There’s an old proverb that some say dates back to Sanskrit treatises on war that goes like this: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Many western leaders seem otherwise hard pressed to explain Israel’s diplomatic shift to cozy up to Arab countries that have for decades rued the existence of Israel as a nation state and deplored their treatment of the Palestinians.
It’s also likely the explanation for the almost incomprehensible decision by Israeli leaders not to condemn Russia, or more specifically Vladimir Putin, for the invasion of Ukraine, a diplomatic decision which becomes increasingly incomprehensible as the war crimes pile up and accusations of genocide become increasingly stark.
The Middle East is a complex region. Let me count the ways. First you have the religious schism among Muslims, Shiite vs. Sunnis, which is at the core of problems between Iran (Shiite) and much of the rest of the Muslim Middle East (Sunni). With the exception of Iran and to a certain extent Iraq, the rest of the Middle East and most of North Africa, including Egypt, is predominantly Sunni.
Israel’s biggest threat in the Middle East is Iran; and so, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” which probably explains Israel’s transactional diplomacy of rapprochement with some Sunni Arab nations. But to make this move, Israel must reconcile the potential concerns of the United States. These concerns would include rapprochement with countries like Saudi Arabia that are increasingly buying military equipment from Russia. Russia earns most of its revenue by selling energy, but the selling of weapons is significant.
Both Egypt and Saudi Arabia recently signed military cooperation agreements with Russia that include military-technical cooperation. And then there’s the distaste left in the diplomatic mouth concerning Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s orchestration of the torture, killing and dismemberment of Washington-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Furthering the fog of diplomacy is the notion that the U.S. might learn to like the idea of having Israel become, as Patrick Kingsley noted recently in the New York Times, “a conduit between Washington and some Arab nations.” And while most Arab countries do not yet have formal diplomatic ties with Israel, moving diplomatically in that direction would “send a message to Iran and in a way to the U.S.” Which ironically leads me to Putin’s war with Ukraine.
Israel’s government declined President Biden’s request to co-sponsor a UN Security Council resolution to condemn Russia for the invasion. Later, the government agreed to support a General Assembly resolution but declined to support sanctions.
The Jewish State is a living memorial of the Holocaust, a genocidal annihilation of six million Jews by Hitler’s Germany. And now, it’s hard not to see war crimes and genocide taking place in real time in Ukraine where bodies of civilians lay all over the streets of places like Kyiv and Mariupol, killed indiscriminately by retreating Russian soldiers; and then, specific targeting of civilians, hospitals and schools. How is it that Israel’s Foreign Minister can say that Israel will offer humanitarian assistance, but that Israel has good relations with both sides? Indifference?
Then came this tweet from the foreign minister yesterday: “It is impossible to remain indifferent in the face of the horrific images from the city of Bucha near Kyiv, from after the Russian army left. Intentionally harming a civilian population is a war crime and I strongly condemn it,” he tweeted.
Hard to remain indifferent to the Russian invasion of a sovereign nation? Israel has remained close to Russia because of its posture and help vis-à-vis Iran and Syria. So I repeat, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
The problem for Israel is not just this troubling indifference concerning Ukraine and a cascading indifference to the Palestinian situation which gets moved further back on the burner with Ukrainian developments. But where does this leave Israel as a nation founded on the unyielding principles of universal protections for humanity of all kinds?
Without a doubt, it’s a complicated world and the Middle East may be even more so, but if this indifference is a symptom of the “my country first” disorder at the expense of moral leadership the world so desperately needs today, then Israel is likely to pay a significant price.
Full disclosure. My paternal grandfather was a Jewish immigrant to the United States, fleeing the Russian pogroms in 1917, from what is now known as Estonia.
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.