Why the new nationalists love 'Israel'


Why the new nationalists love Israel A trip to Jerusalem has become almost compulsory for today’s ‘strongman’ leaders GIDEON RACHMAN Add to myFT Share on Twitter (opens new window) Share on Facebook (opens new window) Share on LinkedIn (opens new window) Save Save to myFT Gideon Rachman APRIL 1, 2019 Print this page207 With a week to go before the Israeli election, Benjamin Netanyahu has rarely been in a weaker situation at home or a stronger situation overseas. The Israeli prime minister is fighting the elections weighed down by a preliminary indictment for fraud, bribery and breach of trust. He is currently neck-and-neck in the polls, with the centre-left opposition led by Benny Gantz, a former head of the Israeli military. The campaign is also taking place against the backdrop of continuing unrest in the Gaza Strip. But while the clouds are gathering at home for Mr Netanyahu, they are lifting overseas. Israel is benefiting from the rise of a new generation of nationalist-populist political leaders — from Washington to Delhi, and from Budapest to Brasília — who ardently admire the Jewish state. This change in the international political atmosphere has created new breathing space for a country that has long feared international isolation and trade boycotts. The single most important change for the Israelis was the election of Donald Trump. The US president has delivered on a long list of Israeli objectives which once seemed like distant fantasies. Mr Trump has moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and pulled out of the Iran nuclear accord. And this month, America recognised Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which Israel seized during the Six-Day War of 1967. Mr Netanyahu sounded almost incredulous as he received this gift in the White House. Another leader who loves to stress his friendship with Mr Netanyahu is Jair Bolsonaro, the new president of Brazil, who is currently visiting Israel. Having the largest country in Latin America as an ally is a breakthrough for Israel because the “global south” of developing nations has traditionally been solid in its support for the Palestinians. For Mr Bolsonaro, embracing Israel is a way of simultaneously appealing to the large evangelical community in Brazil and to the Trump White House, while sticking a finger in the eye of his enemies on the liberal left. Indeed, a trip to Israel has become almost a compulsory stop for a new generation of “strongman” leaders, who revel in defying liberal opinion. Last September, Rodrigo Duterte, the leader of the Philippines, came to Jerusalem and told Mr Netanyahu: “We have the same passion for human beings” — a double-edged compliment, given that Mr Duterte is under investigation by the International Criminal Court for encouraging extrajudicial killings. Another strongman cultivated by Mr Netanyahu is Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary and champion of “illiberal democracy”, who visited Jerusalem last year. This relationship is controversial in Israel because Mr Orban launched a poster campaign in 2017 that used anti-Semitic imagery portraying George Soros, a Jewish philanthropist, as a puppet master intent on flooding Hungary with refugees.  How to contribute to the FT’s opinion pages Here at the FT opinion section, we want to hear from you. We particularly relish pieces that highlight fresh ideas, unexpected places and diverse points of view. Find out more here. Nonetheless, there are ideological affinities between the Israeli and Hungarian leaders. They are both ethnic nationalists — “Israel for the Jews” and “Hungary for the Hungarians” are similar ideas. The fact that Mr Orban’s nationalism has more than a whiff of anti-Semitism about it is not especially shocking to Mr Netanyahu, whose brand of Zionism has always assumed that the outside world is inherently anti-Semitic.  For the Israeli leader, making a tactical alliance with a dubious figure like Mr Orban is justified if it helps Israel. And central European nationalists are currently doing just that. Last year, the Czechs, Hungarians and Romanians vetoed EU condemnation of America’s embassy move to Jerusalem. Since then, the Romanian prime minister has suggested that his own government might move its embassy to Jerusalem.  These days, Europe’s far-right is far more hostile to Muslims than Jews, and that Islamophobia often translates into support for Israel. Something similar may be going on with Narendra Modi, who in 2017 became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel since the state’s foundation. Mr Modi leads the Hindu nationalist BJP, whose supporters are often antagonistic towards Muslims. Some BJP loyalists see Israel’s ferocious response to Palestinian violence as a model for India in its struggle with terrorists based in Pakistan. Technology is Israel’s calling card with China. Wang Qishan, China’s vice-president, visited an Israeli tech fair last October. At a time when American tech companies are getting warier of working with China, Israel is an attractive alternative. A Chinese firm now operates the port of Haifa, which is the main base for the Israeli navy. Mr Netanyahu regards these new relationships as great achievements and dismisses liberal scruples about palling up with the likes of Messrs Duterte, Bolsonaro and Orban. But, even in terms of pure realpolitik, Mr Netanyahu’s diplomacy carries substantial risks for Israel. The most damaging charge made against Israel by its critics is that the Jewish state’s claim to be a beacon of democracy is undermined by its treatment of the Palestinians. By allying with a new generation of populist-nationalists — many of whom have dubious democratic credentials — Israel will further weaken its claim to be a champion of democracy.  Mr Netanyahu is certainly finding new friends for Israel. But he also risks creating a whole new batch of enemies.

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