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There was a certain irony to the telephone conversation that took place on Saturday between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and newly installed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The latter phoned to ask that Ukraine oppose a United Nations resolution calling for the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to issue a legal opinion on the Israeli presence in Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem.
The phrase “quid pro quo”—Latin for an exchange of a favor in return for something else—was a central element of the first impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump. He was accused of inappropriately pressuring Zelenskyy to investigate corrupt activity in Ukraine by President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, with the threat of withholding aid.
But it turns out that Zelenskyy knows how to play the same game himself when it comes to leaning on Israel.
The U.N. General Assembly resolution was yet another attempt by the Palestinians to wage “lawfare” against Israel. Like the U.N. Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry report on the same subject, this was a thinly disguised antisemitic attack on the rights of Jews to live in their homeland.
And though Zelenskyy’s argument on behalf of support against Russia’s illegal and brutal invasion of Ukraine is that his country is a bulwark of Western values and democracy, Kyiv voted in November with the antisemitic majority at the international body on the issue of issue of bringing the ICJ into the dispute over the territories.
Blaming the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry for the above, Zelenskyy apologists at home and abroad claimed that he was not at fault. Yet, when Netanyahu asked him to do the right thing and join the United States and other Western nations in opposing this Palestinian provocation, Zelenskyy decided to play hardball.
As a “Ukrainian official” told Axios, “Zelensky[y] said that in exchange for voting against the resolution or abstaining, he wanted to hear how the new Israeli government would change its policy and provide Ukraine with defense systems.”
Perhaps, Zelenskyy thought the U.N. vote gave him the leverage he needed to get Netanyahu to give him a different answer than the one that he’d received from former Israeli premiers Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid. But, though Netanyahu is wary of getting into a spat with a man who has become a global icon, he still said “no”—albeit with the qualification that he’d be willing to discuss the question again sometime in the future.
Zelenskyy had a triumphal visit to Washington last month, with Congress cheering the “G.I. Joe”-costumed Ukrainian as if his presence was the second coming of Winston Churchill. And with America’s forking over a staggering total of more than $100 billion in aid, TIME magazine’s “person of the year” has grown accustomed to getting his way.
According to Axios’s source, “Zelensky didn’t like [Netanyahu’s] answer and didn’t agree to vote against the resolution or abstain. Instead, he instructed Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.N. to not attend the vote.”
Zelenskyy has been demanding that Israel share with him some of its most advanced defense systems, such as the Iron Dome, which Ukraine genuinely needs. Though the battle appears to have come to a bloody stalemate—with Kyiv’s independence now largely assured—Moscow is continuing to fire missiles that have been causing extensive property damage and casualties.
Ukraine is definitely the aggrieved party in this war, and sympathy for its cause is justified. But the notion that Israel ought to strip its own defenses and arms supplies in order to help Kyiv keep fighting is absurd.
Leaving aside Jerusalem’s justified hesitation to join in a conflict against a Russian regime that has effective control of much of neighboring Syria—and that holds its Jewish population as virtual hostages—there are sound military reasons for Israel to deny Zelenskyy’s request. The Jewish state barely has enough Iron Dome batteries and other sophisticated systems to defend against the ongoing threats from Gaza-based Hamas terrorists along its southern border and against Lebanon’s Hezbollah in the north.
Zelenskyy has every right to act in the best interests of his country, but for him to ask Israel to leave itself open to possible attack from two fronts for the sake of Ukraine is neither reasonable nor fair.
Nor should he be given a pass for his willingness to use a U.N. vote against Israel as blackmail. Those who were ready to pillory Trump for his version of a quid pro quo with Ukraine should be the first to agree.
Ukraine’s victimization at the hands of war-crime-committing Russia goes a long way toward explaining the world’s willingness to excuse just about anything Zelenskyy has done in the past year. Still, though he poses as the avatar of 21st-century democracy, his government is anything but. And despite Zelenskyy’s Jewish origins, he is not a friend of Israel or the Jewish people.
The corrupt nature of the powers-that-be in Kyiv—as well as the president’s efforts to ban opponents, silence press critics and even shutter certain churches—have been known for months. The New York Times finally got around to reporting about a new law Zelenskyy’s implementing to codify his ability to censor political foes.
Kyiv also continues to deny the close historic association between Ukrainian nationalism and antisemitism. Indeed, Zelenskyy used a virtual speech to the Knesset last spring to engage in what can only be described as Holocaust denial—falsely claiming that Ukrainians acted in solidarity with Jewish victims, rather than being active Nazi collaborators. This week, the Ukrainian parliament issued a proclamation quoting Stepan Bandera, a Hitler-sympathizing pogromist who was responsible for the slaughter of both ethnic Poles and Jews during the Nazi occupation, someone who is still treated as a hero in Kyiv.
It’s not unreasonable to speculate that the inordinate pressure Zelenskyy has put on Israel to join the war against Russia, and unwillingness to vote with the U.S. and other Western nations against anti-Israel U.N. resolutions, stems from a desire to play to public opinion at home.
Regardless of his motives, however, or the desire of most people to help Ukrainians defend their independence against Russia, there’s no excuse for Zelenskyy’s attempt to strongarm Netanyahu into weakening Israel. Unlike what was said about its Foreign Ministry behavior in November, Ukraine’s current reluctance to side with Israel at the U.N. is clearly a deliberate decision, not a bureaucratic snafu.
All of the above ought to serve as a wakeup call for those inclined to excuse Ukraine for anything it does due to Russian aggression. They need to understand that it’s possible to support self-determination for Ukraine, and admire its fight for survival, while viewing the adulation for Zelensky as divorced from the reality of his rule.
They should realize, as well, that it’s equally possible to oppose Russia without pretending that Zelenskyy is something that he isn’t, or that calls for an end to the fighting—rather than a Ukrainian policy of pursuing an unlikely complete victory over Moscow—are Russian propaganda.
Finally, as long as Zelenskyy continues to bully Israel and flirt with antisemitic moves against it, those who care about the Jewish state would do well to stop portraying him as a Jewish hero—or any kind of hero at all.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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