columnU.S.-Israel Relations

Israel should stay out of the war in Ukraine

Being dragged into an endless and unwinnable conflict, to virtue-signal opposition to Russia’s illegal invasion, makes no sense for Jerusalem or Washington.

Thousands gather at Tel Aviv's Habima Square to watch Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy deliver a Zoom address to the Knesset, March 20, 2022. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90.
Thousands gather at Tel Aviv's Habima Square to watch Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy deliver a Zoom address to the Knesset, March 20, 2022. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Eight months into Russia’s brutal and illegal invasion of Ukraine, two things are clear about the conflict. One is that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s launching of the largest land war in Europe since 1945 was a crime that has largely united the civilized world in revulsion. Another is that no one seems to have any realistic idea how it can be brought to an end.

Note that I used the word “realistic.” By this I mean a solution that doesn’t require the complete military defeat of a nuclear power that is unlikely to accept abject humiliation. That would also rule out a policy predicated on an attempt at regime change in Moscow, a reckless notion with unknowable and possibly catastrophic consequences.

Of course, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, whose courageous leadership has helped Kyiv mount a resolute and surprisingly successful resistance to the onslaught, does have a vision of how the war will end. He says Ukraine will keep fighting until a military victory chases the Russians off of every inch of soil that his country controlled in February, and perhaps even those areas it lost to Russia in 2014.

In pursuit of that goal, he has obtained the kind of massive military and intelligence assistance that is reminiscent of the West’s commitment to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Biden administration had already committed itself to spending $54 billion on aid to Ukraine, with the implicit promise of continuing that flow of help to the tune of tens, if not hundreds, of billions more in the coming months and years.

But that isn’t enough for Zelenskyy and his admirers. Not only does he want even more American weaponry, the supply of which has already stripped active U.S. forces of most of their reserves of armaments; he is also continuing to clamor for Israel to join the conflict by sending Kyiv some of its most sophisticated weapons systems.

Pressure on Israel

There is a growing chorus of criticism of the Jewish state for its attempt to chart a middle course between pure neutrality and becoming an open participant in the fighting. Israel has sent considerable humanitarian assistance to Ukraine and taken in refugees, yet has stopped short of military aid or involvement. Former Prisoner of Zion and Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky has chided the Jewish state for “being afraid” of Russia. He’s right about that. But Israel has good reason to worry about escalating tensions with Putin.

There is a sizable Jewish population that still lives in Russia which, up until this year, seemed to enjoy Putin’s protection. The war has called that into question.

Moscow’s heavy-handed efforts to signal Israel that it would pay a price if it did more to help Ukraine has included threats against the Jewish Agency’s operations in the country.

Russia also has a large military presence in Syria. Putin has acquiesced to Israel’s military carrying out strikes against Iranian, Hezbollah and other terrorist targets inside that state without repercussions. This would be put at risk if Israel joined Ukraine’s war.

More important than Sharansky’s stand is the criticism coming from the U.S. Congress. A number of lawmakers, including Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, and Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois “Never Trump” Republican, have attacked Israel for its position on Ukraine.

They, like Zelenskyy, dismiss the fact that Israel has done a lot to help Ukraine, even offering it an early-warning system that could help it defend its population against Russian attacks. Like the Ukrainian leader, they want Israel to “get off the sidelines.”

It’s worth questioning why, ever since the fighting started, Israel’s position is the focus of so much interest. With the U.S. and Europe on its side, Ukraine doesn’t need Israel.

However, Zelenskyy, in particular, seems to have devoted an inordinate amount of attention to pressuring Israel. That included a virtual speech to the Knesset, in which he falsified the history of the Holocaust by claiming that Ukrainians had stood with the Jews during the Shoah, instead of being the most enthusiastic of collaborators with the Nazis in helping to kill hundreds of thousands of Jewish victims.

Had any other European leader uttered such an appalling lie, he or she would have been roundly condemned and treated like a pariah by world Jewry. But Zelenskyy, who is Jewish, and is seen as a 21st-century version of Winston Churchill by many otherwise sober observers, got away with it. And the pressure on Israel, which is always judged by a double standard on any issue—and whose stance is somehow viewed as if it is crucial to the outcome of the war—continues to grow,

That’s because support for Ukraine transcends the usual sympathy that underdogs elicit. Despite the lionization of Zelenskyy and the justified admiration for his country’s resistance, Ukraine is far from a model of democracy and human rights. In fact, it is arguably as corrupt as most former Soviet republics.

