Israel just marked its 75th anniversary. That Israel survived so long is a miracle.
After all, in its first decades, it faced multiple wars aiming for its eradication. At its narrowest point, Israel was only eight miles wide, a distance Arab tanks could drive in just 12 minutes. Israel was also incredibly isolated. While the Soviet bloc had voted in favor of Israel’s independence, they turned on the Jewish state when its socialist founders chose to orient with the West rather than the East. By 1950, only around 30 countries recognized Israel but in Africa, only Liberia and South Africa did.
It was against this backdrop that Israel made a diplomatic error for which it still pays 50 years later. Three weeks after Israel’s founding, the National Party rose to power in South Africa and imposed Apartheid. Initially, Israel sharply criticized South Africa, a position born of both morality and a practical desire to cultivate newly-independent African states. In 1973, as many African states succumbed to the Arab oil embargo and peddled the fiction that Israel was a colonial state, South Africa did neither. Over the following two decades, bilateral ties strengthened. Both countries supported each other diplomatically at the United Nations, and covert military ties thrived. In the 1980s, as most Western countries sanctioned South Africa’s Apartheid regime, Israel refrained. Only in 1987, did it impose its own sanctions under US pressure. While Israel-South Africa trade was lucrative and Israeli officials might rationalized that they could not be picky, long-term costs were high. After Apartheid collapsed in 1994, South Africans neither forgave nor forgot. Today, South Africa is among the world’s most antagonistic countries toward Israel. Bilateral trade has shrunk by two-thirds over the past decade.
Successive U.S. administrations have placed the peace process at the center of their Israel policy. Each seeks to find a magic formula: land-for-peace, a settlement freeze, summits, and aid packages. Timing of final status issues is always a debate. As both Iran’s Islamic Revolution and the Arab Spring demonstrated, the Middle East is far larger than the Arab-Israeli conflict, however. From the U.S. strategic perspective, the Middle East is a distraction, even if an occasionally necessary one. Both Russia and China pose far more potent and, indeed, theoretically existential threats.
It is against this backdrop that Israel made its second great diplomatic error: Its naiveté regarding China. Israel was the first Middle Eastern country to recognize the People’s Republic as China’s sole legitimate government and to throw democratic Taiwan under the bus. Israeli leaders came to believe they could walk the tightrope between their traditional ties with the United States and robust technology sharing with China.
Israeli diplomats argue that strong ties with China might undercut Beijing’s embrace of Iran and rejectionist Arab states. They are wrong. They also believe they can contain any technology flow resulting from military trade and, as important, Chinese investment in the Israeli private sector. President Bill Clinton’s administration pushed back hard on Israel’s plans to sell the Phalcon early warning system to China, a transaction that would give the People’s Liberation Army critical technology it could use against the United States. During the George W. Bush administration, the White House threatened to drop Israel from the F-35 program if Jerusalem followed through on plans to sell China upgraded drones. China outreach even made some senior Israeli officials unwelcome in the Pentagon. So too did Israel’s 2012 decision to allow a port call by the People’s Liberation Army Navy in Haifa harbor. That Israel then contracted a Chinese firm to run Haifa’s port underscored Israel’s dismissiveness of U.S. concerns. Partisan press might focus on progressive vitriol toward Israel and the calumnies pushed by human rights groups and boycott and divestment activists, but far more damaging to Israel’s security is the American security community’s growing distrust of Israel’s geopolitical instincts.
Israel’s enthusiastic ties to Azerbaijan constitute its third strategic mistake. The logic of Israel’s weapons-for-energy trade may make superficial sense: The Islamic Republic of Iran poses an existential threat to Israel, and Azerbaijan can provide facilities for Israeli intelligence and military to counter that threat.
The problem is the depth of Israeli embrace and its blind support for Ilham Aliyev’s dictatorship. Israel essentially pays Azerbaijan for actions Baku would undertake anyway. Aliyev increasingly follows the trajectory of late Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and current Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Whereas once Washington believed Saddam and Erdogan to be moderates, both grew erratic. Corruption and economic mismanagement led both down the rabbit hole of extreme nationalism and military aggression. Saddam invaded Kuwait; Turkey repeatedly strikes at Iraqi and Syrian Kurds. Saddam posed as a secularist but embraced Islamism for cynical reasons. Erdogan convinced Western officials he had left religious radicalism behind, yet he often frames his actions against ethnic and religious minorities in religious terms.
Today, Aliyev’s rhetoric is reminiscent of both in terms of fanning ethnic incitement and reference to religious extremism. The depiction of Armenians in Azeribaijani school texts and media is parallels how Hutus depicted Tutsis in Rwanda prior to the 1994 genocide, how Germany depicted Jews during the 1930s, and Turkey’s dismissal of Kurds as “Mountain Turks” through much of the 20th century. Aliyev’s denial of Armenian heritage and Azerbaijan’s wanton destruction of Armenian churches and archaeological sites are reminiscent to the Islamic State’s dynamiting of Yezidi shrines, Mao Zedong’s destruction of Tibetan monasteries, or Palestinian rejectionist arguments that Jews have no historic ties to the land of Israel.
With its Azerbaijan embrace, Israel faces two long-term costs. The first is association. Azerbaijanis attest to Aliyev’s greatness in public but complain about his rule privately. By embracing Aliyev, Israel antagonizes those peoples Azerbaijan threatens today, while ensuring the antipathy of the Azerbaijani majority who despise Aliyev and will dominate the country when, like all dictators, he falls. Israel’s alliance of convenience today will be a shackle tomorrow as future Azerbaijanis associate Israel with propping up a hated dictator in the same way that black South Africans resent Israel’s embrace of their former oppressors.
The second is precedent: By giving Azerbaijan blanket support in its claims against Armenia and Armenian heritage, Israel is setting a precedent that can be used against it, be it with regard to its demand for defensible borders or its desire to protect Jewish heritage sites that might fall outside Israel’s 1949 borders.
When Israel had to fight for its existence, it was understandable that the Jewish state might need to make short-term compromises but, at 75 years old and recognized by the majority of the world’s states, Israel can afford more discernment. It need not rely on Azerbaijan for energy when it now has relations with Abu Dhabi.
No matter how clever Israeli leaders may believe themselves, they cannot have it both ways in the new Cold War between United States and China. Nor should Jerusalem believe that they can demand respect for Israel’s own security needs and interests if it so willingly throws other countries’ needs under the bus.
Now a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).