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Duration: 00:33:28



Israel in Depth Podcast, Episode 14: Dov Waxman interviews Emmanuel Navon

Recorded: April 21, 2021

Dov Waxman (host): Welcome to Israel in Depth, where scholars, policymakers and leading experts come to discuss topics about Israel in depth. You're listening to a podcast by the Nazarian Center for Israel studies at UCLA. I'm Dov Waxman, the director of the Nazarian Center, and the host of this podcast. Joining me for this episode of Israel in Depth is Dr. Emmanuel Navon, an international relations expert who teaches at Tel Aviv University, and at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center. He's also a senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and at the Kohelet Policy Forum and a senior analyst at i24news, which is an international TV channel based in Israel. He's the author of four books - A Plight Among the Nations: Israel's Foreign Policy Between Nationalism and Realism (published in 2009); From Israel With Hope: Why and How Israel Will Continue to Thrive (published in 2011); The Victory of Zionism: Reclaiming the Narrative About Israel's Domestic, Regional, and International Challenges (published in 2014); and most recently, The Star and the Scepter: A Diplomatic History of Israel (published in 2020). I've invited him to join me on Israel in Depth to discuss his latest book, which provides a detailed history of Jewish, Zionist, and Israeli diplomacy from antiquity until the present day. Writing a book is always a major undertaking, requiring a lot of motivation. So the first question I'd like to ask you is what motivated you to write this book?

Emmanuel Navon (guest): So the reason why I decided to undertake this very ambitious project, and I say ambitious, because as you mentioned, this covers diplomatic history from antiquity to modern times. So I've been teaching a class on Israel's foreign policy for many years, both at Tel Aviv University and at the IDC Herzliya. And I came to realize that there was no comprehensive book on Israel's foreign policy and on the Israeli diplomatic history. And so I decided a few years ago to undertake this project. But then, when I started working on it, I said, well, you know, the history of Israel, of course, the modern state of Israel starts in 1948, but not the history of the Jewish people. And so it was important to me to give a wide historical perspective, which is why I undertook this project, as I said. Admittedly, an ambitious project, but I think that fills a void in the literature on Israel's foreign policy and diplomacy.

Waxman: Thank you. So before we get into the book itself, why do you think then that there has been such little scholarship on this very important subject? I mean, you know, a lot is written about Israel, and lots written about the Arab-Israeli conflict and Israeli-Palestinian relations. But yet, as you as you know, very little on Israeli foreign policy in its totality on Israeli diplomacy. Why have scholars not dealt with this subject much in the past?

Navon: So as you mentioned, there are many books on the Arab-Israeli conflict. And this has kind of been the focus of many scholars when it comes to Israel. But of course, the Arab-Israeli conflict for important as it is, is only part of Israel's foreign relations. So most books on Israel's foreign policy, so far, have been dealing with specific aspects of that policy, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, as we just said, but also Israel-U.S. relations or Israel's relation with Europe or with China. So you do have books on bilateral relations. And, of course, as I said, on the on the Arab-Israeli conflict. But when it comes to Israel's foreign policy as a whole, there are very few books - and most of them on old. I mean, you had of course, the two books are Michael Brecher, but these are from the 70s. And they happen to do most with more with theory than history and practice. There's also the book by Aharon Kleiman, Israel & the World After 40 Years, was as I mentioned, it was after 40 years. So you know, now we are after 70 years. And even if book was more comprehensive, it only dealt with, again, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the relationship with the U.S., and at the time, the Soviet Union. But not a comprehensive book. I mean, actually, very recently, also, at the same time, mostly, almost at the same time I published my book, there's actually a book also from my former professor, Uri Bialer. Also on Israel's foreign policy. But again, it touches upon some aspects of Israel's foreign policy. It doesn't cover them all. And now we have such a book.

Waxman: Well, as you said, one of the distinctive features of your book is that, unlike other histories of Israeli diplomacy, which kind of begin really with the founding of the State of Israel, your book begins all the way back with the Hebrew Bible and then traces the roots of Israeli and Zionist foreign policy throughout Jewish history. So this seems to be a kind of key decision you made to begin with the Bible. Why start there? What relevance do you think does the Bible have - the Hebrew Bible - for understanding Israeli diplomacy?

