Looking at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it’s hard not to be haunted by the fact that both World War I and World War II began in Europe. Are we witnessing the start of World War III? That’s probably one of the reasons why so many of us are transfixed, following the developments with a sense of tremendous anxiety. And Putin has upped the ante by declaring that he is placing his nuclear arsenal on the alert, recalling the tense days of the 1961 Cuban Missile Crisis when it felt as if the world was on the edge of a potential Armageddon.
While I feel compelled to try to express a clear opinion about the crisis, I also realize that events may quickly overtake any analysis. After all, until the Russian troops moved across the Ukrainian border, there were many expert analysts who still believed that it wouldn’t happen.
Ukraine as an Independent Entity
First of all, Putin claims that Ukraine doesn’t have the right to consider itself an independent country. Although Ukraine did not always exist as an independent entity, as the Hebrew University’s Ukrainian-born lecturer Prof. Dmitry Shumsky explains, it was the Soviet system that defined Ukraine as we know it today as an independent republic within the framework of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. In the Middle East, we know that many countries like Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the Gulf states, and also many African countries evolved as the result of various imperialist activities but have developed their own unique national character and identity and are entitled to consider themselves a nation-state today. The same is true for Ukraine, despite its checkered history and the fact that parts of the country were once considered part of Poland, Russia, or the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Putin claims that Ukraine and its capital Kyiv (Kiev in the old spelling) along with Odessa, home to the famed Potemkin Steps which featured in Serge Eisenstein’s film “Battleship Potemkin” about the 1905 revolution, are the heart of Russian culture and historical identity and therefore should be unified with the motherland. That sounds very similar to the claim by right-wing and particularly messianic religious Israelis that there are many locations in the West Bank that are at the heart of the Jewish religious and historical identity, a land they say was “promised to them by God,” and therefore, should be part of a Greater Israel. That claim totally denies the indigenous Palestinians who are the overwhelming majority of the people living in the area their right to national self-determination.
Yes, Russians should have the right to visit Kyiv and Odessa, just as Jews should have the right to visit the Tomb of the Patriarchs, but that doesn’t mean they have the right to be sovereign there.
A Fundamental Challenge to the “Rules-Based System”
Putin is saying that he wants to overthrow the post WW II “rules-based system” and that nations should have the right to conduct their affairs in accordance with their national and historical interests. That objective, which sounds like something that former President Trump might support (which is perhaps why he is so enamored with the Russian president’s “genius” style of authoritarian leadership), constitutes a fundamental challenge to the whole international order as encoded in International Humanitarian Law. If achieved, it would create an international system that would be governed by the “rule of jungle,” the survival of the fittest, with no respect for small countries’ rights.
It is also a fundamental challenge to the democratic systems to which many countries aspire, even if sometimes flawed.
Another way of looking at Ukraine-Russia is simply the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism.
Ukraine’s Unsavory History
Of course, Israeli Jews looking at Ukraine can’t totally ignore the historical context. Ukrainians were among the most anti-Semitic people in Eastern Europe. My grandparents were among the hundreds of thousands of Russian-speaking Ukrainian Jews who fled from the anti-Semitic pogroms and the possibility of having to serve in the czar’s army to the safety of the North American shores. And unlike the claim of the Ukrainian ambassador to Israel that Ukrainians helped save Jews during WW II, they notoriously cooperated with the Nazis and helped them murder countless Jews, with Babi Yar being just one example, while it was the Russians, the Red Army, which defeated the Nazis, liberated Auschwitz, and provided the weapons via Czechoslovakia which enabled Israel to survive and win the war in 1948.
But that history doesn’t justify Putin’s distorted claim today that he is liberating the Ukrainians from a fascist regime. Although there are active reactionary right-wing extremist and anti-Semitic elements within Ukrainian society, the Russian people can only envy the nature of Ukrainian democracy, even if a flawed one, which perhaps poses a threat to Putin’s authoritarian rule. And as everyone knows, they have even elected a Jewish president.
