Moral Considerations in Foreign Policy and Israel’s Moral Failure

There are no moral standards in the global arena

What is morality? I do not intend to offer a philosophical definition of the term, but one could simply say that these are rules that distinguish between good and bad behaviors. At a higher level, these are rules of conduct, some of which are designated as fundamental values or norms pertaining to a group’s worldview while others (a significant proportion) are backed by “do or don’t do” legislation. That is how matters are conducted in a family, tribe, or country. But when we discuss inter-state relations, we discover an entirely different playing field. There is no authority that can enforce binding rules on all nations, despite attempts over the course of the 20th century to formulate international norms. In fact, many countries have chosen to stay off this playing field – and not necessarily non-democracies – so, there are no moral standards in the global arena.

The turning point of the 21st century

We are currently witnessing an unprecedented technological revolution, which has resulted in us all living in a global village. The significance of this fact is not clear to all heads of state. The world’s state-oriented structure has remained the same, while the world itself has become a village with new problems. The first challenge for existing countries is the total transparency and flow of information that blurs the lines between foreign and domestic policy. During the Arab Spring, I met with a high-ranking security official from a distant and non-democratic country. He told me that as soon as the riots erupted in Egypt, he blocked Egypt-related news on his country’s internet. I told him that it was doubtful that people of his country knew that a state called “Egypt” in the world. He replied that it made no difference – it would be enough for one small village to hear about what was happening for its inhabitants to decide that they, too, would demonstrate against their own regime, so as to ignite the whole country.

Some policy-defining decisions, and their morality

I will now try to give some examples of decisions that have defined policy and examine their degree of morality. I will touch on questions of the individual vis-à-vis the state, the state versus its own laws, the morality of state decisions as a mirror of its strength or weakness. In particular, I will try to answer the following questions: How do we determine what a state’s interests are? How can we reconcile the inherent tension between the statesman’s perspective and that of the operative echelon?

1. The neutralization of Osama bin Laden
Here is a first case: there is a married couple and the husband abuses the wife, verbally and also to some degree physically. The wife decides one night to act and shoots him. In accordance with its laws, the state convicts the woman of murder. Now let’s look at the action taken by the United States against bin Laden. The Americans searched for him for many years in order to make him pay for the attacks. One day, they found him in Pakistan. Instead of asking its ally to extradite him, the US chose to violate its sovereignty, organized a military operation, and killed him in his bed. The Western world saw this as a correct and welcome thing to do. There are two fairly similar cases here, though morally there’s a large gap between them. In the first case, law and order outweigh the woman’s right to exact justice for herself. In the second case, where the incident moved from the private arena to the international arena, the American action was perceived as moral and legitimate.

2. The release of Gilad Shalit
Israel engaged in lengthy negotiations for the release of Gilad Shalit. Shalit’s family led the struggle on his behalf and pressured the Israeli government to bring about his release. In 2012, the government agreed to a deal with Hamas that would free 1027 terrorists in exchange for Shalit. I remember the conversations I had with the then-prime minister before the deal. He knew it was a very difficult decision, especially for someone on the right. He sought support from the security echelon. I told him that the price of the deal was insane, and that there was no operative or practical logic to the move. However, I added that the question was neither operative nor legal, but rather one of Jewish morality and ethics. When morality is at issue, I have no better answer than does my wife, or any other citizen; I gave my support for the plan, not as head of the Mossad but as a father of children. In this case, the prime minister’s personal decision, which stemmed from his Jewish ethics and his prioritization of life above all else, won out, despite the potential harm to the power of the state.

A few years later, there was a cabinet discussion of the Shamgar Committee recommendations. The committee had proposed a solution – confidential up to that point – regarding negotiations for the release of abductees. The government wanted to adopt the committee’s conclusions, but I advised the prime minister not to accept them. I told him that if, God forbid, three little girls were to be kidnapped that evening and he were called to negotiate for their release, it was not certain that he would be able to stand before the people and declare that he would not open negotiations because of the committee’s conclusions. The decision was postponed. A week later, the three boys were abducted, and we know the result.