Navon: Because the Bible is basically the founding document of Jewish history and Jewish identity. The way the Jews perceive themselves throughout history. But also basic concepts which still influence the Israeli attitude and mentality today. Expressions such as a people that dwells alone. All those you know, in everyday Hebrew today, we use biblical expressions all the time. And this kind of shaped the way Jews see themselves. As they say, the people that dwells alone or a coming of the Messiah, a light unto the nations. And sometimes those concepts influence sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, Israel's behavior as a people or as a state. And in my opinion, you cannot understand the Jewish mentality, including the way Jews conduct foreign policy, behave themselves as a state on the international scene, without understanding the background of the self-perceived role, historical role in this...in this identity. I think most of...you know many, of course, Israel is not the only nation, it's not the only country that has a sense of historical mission. Many nations, of course, have such a sense, definitely the United States, the French, the Chinese. You have, of course, many nations that have a very strong sense of having some kind of special role to play in history and special contribution to world culture. So do the Jews, and in order to understand that, you need to look into, as I said, the founding document of Jewish culture, religion, and history.

Waxman: So the Bible, in that sense, furnishes Israeli policymakers and with the Israeli public, with a kind of a set of concepts, ideas, enduring things, even a worldview that shapes Israeli foreign policy. I wonder, you know, when you write about Jewish diplomacy in the history of Jewish diplomacy in the Diaspora from, from antiquity through to modernity. You know, the question that this obviously raises is how did the Jews manage to have engaged in diplomacy without sovereignty, right? This was without a state of their own. What resources or tools did they have to engage on the world stage and to engage with leaders without a state of their own?

Navan: Because they were always considered as a people and as a nation, by the countries that hosted them, until at least the Enlightenment. Especially the French enlightenment, which tried to very, very hard to differentiate between the Jews as a nation and the Jews as a religion. But until at least the 18th century, and the Enlightenment, the Jews were always considered a separate nation, a stateless separate nation by other nations, and therefore, sovereigns had no problem dealing with them. As a nation, for example, when the the Portuguese-born, Dutch scholar Menasseh Ben Israel spoke directly with Oliver Cromwell, to convince him to let the Jews come back to England. He, you know, he was he was a scholar, but he was also statesman in a way even though he didn't have a state to represent. Same thing was about Abarbanel. He was also a Jewish scholar, but also diplomat, and advisor to the kings of Spain, and others. And he was treated as a stateless statesman, because as I said, he was a Jew. He was perceived as being the lone representative of the Jewish nation. And even in more modern times, it was the establishment of Zionist movement. Chaim Weizmann was treated in England in London as a statesman, even though he didn't represent a state. As I said, precisely when because when the Jews were still considered a nation by the hosting countries. They were able to conduct diplomacy.

Waxman: So I wonder, though, you know, in kind of the traditional Zionist historiography, Jewish...the Jewish experience in the Diaspora has been separated from the Israeli experience. And there's been this dichotomy between kind of Jewish powerlessness in the Diaspora and Jewish power in the form of the statehood. Your book seems to challenge that dichotomy. Seems to suggest that actually, Jews in the Diaspora engaged in diplomacy. Weren't entirely powerless in that respect. What power, if you like, did they have? And I know we can obviously sometimes...I think there's a wariness to discuss this subject for fear of fueling anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about you know, world Jewish conspiracies in the light. But that may be why scholars have really avoided tackling this subject in seriousness.