American hubris played a part in contributing to the conflict. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, creating a temporarily unipolar world with one superpower, what Francis Fukuyama called “the end of history,” there were mainstream and conservative American experts like George Kennan, author of the Cold War containment policy, and Henry Kissinger, who warned that the West should not try to expand NATO to Russia’s borders. They said that it would unnecessarily appear to be a threat to Russian sovereignty, given the history of foreign intervention in its affairs going back to the post-revolution period and culminating with Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union, which cost 27 million Russian lives. However, NATO’s expansion eastward into the Baltic countries and Ukraine’s desire to join NATO, which will probably never be realized, doesn’t justify Putin’s brutal attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty and its people. Ukraine never threatened Russia; it is Russia which is trying to undermine Ukraine’s independent existence.
The Palestinian Position
Back in 1991, Arafat and the Palestinian leadership made a major mistake when they backed Saddam Hussein when he tried to conquer Kuwait. That angered the Gulf states and the entire 37-country coalition put together by President George H.W. Bush, eventually leading to the convening of the Madrid Conference and the beginning of what was known as the Middle East peace process. This time, there appears to be a Palestinian grassroots sentiment supporting Russia against Ukraine, though President Abbas and the Palestinian leadership have preferred to remain neutral. The grassroots support for Russia seems to be based on anger at the United States, the leader of the anti-Russia coalition, which is perceived as providing Israel with unconditional support for its policies while not acting as a serious and meaningful honest broker to try to resolve the conflict. However, there are Palestinian voices that call for support for Ukraine’s right to self-determination and opposition to the Russian attempt to occupy the country, drawing a clear parallel with the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. Since the legitimate Palestinian demand for national self-determination in a state of their own is based on respect for international law, beginning with countless UN resolutions, it would appear to be in their interest to oppose Putin’s attempt to undermine a “rules-based world.”
The Israeli Position
As for the Israeli position, it’s also very much a personal matter. There are about half a million Israelis of Ukrainian origin, and an equal number of Israelis of Russian origin. My cousin Alina has a mother and sister-in-law and their families suffering in Ukraine, and my friend Harriet has an 85-year-old cousin with her family who live in the uncertainty of Kyiv today. Israelis are very concerned about the fate of their relatives in the Jewish communities of both Ukraine and Russia. As for the Israeli leadership, so far Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid have played an official “good cop/bad cop” routine, with Bennett trying to sound neutral and avoiding condemning Russia while Lapid clearly condemns the Russian invasion against a sovereign, independent state. Bennett used his apparent “neutrality” to become the first foreign leader to meet with Putin, while also maintaining ongoing communication with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. It’s hard to believe that the Israeli prime minister will be the one who will stop the fighting, but any effort to try to facilitate an end to the conflict should be appreciated. As a religious Jew, he even was ready to defy religious law to travel on the Sabbath for “the sake of preserving human life.” Of course, Israel also has interests, balancing between its dependence on American support and its desire not to run afoul of the Russians, who are the dominant power in neighboring Syria.
There has been much internal criticism of the government for not taking a more clear-cut stand against the Russian invasion, which is understandably considered a moral blot on its policies. Israel is not alone in this respect, however, since other countries, like India, Turkey, the Gulf states, and Iran (!) are also doing a delicate balancing act about Russia/Ukraine.
However, when right-wing Minister of the Interior Ayelet Shaked from Bennett’s Yemina Party placed barriers before the few non-Jewish Ukrainian refugees who wanted to come to Israel for at least temporary shelter because it would “upset the demographic balance,” she was harshly criticized. Bennett’s role as a mediator has raised Israel’s international standing in the world, and it was noteworthy that after speaking to the members of Congress and the British, German, Canadian, and European parliaments via Zoom, Ukrainian President Zelensky chose to also speak to the members of the Israeli Knesset. Perhaps one of his motivations is the assumption that somehow Israel has the ability to influence U.S. President Biden due to the perceived outsized influence of Israel and the “Jewish lobby” in Washington. In his short 12-minute speech, clearly geared toward the Israeli public to pressure its government, Zelensky criticized Israel for its fence-sitting, not providing defensive military support to the Ukrainians, not joining the boycott of Russian businessmen, and its policy toward the refugees. He also angered many Israelis, in my view understandably, when he compared the Russians to the Nazis and the invasion to the Holocaust and the “Final Solution.” And he repeated the distortion of history by claiming that the Ukrainians helped save Jews during WW II.
