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Why is Israel increasingly aligning itself with dictators?

The current Israeli government appears to be prioritizing its relationships with autocracies over respect for human rights

The world has become captivated by internal divisions within Israel. The proposed judicial reforms sparked massive protests within the country, as did the violence against Palestinians perpetrated by far-right extremists. Tensions between Israelis and Palestinians threaten to escalate again following the most recent clash at Al-Aqsa mosque this week and the rockets fired from Gaza.

Meanwhile, something else is occurring: The current Israeli government appears to be deepening its relationships with some of the world’s worst authoritarian regimes. This is not only morally wrong — it is strategically unwise.

Democratic countries have a moral obligation — and geopolitical incentive — to stand up for the human rights of those living under repressive regimes. 

The rationale is obvious: It is difficult, and potentially deadly, for people to protest dictatorships from within. There are countless examples of this. The Chinese army killed at least 10,000 civilians in its crackdown on the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Thousands of civilians have been arbitrarily detained in Russia for protesting Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. And since the most recent wave of protests began in Iran, over 500 civilians have already been killed.

Despite this, the current Israeli government has been deepening its ties with China and Russia. They have also re-established ties with an increasingly authoritarian Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and whitewashed Azerbaijan’s atrocity crimes in Armenia. In short, the current Israeli government appears to be prioritizing its relationships with autocracies over respect for human rights.

International politics cause domestic security issues

In response to Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, rights-respecting states, including the United States and Canada, have stood firm with Ukrainians, sending supplies to assist Ukrainian defense efforts and imposing sanctions on Russian officials responsible for gross violations of human rights. In contrast, the Israeli government has blocked the sale of Iron Dome missiles to Ukraine, and refused to impose sanctions on Russian officials, citing geopolitical and security concerns.

This is short-sighted. Ukraine cannot win the war without international support, and a Ukrainian loss would be devastating for the entire free world

Beyond this, Putin’s Russia has strengthened ties with the Iranian regime. Supporting Russia risks directly emboldening the ayatollahs, who terrorize not only their own civilians, but innocent people around the world. 

Netanyahu has, for years, worked to sway the international community to act against Iran, whose regime he has labeled “the greatest threat to the world.” It is ironic that by aligning with these nefarious regimes, he is undermining that stated goal, and acting against Israel’s own peace and security.

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force spends billions of dollars terrorizing innocents across Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and the Gaza strip. The Iranian regime has also called specifically for the destruction of the Jewish state since its inception, and Iranian proxies have directed the destruction of Jewish community targets across the world.

Democracy: for me but not for thee?

The Israeli government has faced heightened criticism in recent months, and rightfully so. Netanyahu’s proposed judicial reforms, which sparked massive protests within the country, would undermine the independence of the judiciary, an essential cornerstone of democracy. 

While some catastrophize the reforms, others completely dismiss concerns by pointing out that, unlike Iranian or Chinese forces, the Israeli government is not killing peaceful protesters in Tel Aviv. Neither of those positions is helpful.

As Israel works to get its own house in order, it needs to take stronger stances against dictatorships, and prioritize democracy and the rule of law both at home and abroad.

Democracy and autocracy exist not in boxes, but on a continuum. Israel is not killing its peaceful protestors and it is not a dictatorship. But it is undeniable that Netanyahu’s government is looking to take a few steps, in the wrong direction, down the continuum.

Perhaps this is one reason why Netanyahu is also deepening partnerships with authoritarian regimes. But this represents a foreign policy failure to complement his domestic policy blunders.

Netanyahu’s government should change course on this, and stakeholders in the United States should make clear that growing partnerships with autocracies is not just wrong, but unwise.

As the world becomes increasingly divided between democracies and autocracies, Israel will need to pick a side. As a country that prides itself on being both a Jewish and democratic state, the choice is obvious.

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