Navon: So I mentioned before, you know, people such Menasseh Ben Israel and Abarbanel and Chaim Weizmann didn't have powers in the sense that they didn't have hard power, of course. But they were able to exert power, because, you know, Abarbanel Of course, he also had money. He was a very wise and very learned person. And so but even if you take in more modern times, I mentioned in my book, for example, the Damascus Affair in 1840, where the Jews of Damascus were the victims of a blood libel, and were accused of having killed children in Damascus. And here against the Ottoman Sultan, you had a real diplomatic organization between powerful Jews in Europe, the Rothschilds, but also Moses Montefiore in England, of Crimean in France. And so, you know, by the 19th century, many Jews had reached positions of power - as citizens, as Englishmen, as Frenchmen, both in terms of financial power but also political power. And were able to exert it to really convince the Ottoman Sultan to end this blood libel and free the Jews. Again, they didn't have hard power - they didn't have a state, they didn't have an army. But they had achieved a very reasonable level of political and financial powers in their respective countries. And I think the Damascus Affair in that sense set a precedent of an organized Jewish diplomacy, many years before the formal establishment of the Zionist movement. Of course, this fed the, you know, the fantasy of the world Jewish power, especially in Russia and among anti-Semites in Germany. The Jews went on, of course, very powerful at the time. But then did have some power. And of course, even if you take Benjamin Disraeli, who had technically you know, converted to Christianity, but by Jewish standards, of course, had remained Jewish. He was the prime minister of the world's superpower at the time (the United Kingdom). And he was very much...he spoke a lot and wrote a lot about the return to Zion. He was very proud of his Jewish origins. And, you know, it is a fact that after the Congress of Berlin in 1878, when Bismarck was outmaneuvered by Disraeli, he was asked, who was the biggest winner of the Berlin Congress? He answered in German, "Der alte Jude, das ist der Mann" (the old Jew. he's the one). So, he was...You know, he was...Disraeli himself was definitely perceived at least...described as a Jew definitely by Bismarck.

Waxman: This is fascinating, because, you know, in international relations today, scholars start talking about, you know, nations having an independent role or non-state actors are having a growing role. And this book shows that this is nothing new, right? Non-state actors, like the Jewish people, like Jews have actually been engaged in diplomacy and international politics for centuries. You also discuss Zionist foreign policy, and how it was so successful - obviously in creating the State of Israel. What accounted for this success? What do you think was the thing that enabled Zionist leaders, whether it was Weitzmann or Ben-Gurion to manage to achieve this goal, which at one point in time...the birth of the Zionist movement seemed like a very unlikely, at least a very grand ambition. How do they manage to do it?

Navon: Well, first of all, there were many successes. And of course, the ultimate success was Israel's independence in 1948. But there were also many setbacks, and many failures. But I think if you look at the achievements of statesmen such as Chaim Weitzmann or David Ben-Gurion or others, this is one of my central ideas in the book and which inspired also the title - The Star and the Sceptor, taken from the verse from the Book of Numbers. A star comes out of Jacob and receptor from Israel. That only statement had a very strong sense of historical identity, a very strong sense of Jewish identity and having some kind of historical mission to preserve on the one hand. And on the other hand, they were also political realists. They were men of ...they realized the limits of power. They knew the limits of Jewish power. They were aware of it, and they were willing to compromise without forgetting where we would come from and where we're headed. And you know, that the dilemmas of Zionist movement started very early. The first, probably the first test of this Jewish leadership, Zionist leadership, was the Uganda Proposal in 1903, where the British Colonial Secretary offered to establish a state in the meantime in Uganda because the British were not in control yet of the Middle East. And this was at the peak of the pogroms in Russia. And Herzl brought up the proposal to the Zionist Congress, even though he didn't like the idea probably as a temporary solution. But it was a case of, you know, sticking to your ideals on the one hand, or, you know, abandoning them for pure political realism on the other hand. At the end, of course, as we know the Zionist Congress rejected the Uganda Proposal. But when many years later, in 1937, the British government assembled the Peel Commission, and which suggested to partition the British Mandate between a Jewish and Arab state. Again, Ben-Gurion took the decision of accepting this very imperfect proposal because he realized the urgency of establishing a state four years after the excesses of the Nazis in Germany. And he also assumed that the borders - the final borders - would be different than the ones suggested by the Peel Commission. But as I said, I think that eventually what won the day in 1948 was this ability to always strike a difficult balance between, you know, between the faithfulness to past, the commitment to future, but also political realism. I'll just finish with a quote from Ben-Gurion, you know, when he decided to accept the U.N. Partition Plan in 1947-1948, and he was reminded of the decision that had been adopted by the Zionist Congress in New York in 1941 in the Biltmore Hotel, and it was called the Biltmore Declaration or proposal. When somebody reminded him of the Biltmore Proposal, which had demanded a Jewish state on all the British Mandate, his answer was: "Biltmore Smiltmore - we need a Jewish state." And I think that's what made the greatness of Ben-Gurion. When you look at the Declaration of Independence, he wrote something that is very clearly committed to Jewish history and identity. But on the other hand, I think he was very much aware of the limits of power.

