Israel and Machiavelli

November 28, 2011

Political Theory

Sarkozy and Obama

As discussed here by srbarron there was a mic mishap at the G20 economic summit a few weeks ago. It gave headline to a private conversation held by the French President Nicolas Sarkozy and U.S. President Barack Obama. In short, Sarkozy was caught calling Netanyahu ‘a liar’, while talking to Obama. Obama replied with:‘you’re tired of him; what about me? I have to deal with him every day.’

The prime minister’s office had little to say on the matter, but the following statement was released: “Of course, we would all like to be loved and all love to have great relationships with each other, and I’m sure it would be nicer to know that our prime minister is loved. But at the end of the day, what did Machiavelli say? It’s more important to be feared than loved.”

The reference to Machiavelli here is an interesting one. Machiavelli may agree with the above statement, however the methods by which Israel conducts itself as a state severely contradict the teachings of Machiavelli.

Machiavelli discussed virtu in our readings. This concept does not align with the conventional definiton of the term, which is somewhere along the lines of ‘moral goodness’. Virtu, to Machiavelli, meant the range of qualities needed to be acquired by a ruler in order to maintain the state and achieve great things. This implies that a ruler must be prepared to exercise great power (that may be evil/unpopular), and possess the wisdom to know when to exercise it, in order to protect a state. However, this concept of virtu is viable if a state is independent of religious interests. Machiavelli goes on to discuss the exclusion of morality in politics. He is an advocate of amoralism and denounces the use of religious standards when it comes to maintaining a state.

So, when considering Machiavelli’s view on virtu and morality in government, one sees that Israel’s citing of Machiavelli is very contradicting. Israel is a state of the Jewish people, in other words, it is a sacred state. The state is based on the idea that it has a moral right to exist. All of Israel’s foreign relations are maintained to support its existence and protection, as it is in a very hostile region. These relations include those with France and the United States. Israel, as a lobby, has been very successful in advocating its message abroad. Its influence has actually been quite great here in the U.S. as discussed in The Israel Lobby by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, which discusses the Israeli influence in American government. The London Review of Books says the book surfaces the question: “Why has the US been willing to set aside its own security and that of many of its allies in order to advance the interests of another state?” And discusses how one might assume that the bond between the two countries was based on shared strategic interests or compelling moral imperatives, but neither explanation can account for the remarkable level of material and diplomatic support that the US provides.

Although the book briefly touches on the French-Israeli relationship, it is apparent, and with the news story above, that French interests are being set aside to advance the message of the Israeli state. Why? Well, given that Israel is a state based on morality and religious standards, any opposition to its interests can be assumed to be against Judaism. It would allow Israel to make moral claims when it comes to disputes in foreign relations. They can cite anti-semitism by any leader who proposes any idea that is not in the complete interest of the Jewish state. According to Machiavelli, this not how Israel should maintain itself because it is using religion as a basis for politics. This can explain the frustration that other leaders experience when they deal with Israel because it is not the intention of anyone to denounce or bring harm to the Jewish people. As in any Machiavellian nation, there is a difference between a sacred group of people and the state by which they live in.

Israel’s reference to Machiavelli surfaces faultiness in Israeli foreign policy. Religion and morality, which are the building blocks of Israel’s claim for existence, should not be used a means of politics when dealing with other countries, according to Machiavelli. Fear should be created by virtu held by a government, not by moral claims. The great influence Israel has had in other nations is compromising the interests of citizens/leaders of those nations because of the interjection of morality in Israeli politics. There is no doubt that Israel is a state that should be maintained for its citizens, but Machiavelli would definitely advise Israel to do it in a completely different way.


Last Edit: 12.05.2011 – Grammatical revisions



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8 Comments on “Israel and Machiavelli”

  1. adamstillman2011 Says:

    I would argue that many of Israel’s policies are Machiavellian. Throughout the course of Israel’s history they have gone to war numerous times to fight for their freedom. Machiavelli famously states that the “ends justify the means.” In Israel’s case the ends are a democratic Jewish state, but the means are losing thousands of young Israeli lives to protect that freedom. Israel also has unfortunately killed many Palestinians and other Arabs in the surrounding regions during various wars, this could not only be considered Machiavellian but also a dirty hands problem. Israel is doing what is in the best interest of the state but in some cases their actions may be considered immoral.

    • ldahbour Says:

      I am sure that the Machiavellian concept of ‘ends justifying the means’ can be theoretically applied to many cases in any policy of any nation. Here, I am discussing the way Israel conducts its foreign policy and how it bases a lot of its political actions on Jewish morals and religious standards. There needs to be a dissociation from these sacred ideas and Israeli politics. Once moral claims can be removed from Israeli politics, it will be more safe to apply Machiavellian theory to Jewish foreign policy.

