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December 13, 2018 9:27 am

Is Netanyahu’s Realpolitik Right or Wrong?

avatar by Harold Brackman

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits next to Education Minister Naftali Bennett during a Knesset session, March 12, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Ronen Zvulun / File.

I have long considered Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to be an indispensable man — even Israel’s “mini-Churchill.” Yet admirers like me need to remind ourselves periodically that even the British people voted out Churchill before subsequently reinstating him, and that they may not have been wrong. But, of course, the war for them was over in 1945; for Israel today, a new war may be looming. The cruel rule of politics is that nobody is really indispensable — except maybe Churchill and FDR in 1940.

My concern today is the latest barrage of criticism that Bibi is receiving for his overtures to European right-wing governments. Recently in Haaretz, Anshel Pfeffer denounced Netanyahu for “Risking Israel’s Interests” by papering over differences with Orbán’s Hungary, Poland’s President Andrzej Duda, Italy’s Salvini, and Austria’s Sebastian Kurz. (He didn’t even mention Putin’s Russia.)

According to Pfeffer, “In a year that has seen visits to Israel by such leaders as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and, from further afield, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, it is clear that the Bibi pilgrimage has become a rite of passage for a certain kind of foreign politician. … Politicians who are historically tainted with their party’s past associations with fascist and neo-Nazi roots can get Israel’s kashrut stamp by visiting the Western Wall and the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.”

Presumably, Netanyahu would not mind being called “a revisionist” if that meant associating himself with Zionist revisionist Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky. However, that is different than the imputation that Bibi is in bed with Holocaust revisionists by, for example, swallowing hard and trying to compromise with the Orbán regime over its new Holocaust Museum or other World War II-related controversies.

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In the context of the Cold War, American diplomatic historians used to debate the role of “idealism vs. realism” in shaping US foreign policy. Of course, the idealists had their day, especially with the founding of the United Nations and Eleanor Roosevelt’s role in drafting the 1948 Declaration on Human Rights. On the other hand, successive American administrations maintained a de facto alliance with Spain’s Franco, tolerated the communism of Yugoslavia Tito, as well as an assortment of Central and South American anti-Communist despots. That was “realpolitik” in the saddle.

Pfeffer may be correct that Netanyahu risks going too far in opening Israel’s door to the new global Right. But the line between practical realism and unwise appeasement is sometimes blurry. Neville Chamberlain capitulated to Hitler at Munich, but even Churchill had to stretch the line by embracing “a devil’s bargain” with Stalin against Hitler.

In my view, how far to go in holding your nose and accommodating distasteful regimes and leaders in the name of the “national interest” is not a matter of moral absolutes, but of political judgment — the correctness of which is often not decided until history judges.

In 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte was sitting atop the world. Then he heard a false report that the Duke of Enghien, who was living across the Rhine in Germany, was conspiring against him. Napoleon impetuously violated all prevailing international norms by ordering a cavalry squadron across the Rhine to kidnap him. The Duke was brought back to Paris, given a perfunctory military trial, and shot.

At the time, even Napoleon’s own chief of police, Joseph Fouché, saw this for what it was. He famously quipped: “It was worse than a crime. It was a blunder.” From there, it was pretty much downhill all the way for Napoleon.

Netanyahu needs to be careful about going too far, but I am not convinced that his current strategy of realpolitik with the European Right is either a crime or a blunder. Israel lives in a basically realpolitik world where extreme idealism is a luxury item it may not be able to afford.

Dr. Harold Brackman is an historian who has often studied clashes between “idealists” and “realists” in making history. 

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