Had the issue been discussed in 1948, we might have aligned ourselves with the American position, which does not easily enter into negotiations. But Israel chose Jewish morality, even when it conflicts with the interests of the state, and even when it contradicts universal morality, and despite the dangers of returning hundreds or thousands of terrorists to society. Ultimately, however, the concept of redeeming captives plays a greater role. These are decisions that have determined policy, and at times they have been used against us. So it was in the Naama Issachar affair. Russia took problematic actions and demanded benefits for the Russian Church in exchange for Issachar’s release. It is altogether unclear that the government was allowed to agree to this, but promises were made. The prime minister personally flew to Russia to obtain the release of someone who wasn’t entirely innocent.

3. The Armenian genocide
Now we come to the third case: the State of Israel refuses to recognize the Armenian genocide and Turkey’s responsibility for it. The consistent explanation cites Israel’s geopolitical interests, and its desire to maintain good relations with Turkey. However, some NATO countries do recognize the Armenian genocide and are still allies of Turkey. Even Lebanon and Syria have acknowledged it. Here one finds a clear tension between moral values and political interests, but in this case Israel’s political interests have won out time and again. Why is the policy here so different from the policy in the case of Gilad Shalit?

The narrow horizons of political interests alone

Throughout history, the Jewish people have felt, in the most tangible way, the powerful tension between morality and political interests. Sometimes, sacrificing the moral stance and its price leads to a payment several times higher. When Germany annexed Austria in contravention of the Treaty of Versailles, everyone was silent. A year before the war broke out, Chamberlain opposed the war. He was comfortable making a rotten compromise and focusing solely on local interests. A few years later, however, England paid a much heavier price for its earlier non-intervention.
Germany’s Jews suffered legal discrimination for many years before the war. In 1935 the Nuremburg Laws were publicly enacted. One could easily see where this thing was going. But in 1938, Switzerland closed its borders to Jewish refugees from Austria and Germany, when its national interest was not to burden itself with refugees. Other European countries and the United States made no change to their immigration quotas. Great Britain even closed the gates of Palestine, in real time, during the war.

The status of the State of Israel

The State of Israel in 2022, by any standard, is a regional power with a large professional defense apparatus. Israel’s economy is strong, with one of the world’s highest GDP per capita. It has peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt, while on its northern border, Syria and Lebanon are weaker than ever. In addition, we have peace agreements and cooperation with other countries in the region. The only serious threat is Iran. But this is a much smaller threat than those hovering over Israel in first few decades of its existence. In contrast to the situation in ’48, ’67, or ’73, the existence of the State of Israel is no longer in doubt.

As it is now a state like all other states, it must adhere to the norms and rules of morality prevailing in the international arena. The State of Israel enjoyed many “passes” for many years. This period is over, and we should understand that. We are not a vulnerable leaf in the wind, but a military power. That is how we are regarded in the region and around the world. And yet many Israelis still live with the consciousness of ’67, as if an existential threat lies just ahead. Of course, there is a clear interest in trying to present ourselves as being in trouble all the time, whose existence is in doubt and could be gone tomorrow morning. When Israeli politicians – from all corners of the spectrum – tell the younger generation that existence here is not guaranteed, it’s no wonder people are willing to give up the basic principles the Jewish people, and its moral values. But there is never patience for those who refuse to acknowledge their true place. We may pay a very high price for this.

Israel and the war in Ukraine

We are currently witnessing a war that we thought was a thing of the past. In order to understand the Ukraine war, we must understand the Russian narrative. The Russians remember WWII as the Great Patriotic War. It is a cornerstone of their narrative and is commemorated by a number of important dates and memorial sites. Once the Russian soldiers believe that the Ukrainians are Nazis who pose an existential threat to Russia, they go to war with a deep sense of defending the homeland. When an eighteen-year-old soldier sees a house through the barrel of a cannon, he doesn’t see it as we see it. For us, these are war crimes. But for him, the narrative he absorbs at home dictates a different kind of behavior. The problem is complex, as the narrative profoundly affects the perception of morality. When we are convinced that justice is with us one hundred percent, and that evil incarnate is before us, the unbreachable sacred space is lost.

