Israel and the decline of the liberal order

(Illustration by Neil Jamieson for The Washington Post; Photos by AFP and Getty Images)
The rise of nationalism around the globe may be reflected in the outcome of Israeli elections on Tuesday.

By Robert Kagan | The Washington Post | Sep 12, 2019

For most of their existence, Israelis have struggled to embed their nation ever more firmly within the liberal economic, political and strategic order. . . . The fact that many Israelis, including the country’s leaders, seem to be abandoning this decades-long approach says something about the current state of Israeli politics and society.

In the growing confrontation between the liberal world order and its anti-liberal nationalist and authoritarian opponents, which side does Israel want to be on? The question would have been absurd even a decade ago, when Israelis still regarded themselves as members in good standing in the liberal world. But in recent years, Israeli foreign policy has been trending in a decidedly anti-liberal direction.

Since about the middle of 2015, the Israeli government has embraced Hungary’s avowedly “illiberal” prime minister, Viktor Orban; worked to forge close ties with Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, despite its limitations on civil liberties and legislation outlawing public discussion of Poland’s role in the Holocaust; warmly embraced Brazil’s right-wing nationalist leader, Jair Bolsonaro; provided a state visit for President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, who once likened himself to Adolf Hitler; worked consistently to woo Russian President Vladimir Putin; offered a 25-year contract to a Chinese state-owned firm to manage the port of Haifa, which has often hosted the U.S. 6th Fleet; and provided consistently strong support for the military dictatorship in Egypt, including lobbying the U.S. Congress on its behalf, as well as supporting the authoritarian sheikhdoms of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, notably, stood up for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman following the October 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and Post contributing columnist.)

Netanyahu, who faces a difficult reelection vote on Tuesday, insists he is only leading Israel out of international isolation, but the common denominator among all these new partners has been an avowed hostility toward liberalism and the liberal world order, and the prime minister himself has become something of a “central figure in the global non-liberal camp,” as Israeli commentators have noted. Yoram Hazony, a conservative Israeli thinker and onetime aide to Netanyahu, has frankly proclaimed Israel’s solidarity with those he calls the “holdouts against universal liberalism” in Hungary, Poland, France, Italy, Britain and elsewhere. All face a struggle against what he calls the U.S.-led “liberal empire.”

Israeli leaders have borne this burden for 70 years . . .  that there was no home for Israel except within the liberal world order. That many Israelis now believe they have a choice is a reflection of our times, but it is a dangerous illusion. Those Netanyahu campaign posters showing him shaking hands with Putin, Modi and Trump carry the tagline “A Different League.” Indeed, it is. Good luck.

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