Russia’s assault on Ukraine has created a conundrum for Israel, which believes it must preserve its relationship with Moscow as a matter of national security. Russia controls the skies over neighboring Syria. It allows the Israeli air force to interdict Iranian efforts to supply Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese proxy, with precision armaments. While the U.S. would have been displeased had Israel refused to sign on as a co-sponsor, the Biden administration appreciates the position Israel is in.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has been less understanding, asking again and again for Israel to supply him with advanced weapons. The Ukrainian ambassador to Israel explained: “My president is Jewish; he expects more from Israel.”
The Israeli government chalked this up to the naivete of a young, inexperienced president. But it underestimated Zelenskiy’s savvy. He knew that Western powers were willing to give him votes of support and words of comfort, but not the military hardware he needed.
Zelenskiy set out to dramatize and weaponize Western sympathy by casting the war as a second Holocaust. In a video address to Israeli parliamentarians in mid-March, he made his case. “The threat is the same for both us and you — the total destruction of the people, state, culture,” he said. “That is why I have the right to this parallel and to this comparison. Our history and your history. Our war for our survival and your experience in World War II.”
Zelenskiy closed his speech with a dramatic challenge to the Jewish state to aid Ukraine. “It is up to you, dear brothers and sisters, to choose the answer. You will have to live with this answer. Ukraine made its choice 80 years ago. It rescued Jews.”
This is untrue. In World War II, more than a million Jews were murdered in Ukraine with the agreement of the Nazi puppet government and the help of public officials and a considerable number of everyday Ukrainians. Zelenskiy must have known his audience was aware of this — every Israeli is. But he correctly calculated that the government wouldn’t issue more than a mild demurral.
In any case, Zelenskiy’s analogy was aimed at a larger audience and a wider purpose. He wanted to make support for Ukraine into a morally compelling cause. Collaboration with the Nazis is a deep and painful wound to European self-esteem, one that reparations and Holocaust memorials haven’t healed. In the U.S., too, there is shame and regret over the refusal of President Franklin Roosevelt to take action or even let the public in on what he knew.
Zelenskiy was offering the “international community” an opportunity to redeem itself. His scenario has largely been accepted. It reached its apogee when hundreds of civilian corpses were discovered near Kyiv. Against the advice of his own State Department, President Joe Biden declared this to be genocide. With few exceptions, NATO allies accepted this judgment.
Genocide is a loaded word. What the Russians have done in Ukraine is despicable, but it’s not mass extermination. Unlike the Turkish slaughter of a million Armenians, or the hundreds of thousands of Tutsi victims in Rwanda in 1994, the Ukrainians aren’t isolated, ignored or defenseless. They may even win the war. I hope they do.
The government of Israel knows that this isn’t genocide, a belief that probably modulates its response to the war. But Israel also doesn’t want to get too far away from its American patron. It has shown its goodwill by sending tons of humanitarian aid, building a field hospital and taking in thousands of Ukrainian refugees. This week it announced that it’s sending helmets and flak jackets “for the use of civilian rescue workers.”
After Biden’s genocide declaration, the Israeli foreign minister joined the international chorus of outrage. “Intentionally harming a civilian population is a war crime and I strongly condemn it,” he said. And Israel joined the other Western democracies at the UN General Assembly in suspending Russian membership in the UN Human Rights Council.
Russia was furious. The Israeli ambassador to Moscow was summoned and given a tongue lashing in language not heard by an Israeli diplomat since the fall of the Soviet Union. To emphasize his displeasure, Russian President Vladimir Putin had a friendly and much publicized chat with Palestinian President Mohammed Abbas. This was a warning. Another step in the wrong direction and Israel would be on its own to stop Iranian aggression in Syria.
It’s a genuine threat. But getting crosswise with the U.S. would be even more reckless. For Israel, the sensible choice right now is to keep dancing, try to stay off the toes of its rival partners and pray for the music to end.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.
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