The impulse to romanticize it as a uniquely noble cause involves more than a belief that sovereign nations should not be invaded by larger neighbors, and goes beyond outrage over Russian atrocities.

The accusation that Russia helped steal the 2016 presidential election for former President Donald Trump—a myth that many still believe, despite the collusion charges turning out to be a hoax—helps fuel anger at Moscow. Without that, and the fact that a conversation with Zelenskyy was the excuse for the Democrats’ first attempt to impeach Trump, it’s possible the American reaction to Putin’s invasion would have resembled the passive indifference on the part of the Obama administration to his seizure of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine in 2014.

The blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag that appears in so many Facebook profile pages is in some ways a successor to similar acts of virtue-signaling about other causes, like Black Lives Matter or coronavirus vaccinations.

At the same time, many traditional foreign-policy hawks consider the war to be in America’s interest, since it is helping to weaken Russia—a geopolitical foe of the United States and ally of China, an even more dangerous potential enemy. From that point of view, it is a grand military exercise in which Western military and intelligence capabilities are being field-tested in real time against Russian materiel and that of its Iranian allies, who have supplied drones to their ally in the conflict in Syria.

The above argument is undermined, however, by the spectacle of Russian incompetence that has rendered untenable the idea that it poses a conventional, as opposed to a nuclear, threat to the West.

Some, like JNS columnist Ben Cohen, argue that Israel ought to get more involved. This is both because Ukraine is in the right and due to Israel’s need to show that it is a regional economic and military power. He and others think this requires its entry onto the world stage as a full-fledged participant in the conflict. They believe the advantages to its acting as a responsible figure in the international arena outweigh the risks to its freedom of operations in Syria and to Russian Jewry.

Cohen is right that Jews have no future in Putin’s Russia, though the same can be said of much of Western Europe. Yet the idea that pretending Israel is just another member of the Western alliance (a pose compromised by the fact that most of the international community doesn’t treat it as such) is worth complicating an already precarious situation on its northern border or endangering Russian Jews for—is risible. Neither the pleasure of joining in the virtue-signaling about Ukraine and Russia nor the great strategic game being played by Washington can possibly recompense the Jewish state for these perils.

Dismissing talk of peace

The international community has always opposed allowing Israel to achieve the kind of complete military victory over its enemies that would force them to give up their struggle against its existence. World opinion also dismisses terrorist attacks on the lives of Israelis as being part of a “cycle of violence” that ought to be stopped, regardless of who is in the right.

In contrast, many otherwise sensible people think Ukrainian ambitions for a military victory over Russia should be indulged, including if that means, as even President Joe Biden recently acknowledged, a risk of a nuclear confrontation.

Anger and disgust with Russia are justified, as are economic sanctions, even if they are clearly hurting the West more than the Putin regime. Yet, now that Ukraine’s extinction is no longer possible, a rational rather than an emotional response to the situation shouldn’t involve an open-ended commitment to an endless war that—Zelenskyy’s boasts and Biden’s promises notwithstanding—isn’t going to end in a total Ukrainian victory or anything like it.

Instead of ganging up on Israel in an effort to force it to join a war that has nothing to do with its security, perhaps the virtue-signalers should start considering whether it wouldn’t be more sensible for the United States to begin exploring a way to end the war. Instead, they are supporting policies geared to ensure it goes on indefinitely, and speak as if advocacy for a negotiated settlement is Russian propaganda. They have no coherent exit strategy or achievable goal and accuse those who point out this inconvenient fact of being insufficiently supportive of the cause of freedom.

This fuels the paranoia that helps sustain Putin in Russia and the patriotic fervor that is bolstering Zelenskyy’s maximalist position. It ignores the cost in Ukrainian and Russian lives, as well as the price for American taxpayers who thought they were done financing unwinnable foreign wars.

The idea that Israel should be dragged into this morass simply for the sake of a dubious romanticizing of the conflict, to assert its status as a world power or any other reason is as irresponsible as it is reckless.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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