Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is making a circuit of the world’s parliaments. He started in the mother of them all, Britain’s House of Commons, went to the United States Congress and also fitted in the German Bundestag, the Canadian parliament in Ottawa and the European one in Strasbourg. In the coming week, he has Italy and Japan on his schedule. Along the way, he found 10 minutes for the Israeli Knesset.
In all his parliamentary addresses so far, he’s criticized the host governments for not giving Ukraine enough military support. He complained to the Americans and Europeans of their reluctance to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine. To the Israelis, he asked why we were not prepared to give Ukraine the Iron Dome missile defense system (“the best in the world,” he said flatteringly).
There was no discernible difference in the level of Zelenskyy’s criticism of Israel, but his Knesset address also contained a tone of disappointment, as if he had expected a bit more because of the two nations’ history. It was a history he distorted a bit in claiming that the Ukrainians had “chosen” to save Jews during the Holocaust, but it was still a very comfortable historic narrative for Israel about the few fighting off the murderous many.
It was a perfect Zionist speech. Zelenskyy emphasized that Ukraine and Israel were both peace-seeking peoples who just wanted to be allowed to live. He quoted admiringly from Golda Meir who claimed that “our enemies want us to cease to exist.” Just as the Russians want to do to the Ukrainian people. Professional hasbara (information) experts couldn’t have written it better, hence Zelenskyy’s disappointment.
From a moral perspective, he’s right. But there’s no reason to take his jibe at Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s mediation efforts that “you can mediate between states but not between evil and good” after Zelenskyy himself gave Bennett his blessing and has spent hours with him on the phone in recent days and weeks.
That is even more so in light of the interview Zelenskyy gave to CNN shortly before his Knesset speech in which he accused the leaders of NATO of not stating clearly whether Ukraine could join the alliance when “people are dying on a daily basis” and of putting Ukraine “this dubious position.” In other words, Zelenskyy understands that as part of an agreement to end the war the option of Ukraine joining NATO will have to be off the table. He’s expecting NATO to do that for him.
Speeches are one thing and diplomacy is another. Zelenskyy is still hoping to find a formula for compromise with Russia that ends the war soon (even though he has little faith that Russian President Vladimir Putin will make the necessary compromises on his side). If Bennett can help him reach that goal, he’ll be happy, snarky jibes aside.
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The disrespectful way in which his Knesset address was greeted, with the lawmakers mostly sitting at home, or even on trips abroad, instead of being gathered together in the plenum, raises the question why Zelenskyy insisted on going through with it all.
But that is a misunderstanding of the effect he is trying to create and more crucially, maintain. Zelenskyy isn’t really addressing the members of parliament in any country but global public opinion, where he is concerned that support and interest in Ukraine will wane with time, just it did with other conflicts in recent years such as the Syrian civil war and the plight of the Kurds.
Perhaps the most important component of Zelenskyy’s Knesset address was the repeated warning at the end of the dangers of “indifference” to Ukraine’s plight. He may have only four years of experience in politics, but he knows full well by now that speeches to parliaments, not just the Israeli one, are not going to change governments’ cold, calculated and pragmatic policies. That isn’t the reason Zelenskyy’s talking to parliaments.
This is a desperate attempt by him to confront the world’s natural indifference to a distant, ongoing war and to keep Ukraine in the headlines. Zelenskyy, a creator and star of television shows, knows very well that he needs to keep his audience captivated and he needs to do so now on a global platform, as long as he has one.
The Ukrainian people’s resistance to the Russian invasion and the way Zelenskyy has become their standard-bearer has boosted the West’s determination to keep supplying Ukraine with weapons and to ratchet up economic sanctions on Russia. But Zelenskyy needs to work hard to maintain that momentum. After Putin, indifference is indeed his and the Ukrainian people’s worst enemy.