to be “the only democracy in the Middle East,” to flaunt our achievements in women’s rights and LGBT rights (and now we can expect a lot of “greenwashing,” too) – and the fact that the reality of the occupation doesn’t really allow it to be part of that world.
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Israel’s ongoing need to justify its military control over the Palestinians requires it to create alliances with the anti-liberal side of the international map. As does its need to fund its weapons industry through dangerous exports to all and sundry. Netanyahu did not conceal this: By fostering relations with the Visegrad Group – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – and in particular with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Netanyahu sought to break the European consensus on the Palestinian issue. (He failed.) He took a similar approach with his overly warm relations with former U.S. President Donald Trump, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and with the evangelical Christians that he hoped could take the place of liberal American Jews.
Wherever there are leaders who scorn international law and human rights, Israel will flirt with them. It has an inherent interest in undermining the liberal order of the common institutions. Perhaps our new government will at least stop our embraces with neo-Nazis.