Sometimes realpolitik must bow to international sentiment. The State of Israel’s instinctual response to the war launched against Ukraine by Russia’s authoritarian leader, Vladimir Putin, was to stay out of it.
But faced with an overwhelming surge of sympathy for Ukraine and hostility to Russia sparked by Putin’s brutal war of aggression, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said that, “Israel will be on the right side of history” and would vote in favor of a United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning Moscow.
This came after the Israelis angered their American allies. U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield protested the Jewish state’s refusal to join 87 other countries in supporting a Security Council resolution proposed by the United States condemning Russia that was ultimately vetoed by Putin last week.
Israeli offers of mediation and signals that it preferred to sit on the fence got bad reviews at the U.N. Rather than suffer further such criticism, Lapid said that his nation would uphold its own “values” by voting against the Russians.
Judging by the reaction in Israel, this seems to have been a popular decision. Most Israelis, like people elsewhere, are horrified by the videos of the fighting in Ukraine.
Ukrainian resistance against a foreign invader has generated support around the world and even forced the hand of the U.S. and other Western nations to adopt additional and more severe sanctions against Russia than the ones that President Joe Biden had initially been prepared to impose.
The courageous conduct of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has personally led the defense of his country rather than fleeing for his life as most people expected he would do, has also turned the former comedian into an unlikely 21st-century Jewish hero.
But while the popular sentiment in favor of Zelensky and the Ukrainians is sweeping every other consideration aside in international forums, those tasked with the defense of the Jewish state understand that the conclusions to be drawn from the war go beyond those that highlight a willingness to identify with the struggle of a people to resist foreign rule.
While defying the U.S. at the U.N. in order to stay on speaking terms with Putin would seem to be a both foolish and amoral stance, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wasn’t the only one who seemed to think that Lapid’s decision wasn’t the right one. The Likud Party leader urged the Israeli government to clam up about the war in Ukraine and focus, instead, on the threat from Iran.
The argument in favor of Israel’s staying out of the fray on this issue rests on the fact that, in the last decade, Russia became a Middle East power as well as a European one. After former President Barack Obama backed down on his 2013 “red line” threat to punish Syrian dictator Bashar Assad for his use of chemical weapons against his own people, the U.S. gave the Russians explicit permission to deal with the problem. That was the green light Putin had been waiting for to expand his influence in the former Soviet client state.
With American acquiescence, Russia became, along with Iran, a full-fledged combatant in the Syrian Civil War then being waged to overthrow the Assad regime. With the sort of brutal use of military might now being employed in Ukraine, the Russians enabled their ally, Assad, to prevail in a war that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands and rendered another five million homeless.
The Russians remain the dominant force in Syria, making Putin a powerful neighbor, rather than just an international symbol of tyranny and aggression. One of Netanyahu’s foreign-policy achievements rested on his ability to maintain good relations with Moscow; preserving that relationship is vital for the country’s security.
Indeed, it is only via the good graces of the Russians that the Israel Defense Forces is able to have the freedom to strike at Iranian forces and those of its Hezbollah terrorist auxiliaries in Syria, rather than let them form another front against the Jewish state.
The world is cheering on Zelensky in his underdog fight against Putin, and most Jews are rooting for him to somehow avoid the fate that usually befalls those who are forced into fights with ruthless and militarily powerful neighbors. It would be nice to think that it’s possible for a lightly armed nation to successfully defend its independence against predators like Putin with guts and belated international support.
But it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the conflict in Ukraine will produce a result that allows Israel to completely spurn the Russian leader. And that’s not even taking into account the fact that, unlike the tsars and Soviet leaders after whom Putin models himself, he’s not an open anti-Semite who oppresses the Jews of his country.
There are other lessons to be drawn from these events, as well. However the war in Ukraine turns out, it is a warning to small countries to reject the notion that their safety can depend on international guarantees.
The 1994 agreement in which Ukraine surrendered the nuclear weapons it inherited after the collapse of the Soviet Union involved both Russia and the U.S. guaranteeing its independence. It’s not just that a former KGB thug like Putin couldn’t be trusted to abide by that pact. It’s that the U.S. in its current condition of weakness and irresolution that was demonstrated by Biden’s feckless and disgraceful retreat from Afghanistan can’t be relied upon to stand by its allies.
Just as important, the Biden administration is currently embarking on a policy of appeasement of Iran. With a new and even weaker nuclear deal expected to be announced at some point in the coming weeks, Israel is faced with a situation in which its sole superpower ally is prepared to enrich and empower a regime that poses an existential threat to the existence of the Jewish state.
This puts Greenfield-Thomas’s complaints about Israeli freelancing at the U.N. in a very different light. Biden’s expectation that Israel should back America’s Ukraine stand, despite the potential consequences to its own strategic defense, while at the same time pursuing a policy that undermines Israeli security is as outrageous as it is hypocritical.
That Israel’s government is maintaining relative silence about the consequences of renewed Western appeasement of Iran is setting up a situation in which American critics of this dangerous policy are being undermined.
The notion that Israelis should trust Washington to defend their interests at a time when the administration clearly has no interest whatsoever in doing so is absurd. So, too, is the idea that Israel’s efforts against Iran should be constrained by American demands to stand down once the new accord with Tehran is agreed upon.
Israelis know all too well how fickle international opinion can be when it comes to a country’s right to defend itself. Everyone likes underdogs—something that generated support for the Jewish state’s efforts to defend its existence in the past, when many military analysts thought it could not survive Arab efforts to wipe it out in its early years. Israelis have learned that they must forget about being popular, so long as they are strong enough to resist both conventional and terrorist campaigns aimed at its destruction.
Rather than forestalling an Iranian nuke, Biden’s foolish policies will guarantee Tehran’s becoming a nuclear power. No doubt the world would sympathize with Israelis should they fall victim to Iranian designs to eliminate the Jewish state. This, however, is the kind of popularity that the Holocaust should have taught Jews to avoid at all costs.
We may cheer Zelensky’s courage in the face of fearsome odds. But this is the kind of predicament in which rational states should never allow themselves to placed.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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