Waxman: So do you think, certainly Ben-Gurion emerges as one of the great statesmen of Jewish history and in his ability, as you said, to to be both very shrewd and pragmatic, but also have an understanding of Jewish history. And in fact, see Israel in this kind of biblical context in many ways. I wonder how subsequent Israeli leaders fare by that criteria? I mean, do you think the history of subsequent Israeli foreign policy has also been able to sustain this balance between realism on the one hand - the scepter, as you put it - and idealism on the other - the star. Or has there been more of a tension between these two ideas?

Navon: Well, this tension always exists and has always existed. And of course, it's always a question as a statement as a diplomat, where do you draw the line? Where do you find a balance? There's no, of course, there's no formula or a logarithm to calculate where you find the exact balance. But I think that when you look at Israeli leaders in the past 73 years. If you take, for example, a leader like Menachem Begin, who was you know, when he was in opposition, he was much more of an idealist and much more of a pragmatic once he was in power. For example, he led the opposition to the reparation agreement with Germany in 1952. But I heard from his son, Benny Begin, who said, "well," he said, "yeah, it was easy for my father to close the agreement because he was in opposition." You know, if had been in government, he would all probably have been more flexible, because, you know, it's easier to talk about ideology only when you are in opposition. But when you're behind the wheel, you know, you also have to talk to take reality into account. And in fact, I think when Begin also when he made his decision of signing a peace agreement with Egypt displayed quite an amount of apolitic. I mean, he realized that this was not some kind of idyllic peace between the two post World War Two European countries. He had no illusions, I think. But he figured that this was in Israel's best interest even though he was also an ideologue. When he came to the question of, for example of Jerusalem, he at the Camp David conference, he clearly refused to budge. And to compromise at the end. I mean, it was not even a compromise that each side would issue a letter expressing their respective position that Jerusalem. But he absolutely refused to, you know, to make any concession on Jerusalem. On this he remained an idealist and a man of ideology. But when you look today at Israel's political map, you know, it's interesting to see that when it comes, for example, to the Arab-Israeli conflict, this is an issue that used to divide Israeli society 20-30 years ago. It was the ultimate defining dividing line of Israeli politics. Much less today. There's a wide consensus and actually quoted in my book, I quote the former foreign minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, from the Labour Party, who was a peace activist and who writes in his memoirs in after many years of trying to negotiate with the Palestinians. And he writes in his book, the Scars of War, he says, "At the end of the day, it is the Jabotinsky Iron Wall, Israel's deterrence, that enabled us to be a success. And this I think most Israelis today will subscribe to this saying, look, we have this normalization with the Arab world because they eventually realized that Israel is here to stay. And not only that, it is the most powerful country in the region. The best hope against the Iranian nuclear program, and the Iranian threat. So I think this is the view today. It is pretty consensual between the left, the right and the center. This idea, you know, spelled out by Jabotinsky in his article in the early 20s, saying that, you know, if you want to state we have to build it behind an allegorical wall of deterrence and determination. And I think this has become a pretty conceptual idea in Israel today.

