There are serious differences on a host of issues between Interim Prime Minister Yair Lapid and his soon-to-be successor, Benjamin Netanyahu. But one topic on which it’s likely that their stands don’t diverge to any great extent is the question of Israel’s attitude toward the war in Ukraine.
Lapid may have spent most of his brief stint as head of government eagerly currying favor with U.S. President Joe Biden and America’s European allies. Still, the point on which he was prepared to resist both them and fashionable liberal opinion was Ukraine. Despite an increasingly vocal pressure campaign orchestrated by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Lapid held firm against getting the Jewish state militarily involved in resisting Russia’s invasion of its neighbor.
That pressure is only likely to grow worse once Netanyahu forms a government in the wake of his election victory last week. Lapid could count on the sympathy of Washington and Brussels. Netanyahu will likely be judged more harshly by Western public opinion for defending the interests of his country and the Jewish people, rather than joining in the virtue-signaling about Ukraine that is ubiquitous in the United States and elsewhere.
This pressure will be exacerbated by reports about the role that Iran, Israel’s deadly enemy, is playing in supplying its Russian allies with drones and missiles that are being used against Ukrainian targets. That is troubling. But so is the claim that Zelenskyy has begun to float in the last month that Israel’s neutrality is pushing Russia and Iran closer together and leading Moscow to aid Tehran’s nuclear program.
The idea that Israel is somehow responsible for the Russia-Iran relationship is nonsense on stilts. Those two nations were allies in fighting the Syrian Civil War to preserve the Bashar Assad regime. Russia’s equivocal stance on Iran’s nuclear program, as well as Moscow’s giving Tehran a sophisticated air-defense system that would make a theoretical Israeli attack on nuclear targets there more difficult, is also nothing new.
Meanwhile, that tragic war drags on, with its being increasingly clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s illegal attempt to squelch Ukrainian independence has failed. At the same time, though Zelenskyy has earned the world’s admiration for leading his country’s plucky and surprisingly successful defense, any idea that Ukraine can end the war with a decisive defeat of a much larger nation with nuclear weapons is equally untenable.
Zelenskyy’s determination to fight on until Russian forces are expelled from all of the Ukrainian territory that Moscow seized since February—not to mention the regions it occupied in 2014—has earned him much applause. Yet, as the brutal Eastern European winter looms, responsible world leaders ought to be prioritizing a way to end the fighting and prevent an even greater humanitarian disaster.
One would hope there’s some behind-the-scenes diplomacy working toward that end. In public, the Western commitment to an endless and unwinnable war continues, with American taxpayers being told it’s somehow a bargain for them to be asked to spend tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars to pay for it.
That is, however, not enough to satisfy Zelenskyy, who has continued to push hard to add Israel to the list of countries contributing to the war effort almost since the battle began.
As I’ve noted previously, the disproportionate attention given to Israel’s stance on the war is puzzling. Or at least it would be if it weren’t standard operating procedure for the international media and the diplomatic community to judge the Jewish state by a double standard applied to no other nation on earth.
Israel has given Ukraine a massive amount of humanitarian aid and taken in refugees. It has also condemned Russia’s illegal campaign and even shared intelligence with Kiyiv. But it has chosen not to go further for a number of very good reasons.
Chief of among them is Russia’s military presence in Syria and its willingness to accept Israel’s right to attack Iranian and other terrorist forces there. Joining the war in Ukraine wouldn’t do much to change the outcome there, but it would pose a threat to Israeli security.
Then there’s the matter of the remaining Jews in Russia, who have thrived under Putin but are now more or less hostages. For Israel to further endanger them merely in order to satisfy international opinion that demands it be more moral than any other nation, would be as irresponsible as it is foolish.
Lately, Zelenskyy has been pushing hard for Israel to send Ukraine some of its valuable air-defense systems, with even many Jews joining in the chorus of those demanding such a step. That will only increase in the coming months as the stalemate lingers.
Contrary to Western public opinion, Israel has barely enough Iron Dome batteries and other systems to protect its own people against constant threats from Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Should it ever have to fight a two-front war with both those foes, it would be hard pressed to maintain the shield against missiles and rockets that have essentially neutralized past terrorist offensives from Gaza.
It would be equally imprudent for it to risk any of its technology being captured by forces linked to Iran. While the U.S. military is cynically treating the conflict as a testing ground for equipment and tactics against those of the Russians, the assumption that Israel should join in this great game for the same purpose is to forget that there is a difference between the two countries’ security requirements and interests.
Yet the effort to guilt Israel into joining the war continues.
Sometimes, it takes the form of pleas from Zelenskky, who trades on his Jewish identity while doing so, even though he demonstrated his lack of credibility on the subject by claiming that Ukrainians stood with Jews during the Holocaust, when they did the opposite.
Others, like Ukrainian-Jewish oligarch Viktor Pinchuk, a Zelenskyy supporter, wrote an op-ed in The Jerusalem Post urging Israel to join the fight by saying he was doing so “as a Jew.” That this plea was retweeted by CNN personality Fareed Zakaria shows the influential support such efforts are receiving. But the idea that one of the Ukrainian president’s wealthy and corrupt supporters would be treated as a respected authority about Jewish interests is as astonishing as it is absurd.
Post-Soviet business magnates like Pinchuk play an outsized role in that country’s politics. This illustrates the dishonesty of the effort to portray Ukraine as an outpost of Jeffersonian democracy, rather than just another corrupt former Soviet republic, albeit one that deserves sympathy for its fight to maintain its independence.
Netanyahu is too savvy to be gulled into falling for the assertion that Iran’s involvement means Israel must also join in. But due to his unpopularity in the West, the resentment about Israel’s position will likely grow in direct proportion to the misery being experienced by the Ukrainian people.
Israeli reluctance to endanger itself on behalf of the Ukrainian cause will continue to be lambasted by Western liberals, including some in Congress. They are often the same people who also criticize it for defending itself against Palestinian terrorism or—unlike their support for Ukraine’s maximalist demands—for refusing to make suicidal territorial surrenders in order to empower enemies whose only goal is the Jewish state’s destruction. Such unfair demands are also backed by many liberal Americans, who treat support for Ukraine as somehow linked to their abhorrence of former President Donald Trump.
Rather than joining the push against Israeli neutrality, American Jews should be supporting it, while also speaking up in favor of finding an exit strategy from a war whose continuation is in neither the interest of the United States or Israel.
It is ironic, if tragic, that some on the left have finally found a war they wish to support. But this is no reason for Israel to be dragged into this mess, or to prolong the suffering of the Ukrainians.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.