Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen has a powerful personal reason for wanting to go to Kyiv and meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had to appease disgruntled members of his Likud Party who felt short-changed by the fact that a lot of key cabinet jobs went to their coalition partners from the religious parties.
While Netanyahu wanted to hand the Foreign Ministry to Ron Dermer, his close confidant and former ambassador to the United States, political realities forced him to tap Cohen for the prestigious post. But he then appointed Dermer Minister to head the resurrected Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy, in order to ensure that he was the one who was really running Israel’s foreign policy.
Aside from that, Cohen wants to make the most of the time he has at the Foreign Ministry before he must hand it over after two years (in accordance with a rotation agreement) to another Likud Party politician, current Energy Minister Yisrael Katz, who previously held the post from 2019 to 2020. A high-profile visit to war-torn Ukraine—where he will re-open the Israeli embassy in Kyiv, capped by a photo op with an international celebrity like Zelenskyy—may not overcome the justified perception that Cohen is foreign minister in name only, but it would bolster his public image.
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As such, he and even Netanyahu, who is under pressure from Israel’s American allies to make more of a show of support for Ukraine’s war effort, believe such a visit is in their interests. It’s especially true, given that Cohen took a beating in the international press for his inaugural phone call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, after which he said that Israel would speak less about the war in public. That was widely, and not unreasonably, viewed as a promise to tone down any condemnations of Moscow for its brutal, illegal invasion and accompanying atrocities.
But after reports about the conditions that Kyiv is placing on an audience with Zelenskyy for Cohen, it’s clear that the price the Israeli government is being asked to pay for a chance to signal its moral support for Ukraine is far too high.
Kyiv’s list of demands
The Ukrainians delivered a set of demands to the previous Israeli government led by Yair Lapid, who was also doing double duty as foreign minister during his six months as prime minister. The Ukrainian wish list included an Israeli statement that would both condemn Russia’s invasion, as Jerusalem has already done, but also support Ukraine’s demands that Moscow surrender every inch of territory it has taken since 2014, including parts of Eastern Ukraine and Crimea, where Russian speakers predominate. On top of that, the Ukrainians want a $500 million loan, access to Israeli medical services for their soldiers and a commitment to joint development of missile technology.
Prior to Netanyahu’s assuming of office at the end of December, Lapid reportedly said “no” to this list. While going ahead with the scheduled visit to Kyiv would be a feather in Cohen’s cap and help keep the Biden administration off Netanyahu’s back, it would be a mistake for Israel to submit to the Ukrainian diktat.
Israel has no problem complying with the request about medical assistance for wounded Ukrainian soldiers. Israel set up a field hospital along the border between Poland and Western Ukraine when the fighting there was at its height last year. And it has admitted thousands of refugees from the war.
The question of the loan is debatable.
Despite Israel’s strong economy, the idea that it has unlimited resources it can give away has more to do with antisemitic myths about Jews and money than it does with reality. This isn’t surprising for a country whose culture is so steeped in antisemitism, and where, for centuries, Jew-hatred was inextricably tied with its nationalism.
Still, Jerusalem might be amenable to the loan, as long as it is earmarked for civilian infrastructure projects or humanitarian needs, rather than military ones. There would also have to be some guarantee that such a loan would be repaid, and safeguards against its contributing to the rampant corruption in Ukraine.
But the rest of the Ukrainian list should be a non-starter. For one thing, Israel has already condemned the Russian invasion many times. For another, it would be irresponsible for Jerusalem to sign on to Zelenskyy’s war aims, as the U.S. has done. And though Israel has already helped Ukraine shoot down Iranian drones Moscow has been using in the war, for it to commit to building an anti-missile system with Ukraine would be crossing the line from semi-neutrality to combat status. And that’s not even considering the risks of sharing its most advanced defense technology with a Ukrainian government that supports antisemitic resolutions at the United Nations.
The pressure on Israel to join the war has been steadily growing for the last year, and it’s been fueled by the idolatry for Zelenskyy that’s gotten out of hand. The best example of this came from New York Times columnist Bret Stephens. In a recent column, he improbably claimed that Zelenskyy was “the Jewish people’s greatest leader.”