Waxman: Absolutely. I agree with you that the this kind of iron wall strategy has has been, in many ways, one of the key tenants of Israeli foreign policy, and then a successful one at that. But you know, when Jabotinsky was outlining that strategy or that idea, he proposed at least that eventually, by having military strength and by standing firm, that eventually there would be a change in attitudes on the other side. That Israel's adversaries, or the Jews' adversaries, would would eventually reconcile themselves to Israel's existence. So there was a kind of combined... combination of focus on being strong and using military force when necessary, but ultimately a kind of hope for a possible future in which there would be reconciliation and acceptance. But I wonder today, you know, when when there's this, going back, really from the 1970s, this perception the whole world is against us. A feeling, at least in some circles, and this is sometimes expressed by Prime Minister Netanyahu and others, that you know, the whole world will always be against us, right? That Israel will always be alone in the world. That anti-Semitism is a permanent feature of Jewis-gentile relations. Do you see that? Do you think that there's this - I mean, particularly with regards to the perception of a kind of endemic or perennial anti-Semitism. Has that changed from you know Jabotinsky, or early where there was a belief at least among Zionists that eventually, you know, Israel's existence would kind of normalize the existence of the Jewish people. Is there Is that still the case or has now this kind of pessimism (almost fatalism) taken hold?

Navon: So there definitely was a belief among many Zionists before and after the establishment of the state, then with the Jews reaching statehood and becoming a normal people like everybody else, there would be no more reason for the nations to hate the Jews because the Jews will no longer be a minority among a stateless nations. And I suppose that belief has not materialized. There's still anti -Semitism today, even though Israel has been independent for 73 years. Very often, the line is blurred between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism by blaming Israel for the all the ills of the world. So this hook that existed among many Zionists that never actually materialized. Now, there's still different degrees of how Israelis today perceive this relation was the world. Is the whole world against us or not? That is, of course, a matter of debate in Israel. But what is interesting, and this brings me back again to why I decided to look into what the Bible has to say about this...is that, you know, expressions such as people that ... or “Esau hates Jacob”...these are really concepts very much ingrained in Jewish mentality. I remember...I sort of remember one day I was teaching a class or giving a lecture on Israel, the United Nations. And I asked, you know, a class of students at Tel Aviv University. It's not a yeshiva, it's a secular University, you know. And I said, I was trying to understand my students you know, why Israelis treat that way at the U.N. And one of them said very naturally, “Esau hates Jacob” - a verse from the Bible. You know, the brother of Jacob hates him or people that dwells alone. You still have this perception definitely among many Israelis. But on the other hand, as I said, you know, once Israel having been become today such a successful and powerful country. Another interesting phenomenon that you see today, which I think very few people would have expected is that among the nationalist and right-wing parties in Europe, for example who often are still very anti-Semitic. But next to their anti-Semitism, traditional anti-Semitism of accusing the Jews of being so powerful, of acting against the national interest of the country. When it comes to Israel, they love Israel because they say, oh this is a strong nation state that, you know, is proud about its identity and tradition. Is economically successful and has no problem poking the European Commission in the eye. We love that. So that's an interesting development also...they still have those very negative sentiments of Jews in their own countries. But they're big fans of Israel. So that's also, I think, a very interesting development in recent years.

Waxman: Absolutely. And of course, even more recently, we've seen the process of normalization between Israel and surrounding Arab states, countries obviously, like the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, and maybe eventually Saudi Arabia. So in that respect, mean, you know, what you describe is the kind of success story - not only in Israel's establishment, but also in Israel's growing relationships with with states around the world. Rather than the sense of Israel as an isolated or alone, that there's a success story there. Is that a message that you're hoping to kind of deliver to the Israeli public where there is maybe the sense of, you know, sometimes a discounting of the role of diplomacy? You know, a feeling that we have to rely upon ourselves and we have to rely upon our military force, and you know, foreign policy or diplomacy is not necessarily really effective. I mean, you know, Israel hasn't even had a full time foreign minister. Is one audience for that is in trying to show that actually, no, diplomacy works, at least when it's combined with military strength?