  2. ndreynolds864 Says:

    Actually the creation of Israel was not a religious movement to start with. Zionism was a secular movement in the late 1800’s, early 1900’s and their political motivation was to protect its people from antisemitism. The Jewish people have lived in fear their entire existence from when they were expelled from Judea to the Holocaust so their movement was originally based of fear because they are the most persecuted group of people in history. This is different than what Machiavelli uses to produce a state but the roots of Zionism is not religious. Early on in the migration to Palestine very right wing Orthodox Jews saw this movement as actually against their religious beliefs because they were not supposed to return to Judea until the coming of the Messiah. You are incorrect in saying the roots of Israel lie in religion because Zionism was strictly a secular movement to protect a group of people who lived in fear.

    • ldahbour Says:

      To insinuate that the Zionist movement is a secular movement is completely invalid. Zionism was established with the goal of creating a Jewish state. Israel’s society is not a secular society because it is a Jewish society. There may be non-Jewish Zionists that support the existence of Israel, but the Zionist movement is the farthest thing from a secular movement because it is based on the moral claims of the Jewish state.

      I, of course, am not implying in anyway that Israel does not have the right to exist. However, the way its policies are conducted are far from secular which is why it is risky to apply Machiavellian theory in their context. The roots of Zionism are definitely religious and there needs to be a removal of these standards when Israel conducts its politics.

    • ianbaker2041 Says:

      I have to agree with Idahbour in saying that Zionism most certainly had a religious backing. It was a secular movement that came to fruition largely as a result of the Dreyfus Affair (a secular aspect), but the idea was for JEWS to go to Jerusalem and their homeland. That’s a highly religious aspect since the movement only targeted Jews. When the Jews began flowing into Palestine, they started to make up a considerable minority, and thanks to the British dumping the Palestinian issue into the hands of the nascent United Nations, the Jews got a UN-authorized partition of Palestine in 1947. In 1948, Israel officially declared statehood, and with that came the first Arab-Israeli War and Israel’s subsequent breach of the UN resolution regarding Palestine.

      Given this historical story, I most certainly think that the roots of Israel lie in Zionism. If Jews hadn’t migrated to the Middle East, there would never have been enough Jews in Palestine to form a Jewish state to begin with. Without Zionism, Jews would probably not have flooded to the Middle East at the rate and in the numbers that they did. Even though many western nations such as France, the UK, and the US refused to take any significant number of Jewish immigrants during the 1930s, of all the places on Earth the Jews could have gone, they chose Jerusalem and Palestine. There’s certainly a religious undertone to that.

  3. ksaukas Says:

    I believe you have hit the nail on the head with your observation that the state of Israel is using religion in a way that contradicts a basic Machiavelli principle. But if we take a broader look we can see that it is not only Israel that is using religion to influence America and many other countries in the world. Take a look at Saudi Arabia and now do we not need to protect the interests of this country in our foreign policies, but we must now be aware of all our actions involving muslims and all actions taken in the Middle East. The Vatican City, albeit very small, influences America when it feels it is being unfair to Catholics and other nations that are predominantly Catholic. It seems religion has become a political tool that can influence American voters and the world as a whole because people feel more loyalty to their religion than their country.

  4. rpsafian Says:

    I really enjoy your post about Israel and Machiavelli and believe that it is important to understand the history of Israel when referring to it’s policies and beliefs as a nation. However, I think you are missing the point of Netanyahu’s statement. I am not the biggest proponent of Obama’s foreign policies regarding Israel, and after hearing his comment about HAVING to deal with Netanyahu on a daily business, I’m sure more people can agree with me. Obama, and to a lesser extent Sarkozy, made a major mistake with this comment that I believe will hurt Obama’s presidency and upcoming race for reelection. Obama may not be the biggest fan of Netanyahu, but Netanyahu sure likes Obama; whether he likes him genuinely for the person that he is or because he is the leader of the most powerful nation in the world that happens to be Israel’s number one ally, Netanyahu is on Obama’s side. Since the two have been working together, Netanyahu has agreed to commit- for the first time- his party to accepting a Palestinian state. He froze West Bank settlement growth as well as any buildup in east Jerusalem, something no other Israeli leader has ever agreed to do. He has removed dozens of roadblocks, agreed to dismantle illegal outposts, and eventually accepted Obama’s territorial formula for a Palestinian state based on the pre-1967 borders with land swaps. As you can see, progress is being made between Obama and Netanyahu, or at least was until some time ago. The point that I am trying to make is that Netanyahu referred to Machiavelli simply to make the point that he is not deterred by Obama’s comment. He simply referred to the philosopher’s famous line as a way to take some of the heat off of the situation and show that he is really not phased by Obama’s comment. I think both leaders have made somewhat foolish comments about one another, but at the same time I don’t think much damage has been done and the two will be able to laugh about the situation in the future. Sure Obama hasn’t made the most progress of any US politician in regards to Israel, but changes are being made. Netanyahu was not saying that he supports Machiavellian beliefs or that Israel was founded on the foundation of being a purely secular state that would resort to any means in order to get what they want. He was simply responding to Obama’s somewhat surprising comment with a counter attack, saying that it’s better to be bashed by your friends than not talked about at all.

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