Jewish and Realist Impulses in Israeli Foreign Policy

By Rodman, David | Midstream, February-March 2002 | Go to article overview

Jewish and Realist Impulses in Israeli Foreign Policy

Rodman, David, Midstream

That the State of Israel has always been a self-consciously Jewish state is beyond dispute. An overwhelming majority of its citizens has always firmly identified itself as Jewish -- whether secular or observant in religious orientation, whether Ashkenazi or Sephardi in "ethnic" origin, and Whether left-wing or right-wing in political outlook. Consequently, the state's culture, its institutions, and its symbols have always been suffused with Jewish content. Moreover, contrary to popular wisdom among fringe ideologues of both the Israeli left and the Israeli fight, the rise of a more individualistic and wealthier population during the past couple of decades has not drastically reduced its tribal attachment to Jewish identity.

By logical extension, then, Israel should also have pursued an authentically Jewish foreign policy -- one that has been heavily informed by the Jewish past, as well as one that has been highly sensitive to the Jewish present. Has the Jewish state indeed pursued such a foreign policy? (1) The answer to this question is not quite as straightforward as it may seem upon first reflection. A distinction must be made here between the motives behind Israeli foreign policy, on the one hand, and the goals of this policy, on the other hand. While the motives behind the Jewish state's foreign policy have not really been Jewish, even if they have often been presented primarily in the language of Jewish ideals, the ends of that policy have clearly been meant to serve Jewish national interests. How those interests have been defined, though, has sometimes been a bone of contention, especially in those instances in which Israeli foreign policy has dealt with issues related to historic Eretz Israel (Land of Israel) and the Diaspora.

Israeli foreign policy, to put it another way, is essentially explicable in terms of the Realist paradigm of international relations. (2) Though many shades of Realist thought exist, an axiom common to all flavors of this international affairs paradigm is that a state's foreign policy conduct is fundamentally determined by its position in the world community. A corollary to this axiom is the presumption that a state's unique identity does not play a major role in driving that policy. Furthermore, Realist thought of all stripes contends that the world community is characterized by anarchy in which every state is forever required to promote its national interests in the face of potential or actual hostility from other states.

That Israeli foreign policy has conformed to the principles of Realism becomes evident when the Jewish state's conduct is examined with respect to such momentous foreign affairs issues as territory, immigration, warfare, and Diaspora relations. Israeli foreign policy across all of these issue areas, to be sure, has had a distinctive Jewish dimension; however, to a far greater extent, it has been the product of the state's position in the world community, particularly its constant struggle to foil Arab (and Islamic) attempts to strangle it. A brief examination of each of these issues is sufficient to demonstrate the validity of this conclusion.


The extent of the territory that a Jewish state should ultimately encompass has been the subject of constant debate within Israeli society. Indeed, the debate predates the existence of the state itself. In response to partition plans floated by Great Britain and the United Nations in 1937 and 1947, respectively, various groups within the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community of Palestine) expressed decidedly different opinions about the borders of a Jewish state. The intensity of this debate has risen dramatically, though, since the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel captured the Sinai and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, Judea and Samaria from Jordan, and the Golan from Syria.

The debate since that war has taken place between two broad camps that may be called "territorial maximalists" and "territorial minimalists. …

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