In his piece, Stephens parroted some of the dishonest attacks on Netanyahu and his justified quest for judicial reform that have been launched by his left-wing opponents. But more than that, the columnist ignored the fact that Zelenskyy has repeatedly shown no concern for Israel or Jewish rights, and even in engaged in Holocaust denial when he gave a virtual speech to the Knesset. During his address, he claimed that Ukrainians had aided Jews during the genocide, rather than being the Nazis’ most enthusiastic collaborators.
Though Zelenskyy’s family was Jewish, he is a product of a Soviet education and has never shown the least interest in his fellow Jews, except when trying to use them to further his own cause. While electing a Jew as president showed some progress in Ukraine, Zelenskyy’s actions demonstrate his understanding that the country hasn’t changed that much.
Not only has his government supported or abstained from antisemitic U.N. resolutions targeting Israel; but he even had the chutzpah to try to blackmail Netanyahu into handing over some of the Jewish state’s most advanced weapons systems in exchange for Kyiv’s vote.
While Zelenskyy earned international admiration for repelling the Russian invasion, he is not a Jewish leader. Whatever one might think of Netanyahu, his lifetime of service to Israel and the Jewish people should have caused even the anti-Israel editors at the Times to balk at publishing Stephens’s disgraceful assertion.
Like the rest of the world, Israel favors the right of the Ukrainian people to self-determination. The fighting in Ukraine has settled down into World War One-style trench warfare into which vast Western resources are being mobilized to maintain the stalemate. But an Israeli declaration of support for an indefinite continuation of the battle, until the Russians are booted out of Eastern Ukraine or Crimea, would be treated by Moscow as a hostile act.
With Russia partially occupying neighboring Syria, and allowing Israel freedom of action there to hit Iranian and other terrorist targets, Jerusalem’s joining in the aggression against Moscow would mean sacrificing the Jewish state’s security in order to make a marginal contribution to war in which its direct interests are not at stake. And with more than 100,000 Jews still living in Russia, doing so would also mean endangering a population that is essentially being held hostage by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
There are, however, broader issues at play here that are not being widely discussed, due to the current atmosphere in which support for Ukraine’s war effort has become a fashionable cause that cannot be questioned.
Pondering the unintended consequences
The war in Ukraine has become the Biden administration’s top foreign policy priority, dwarfing even its prior obsession with appeasement of Iran, not to mention the genuine menace from China, which ought to be Washington’s most pressing concern.
Yet some on the right, like Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), think that President Joe Biden hasn’t been tough enough in fighting a proxy war against Moscow, arguing that this would similarly discourage China from aggression against Taiwan. In other words, endless spending and forced involvement of allies like Israel is justified, all because some cynically believe it’s in America’s interest to tie up Russia in a bloody war indefinitely.
Like those who invaded Iraq and Afghanistan with similarly high-minded intentions, the people pushing for the backing of Zelenskyy “to the hilt”—in the hope of a decisive victory over Russia—seem disconnected from sober analysis. They don’t appear to understand that although Russia still has nuclear weapons and an authoritarian leader, the war in Ukraine has proved that it isn’t really a threat to Western Europe, let alone the United States.
In any case, is a victory over a nuclear power achievable, even if America spends hundreds of billions of dollars on the project? Leaving aside the fact that Washington won’t spend a fraction of the cost of this war on securing America’s southern border in the face of a massive surge of illegal immigration, to what would such an endeavor lead?
Can those who support it guarantee that it won’t result in a wider or nuclear war? Can they be sure that if Putin is somehow toppled, what would follow would be better, rather than worse, as the Russian Federation splinters into more unstable and corrupt states? Does no one remember what happened in Iraq, or how that war had the unintended consequence of turning Iran into a regional power?
If, as is more likely, all they are doing is making the stalemate costlier without producing a decisive victory—and a compromise peace deal, much like the one that could be obtained now, is ultimately reached—how can they justify the massive loss of life and the further destruction of Ukraine?
Israel can’t afford to be dragged into conflicts that are irrelevant to its own life-and-death struggles to survive in a region where it has powerful enemies and terrorists, armed to the teeth with missiles, on both its northern and southern borders. As much as it may wish to avoid being criticized for insufficient hostility to Russia, Israel should not endanger its own interests for the sake of Ukraine. And Americans who purport to care about Israel should not ask it to do so.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.