Navon: Yes, I mean, that's also why the book is also going to be published in Hebrew, because I also want the the audience in Israel to read about it, to learn about it. And I tried to bring some of those in how we should, in my opinion, perceive the world in relation with the world. On the one hand, not be naive and never forget, you know, that...You know, I quote, I think at the end of my book, when I discussed the issue of realism and idealism in foreign policy. I said at the end of the day, this is an ideological debate. You know, there's no way of proving who's right between optimists and pessimists. But I like to quote, this brilliant and cynical Italian statesman, Giulio Andreotti who, who used to say quote, "Assuming the worst, when you assume the worst of people, you commit a sin, but you generally get it right." So that's his way of defining political realism. You know, always be on the guard and be suspicious. But on the other hand, I think realize that, you know, as I said, as a powerful country with a high tech economy and very strong ties around the world, you know, you have to realize that, you know, I always say...I have this debate with many colleagues who are obsessed with anti-Semitism in the world. And I My position is, I really don't care about anti-Semitism, because, you know, we're a powerful country. And if people want to hate us, or hate the Jews, at the end of the day, you know, when when they deal with Israel they need Israel. And there are conspiracy theories about the Jews, you know. And and even when, by the way, when you spoke before about Sudan and normalization, you know, the non-European anti-Semitism is paradoxically very often a powerful tool in Israeli diplomacy. Because when people you know, all these countries and leaders in Africa or Asia, were convinced that Israel is a country of 40 or 50 million people. And I bring many quotes in my book of, you know, Japanese or African leaders to say you guys like at least 50 million right? You control how do you control the U.S.? And one of the reasons why Sudan normalized relations with Israel was because for them it was obvious that this was the only way to lift the sanctions from Washington to get some financial aid. You have to be good to the Jews and to Israel and you'll get entries in Washington. So this is like what I call the positive side of anti-Semitism, not the anti-Semitism that the classical anti-Semitism that accuses the Jews of all the ills of the world. But this belief that the Jews are so powerful. So when it comes, as I said, to diplomacy, it can be very useful too.

Waxman: Absolutely. It has been a feature of Zionist and Israeli foreign policy. And it's an irony in the sense because while the world and many countries look at look at Israel and the Jews are so powerful. Often Jews themselves and Israelis themselves don't have that same sense. You know, see themselves as weak among the nations. And so I think yeah, there's a really important message for both an Israeli audience and for Jewish audience in understanding, you know, not just the weaknesses or the challenges, but also the successes and the strengths of Israeli foreign policy and of Jewish foreign policy. Which brings me to the kind of final question I have, which is. You know, in addition to being directed at those audiences, for a policymaker, whether it be an Israeli policy maker or a Jewish communal official in the United States or in your own your home country or your native country of France, is there a message that you think that book has for policymakers who are who are who are still engaged in this long diplomatic tradition?

Navon: Yes, I think the again, this is the ultimate message of the book, which is encapsulated in a title, A Star and A Scepter. I think at the end of the day, my opinion, the key to understanding Jewish history and the success and achievements together with the setbacks of Jewish diplomacy and Zionism diplomacy and Israeli diplomacy throughout history is that, again, my central thesis in this book, after having reviewed all those years of diplomatic history, is that whenever the Jews and the leaders were able to find a delicate balance between a strong sense of historical mission, but also an ability and willingness to adapt it to the real world. In other words, political realism. This is really when the Jews as the Diaspora in Israel as a country today, prosper. And as I said, there are many examples of setbacks and even failures when in my opinion the tendency was to go too much in one direction or the other. To completely ignore political power, and pay the price for it, or to try and focus exclusively on political power and forget, you know, other elements of identity. And I think that whenever, you know, we try to ignore one element of this balance, we pay the price. And when we found a delicate balance between the two were successful. And I think this is true of Israel as a state. And is true also of, you know, community leaders in the Diaspora. As I said, the Star of David that symbolizes Jewish history, of Jewish faith, has whether you want to look at it, and the scepter, which is symbol of political power. And the balance between the two is never easy to find. But I think it is the key to Jewish survival.

Waxman: I would add to that, that actually is probably a message that could be delivered to world what leaders all around the world. Because for every country's foreign policy, if you like, is maybe the key to success relies upon finding that difficult balance. But being able to combine the two. Dr. Navon, thank you so much for joining us on Israel in Depth. It's been a fascinating conversation. I hope all the listeners will make sure to get hold of his book, The Star and the Scepter. And you've all been listening to an episode of Israel in Depth, produced by the UCLA Nazarian Center for Israel Studies. Thank you for listening.