The Western world has declared the Russian invasion to be an act of aggression and has stepped up sanctions on it. In 2014, after the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, Israel was in no hurry to join the condemnations. Once again, Israel has chosen to sit on the fence, in the belief that it can have the best of both worlds. Reports of what is happening in the field have had little effect on the government’s position. The opposition remained completely silent, instead of challenging the government’s policy. There was not a single debate on the Knesset floor about the situation, and President Zelensky’s request to address the Knesset was first denied, and in the end was granted in a strange manner. There were almost no official condemnations, and Israel has even refused to send helmets and protective vests. Only because of American pressure Israel joined the UN condemnation. In the area of refugees, Israel is not far from Switzerland’s position during the Second World War. The door is open only to those who can prove their Jewishness according to the Law of Return. Israel is making it hard for others to receive asylum, even though asylum does not constitute citizenship, the awarding of a passport, or an unlimited stay. Israel brings tens of thousands of foreign workers into its economy every year, but finds it difficult to open its gates to those who are in real danger. In my view, this is a shame and a disgrace.

Parenthetically, I will tell you that my mother had a friend in France who was a social worker. One day the friend tried to explain to my mother one of the reasons behind modern French antisemitism. She told her that, for instance, if there’s an apartment building with middle-class residents, one of whom is a Jew, the Jew will readily help another Jew in some other city, but won’t give anything to his non-Jewish neighbor. Is it morally possible to distinguish between a Jew and a non-Jew? The immediate interest may lead to heavy costs in the future.

Is it really in Israel’s interest to sit on the fence?

Israel’s unwillingness to intervene and condemn Russia demands scrutiny. It is incumbent on me to understand the paramount importance of Israel’s freedom of action over Syrian soil. But the public also needs to understand Russia’s interests in this regard, and its strategy in the region. For many years Russia turned a blind eye to the transfer of Russian weapons from Syria to Hezbollah; we knew about it and Russia knew that we knew. Russia took advantage of the Syrian civil war to reestablish itself in the Middle East, massively arming Assad and turning Syria into a testing ground for new weapons. Russia didn’t prevent Iran from establishing itself in Syria, and there was even an overlap between Russian and Iranian interests. That is to say: Israeli and Russian interests on Syrian soil are in no way identical. So, the question arises why Israel has chosen to sit on the fence rather than supporting its real ally – the United States?

The need for a comprehensive calculation

To answer this question, I return to the holocaust of the Armenian people. How are a state’s interests determined? It is usually the product of a dialogue between the government’s political and professional echelons. In the case of Armenia, the professional echelon in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was focused on Israel’s relations with Turkey. The Foreign Ministry believed that recognizing the Armenian genocide could materially damage relations between Israel and Turkey. Israel did not change its position even when Turkey decided to adopt unilateral views in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The position of the professional echelon is understandable, but the government’s role is to weigh the full picture.

Moral values are an important component of that picture. The interest of the state is not only in the here and now; they also relate to moral aspects of its bilateral relations. There is no doubt that IDF’s freedom of action in Syria is important, so it is only natural that the defense establishment would recommend staying out of the discussion on the war in Europe. This is a very legitimate position. But the Israeli government’s job is to ask questions that go beyond that stance: What about our relations with the United States? What about our relations with NATO? How can we expand our cooperation with it? The Iran issue is also being handled in the international arena and the position of the United States and Europe on it is of great importance. Does the diplomatic echelon understand the long-term implications of that position? Of no lesser significance: What is the moral position we should be embracing? I doubt that a specific security interest can dictate a country’s position regarding an event of historical significance. The full and acknowledged adoption of sanctions is important. Israel may pay a heavy price for that in the future.

To conclude, although morality and politics do not go hand in hand, domestic and foreign policy are not solely political issues. Moral values and principles should shape the character of every state and place it among the family of nations. The 21st century Israel would do well to them into account in its decisions and in the weighing all of the constraints that lie ahead.