One of the most sensitive topics is the Israeli attitude toward the Russian Jewish oligarchs. They got their ill-gotten gains from being close to Putin, becoming the beneficiaries of the selling off of Russian national assets to private entrepreneurs after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Many of them have contributed large sums of money to Israeli and Jewish causes. Those oligarchs are one of the primary targets of the sanctions used by the Western alliance to pressure Putin to end the invasion, and Israel’s hesitations about joining the boycott led to a rare and justifiable rebuke from the Biden administration.
Lessons for Israel-Palestine
It is totally understandable that Palestinians are looking at the West’s behavior toward Russia-Ukraine as a prime example of a double standard in international affairs, as is so eloquently argued by Daoud Kuttab in this issue. And the fact is that the West, with President Biden in the lead, has mobilized at an extraordinarily rapid pace to organize economic sanctions against Russia to try to force Putin to end the invasion.
So is such an organized campaign to force Israel to end the occupation possible? When exploring this question, it should be noted that there are some major differences between Israel-Palestine and Russia-Ukraine.
1) First of all, the Israeli occupation which began in 1967 was the result of a war caused by a series of moves by the country’s Arab neighbors, particularly Egypt under President Nasser, which appeared to threaten Israel’s existence. And Israel has officially continued to maintain that the post-67 situation in the West Bank is temporary, even if the settlement enterprise suggests otherwise and the Likud Party, former Prime Minister Netanyahu, and current Prime Minister Bennett oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state. Russia under Putin is saying there is nothing temporary about their goal. They initiated this war and want to absorb Ukraine into Russia. Thus, they are challenging the rules-based system of the sanctity of nation-states and their borders established after WW II, just as Saddam Hussein did when he invaded Kuwait in 1990.
2) Secondly, the Russia-Ukraine case is much more clear-cut. Russia attacked Ukraine; Ukraine is not attacking Russia or its civilians. In Israel-Palestine, the occupation has been maintained and deepened by settlement expansion and harsh measures used by the Israeli military, but some Palestinians also used lethal suicide bombers in their struggle against the occupation during the second intifada, killing many innocent civilians. And in the rounds of fighting between Israel and Hamas, while the IDF used totally disproportionate lethal force, destroying much property and killing many innocent civilians including women and children, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad also fired thousands of rockets against Israeli civilian targets from Gaza.
3) Thirdly, while Ukraine benefits from its desire to maintain a democracy, and join Europe, and Russia is perceived as a totalitarian power threatening the world order, Israel, despite the occupation, is still considered to be a democracy by most of the world, although the recent spate of reports defining the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and even Israel itself as apartheid may be chipping away at that. More importantly, because of its military, economic, intelligence, and hi-tech power, Israel is considered a valuable asset to be associated with, a protective shield against the possibility of sanctions.
4) And there is, of course, the racist element to the differentiation, as Kuttab and others have noted. The West gets much more worked up about people like the Ukrainians who “look like them” than it does about Palestinians, Yemenis, Syrians, Africans, and Asians.
Despite all of the above calculations and frustrations, however, the events surrounding Russia-Ukraine may open up new opportunities for those of us who are seeking greater international involvement in the struggle to end the occupation and resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel. Once the current conflict ends, all of us — Israelis, Palestinians, and internationals — should be ready to seek initiatives which can lead to greater international involvement. Perhaps some of the measures being used against Putin can also be applied in our arena. This will require much original thinking on our part.
Ukrainian Neutrality Is the Key
As for Russia-Ukraine, to me, the solution is clear. The Russian invasion should end, and Ukraine should be declared a neutral state. It should remain a democracy that could be associated with the EU but not NATO, perhaps becoming a role model for Russia as well. The only question is how to get there, and how many Ukrainian and Russian lives will be unnecessarily lost in the process.