REMEMBER the Hebrew writing on South African weapons during apartheid’s war against its enemies in the 1970s? Israel needed whatever friends it could get at the time, and so did South Africa. Working together, they became a leading weapons developer and force in the international arms trade, although Israel made pronouncements elsewhere about being against apartheid. That was realpolitik.
Many other countries in the West and elsewhere, including France and Britain, also cooperated extensively with South Africa.
Realpolitik has again guided Israel recently, on an issue with roots back to the Holocaust and the groundbreaking 1985 film Shoah, a 9-hour documentary about the Holocaust made by Claude Lanzmann, who died last week. The film contains interviews with survivors, witnesses and perpetrators conducted during visits to German Holocaust sites across Poland, including extermination camps. Its approach was radical in that it included no archival footage, but relied on first-person engagement. Simone de Beauvoir hailed it as a “sheer masterpiece.”
However, the film was badly received in Poland, which said it accused that country of complicity in Nazi genocide. This view still simmers among Poles, and six months ago the government passed a law intended to stifle discussions of Poland’s role in the Holocaust. Anyone suggesting that it participated in the Jewish genocide could be charged with libel and imprisoned. Outrage emanated from Holocaust survivors, intellectuals and governments worldwide, who demanded the law be revoked.
For Israel, the situation was difficult because Poland is a strong ally. The two governments entered into discussions, and on June 27 announced an agreement to amend the law, removing the aspect that criminalizes anyone who says Poland had a role in Holocaust guilt. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced he had protected the “historic truth of the Holocaust.” It was realpolitik in action.
Where should the diplomatic line be drawn? Netanyahu was slammed in Jewish circles, who said he had given Israel’s stamp of approval to a cover-up about Poland’s Holocaust role. The respected Holocaust historian, Yehuda Bauer, castigated Netanyahu, saying the belittling of the Polish role in the destruction of Polish Jewry “borders on betrayal.”
Diplomats defend realpolitik because, in this dangerous world, every country must balance moral values against pragmatic interests, which constantly change. Lord Palmerston of Great Britain is credited with putting it thus: “In international relations, there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests.” Most world leaders have faced this dilemma. Israeli leaders say since Israel’s security is constantly endangered, its fundamental interest must be its security – whatever the demands of realpolitik.
It is seven decades since the Holocaust. For many, it is a vague memory, not reality, which allows Israel more diplomatic flexibility. Nevertheless, it boggles the mind that the Jewish State’s Prime Minister stands accused by scholars of aiding Holocaust revisionism, which is only expected to come from rabid Jew-haters.
Israel is criticized for other recent examples of realpolitik, of turning a blind eye to immoral regimes and anti-Semitism, for other interests. On June 4, Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer praised Hungary, saying it was Israel’s friend and had a “zero tolerance policy” towards anti-Semitism. But Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, who is due to visit Israel in mid-July, is regarded as one of the new crop of populist European neo-fascists.
EU monitors of his campaign in Hungary’s recent elections reported “intimidating and xenophobic rhetoric” against migrants and others. His politicians use time-worn anti-Semitic tropes and blame Jewish billionaire-philanthropist George Soros, with his “open society” philosophy, for Hungary’s problems.
Orban has praised Hungary’s World War II dictator Miklos Horthy, who the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum says was “complicit” in the extermination of Hungary’s Jews. Some analysts say Herut founder Menachem Begin would be ashamed of Netanyahu’s whitewash of Hungary’s anti-Semitism and Poland’s Holocaust revisionism
Realpolitik has long tentacles. Netanyahu’s warmth towards United States President Donald Trump, with his “America First” mindset and attack on liberal internationalism, is hazardous. It seems convenient in the short term, but in the long run, Israel will probably pay for this.
In the 1970s, Israel justified embracing racist South Africa during apartheid, including military cooperation, as realpolitik. How does history judge it? Some SA Jews say this was correct at the time. Others are uncomfortable with it. Today’s dilemmas again pose the question where the red lines are.