Analysis |

Israel’s Ukraine Policy Isn't Only Immoral. It's Also Unwise

By employing a false 'two-side-ism' approach, Israel is giving legitimacy to Russia – forget about the moral high ground or standing by its mega-strategic ally, the United States

alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas
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Ukrainian rescue workers carry an elderly woman under the destroyed bridge in Irpin, close to Kyiv close to Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday, April 1, 2022. Talks to stop the fighting in Ukraine resumed Friday, as another attempt to rescue civilians from the shattered and encircled city of Mariupol broke down and Russia accused the Ukrainians of a cross-border helicopter attack on an oil depot. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
Ukrainian rescue workers carry an elderly woman out of the bombarded city of Irpin near Kyiv this month. Credit: Efrem Lukatsky /AP
alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas

“The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a time of great moral crisis maintain their neutrality.” – Dante, “The Divine Comedy,” Part 1, “Inferno”

Fumfering – a word we get from Yiddish – means to mumble, mutter, murmur, dither, waffle, be evasive, temporize and stall. Fumfering is also the right term to describe Israel’s immoral and imprudent policy on the Ukraine crisis and war.

In a week when Russia has escalated the fighting and rattled its nuclear weapons once again, while the U.S. president has asked Congress for $33 billion in aid to Ukraine, Israel’s policy seems to transcend fumfering and is just untenably unwise and morally embarrassing.

Friday is day number 65 of the war, and for 65 days Israel has tip-toed around the issue of condemning Russia, explaining that there are “strategic sensitivities” to relations with Moscow – which increasingly sounds like a lame, unjustifiable excuse.

Israel has adopted a patently immoral and politically imprudent type of quasi-neutrality. “Neutrality” is a misleading term in this context. By supposedly acting neutral – basically endorsing the false “two-side-ism” approach – Israel is essentially supporting Russia.

Furthermore, this “neutrality” means Israel blatantly refrains from standing with the United States, its mega-strategic ally, military benefactor and diplomatic umbrella of support.

As the pre-invasion Ukraine crisis evolved, Israel’s fence-sitting policy had some merit. There was no real American pressure to publicly state a policy, and Israel’s defense posture warranted caution – considering Russia’s presence in Syria and the need to coordinate fly zones to allow Israeli airstrikes on Iranian targets. It’s highly debatable whether those airstrikes have achieved anything substantial or even slightly altered Iran’s behavior.

Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelenskyy speaking to Israeli legislators last month in a speech broadcast live on Tel Aviv's Habima Square.Credit: Moti Milrod

It’s even more debatable whether Israel’s position – that Russia is crucial to curtailing Iran and eventually will push it out of Syria – is anything but wishful thinking. Then there’s Vladimir Putin, long considered a friend by Israel, someone who, according to the previous prime minister, was “in a different league” along with Donald Trump and that previous prime minister. But as long as Putin was only threatening invasion, there was no real reason for Israel to take sides.

Then came the full Russian incursion, the bombardment of Ukrainian cities, the indiscriminate killing of civilians, the inevitable atrocities and the deliberate creation of a refugee crisis. Russia has also threatened to escalate the war into other countries or use nonconventional weapons.

On the other side, the United States has been steadfast in the face of Putin’s aggression. Joe Biden has consolidated NATO, imposed heavy sanctions on Russia and eventually called him a butcher and a war criminal, wondering out loud whether such a man can "remain in power."

Israel, America’s greatest ally, with which its has “an unshakable relationship” based on “shared values,” kept totally quiet. It refused to condemn Russian aggression or atrocities. In fact, while a Ukrainian flag was projected on city halls and parliament buildings around the world, the image projected on the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City was a Ukrainian flag next to a Russian one. Can you imagine the “antisemitism” tantrums if a European city projected an Israeli and a Hamas or Hezbollah flag jointly because “there are two sides”?

Israel remained self-declared neutral, noncommittal to the coalition of the United States, NATO, EU and Asian countries.

Not only that, Israel grandiosely appointed itself a mediator, a ridiculous exercise in conceit and futility. Israel has no experience in international mediation, and Putin never wanted to negotiate with Ukraine but only with the United States and NATO. And a mediator, by definition, needs clout and leverage on both sides to establish credibility, something Israel clearly doesn’t possess.

The United States only tolerated Israel’s mediation antics because they were more a short-lived nuisance than a real disruption.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking during their meeting in Sochi, Russia, in October.Credit: Evgeny Biyatov/ AP

There is a potent phrase and concomitant ethos in the Hebrew language and Israel’s concept of history: “From Holocaust to revival.”

Literally, it means Jewish history progressing from the genocide in Europe between 1939 and 1945 to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and the regeneration of Jewish national and sovereign life.

Figuratively, it represents deeper historical insights on the continuum of Jewish history, which is why it’s often used in conjunction with another expression: “Never again.” That is, not only should the Jewish people never allow a second Holocaust to happen, but the horrors of mass methodical murder and the tragedy of near-annihilation must be learned as a recurring human phenomenon. And Jews, because of their experience, must always be alert and vocally warn against this phenomenon.

Yes, the Holocaust was unique in scope and the vile ideological intentions underlining it, but no, it’s not a singular event. Whether you define it as a genocide or a massacre or ethnic cleansing, it means the same: The banality of evil that exists in human nature can manifest itself in “advanced” and “cultured” civilization.

Meanwhile, the Israeli government refused to recognize as a “Holocaust” the Armenian genocide of 1915-1917 that saw between 600,000 and 1.5 million Armenians killed by the Ottomans, explaining that there were sensitivities in the relationship with Turkey, then a key regional ally.

Israel never reacted to the Pol Pot-led Khmer Rouge regime that murdered 1.5 million to 2 million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979. Cambodia is far away.

Israel sent a small field hospital to Rwanda during the 1994 Hutu massacre of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis. But that’s in Africa.

People demonstrating in Tel Aviv last month against Russia's invasion of Ukraine.Credit: Nir Elias/Reuters

Then came Ukraine.

What could better express “From Holocaust to revival” than the Israeli defense minister being invited by the U.S. secretary of defense to a conference, in Germany no less, to discuss ways to aid Ukraine.

Seventy-seven years after the Holocaust and 74 years after independence, the defense minister of the State of Israel was asked to participate in a conference on European security.

An astounding feat. And what did he do? He decided not to go, sending instead a department head from the Defense Ministry. Why? Officially because the date, Tuesday, was two days before Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel. Unofficially? He didn’t want to upset the very sensitive and vulnerable Putin.

The other perspective that demands attention is that of foreign policy. There are two ostensibly equally legitimate approaches: One, you take the moral high ground from the moment Russia invades and, employing the strategic rationale, you stand by the United States. Israel hasn’t done that.

Two, you employ a realist foreign policy, or realpolitik. You base policy solely on national interest, national security and a clear reading of the strategic picture. In this approach, Israel callously equated fly zones shared with Russia with a strategic alliance shared with the United States. Then Israel complained that its invaluable input and deep concerns regarding a possible new Iranian nuclear deal weren’t being heeded in Washington. That’s hardly realpolitik

Furthermore, you can take realpolitik to the crude extreme, be patient and convince yourself that you’ll side with the inevitable winner. Israel’s reading of the crisis map was so accurate that it’s now siding with the clear loser.

So if you don’t take the moral position, if you get the strategic picture wrong and don’t stand by the United States, what are you left with? Fumfering as foreign policy.

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