As reported in the media, since the Ukrainian crisis broke out with the Russian intervention in the Crimea that began at the end of February, the United States has been furious with Israel for deciding to “sit on the fence” on this issue, and especially for its decision to stay away from the vote on UN General Assembly resolution 68/262, taken on March 27, entitled “Territorial Integrity of Ukraine.” The resolution affirmed the UN commitment to recognize Crimea as Ukraine’s sovereign territory, and the organization’s refusal to recognize the validity of the referendum held under Russian auspices in Crimea on its breaking away from Ukraine and joining the Russian Federation.
The resolution was passed by 100 states voting in favor, 11 against, 58 abstaining, and 24 – of which Israel was one – not present.
Israel first offered the feeble excuse that its representatives were absent because of the strike of Foreign Ministry employees, but several official and semi-official spokesmen admitted that the decision to stay away was a calculated one.
Among the explanations offered for the Israeli position were the fact that Israel does not wish to rub Russia the wrong way because of the Iranian and Syrian issues, with regard to which Russia plays a decisive role, and because it doesn’t want to endanger the Jewish population of Ukraine, even though some of the leaders of the Jewish community reportedly pleaded with the Israeli government to openly support the government in Kiev. Apparently Israel’s preference is that the remaining 100,000 Jews in Ukraine (down from close to half a million in 1989) should immigrate to Israel.
According to Russian sources, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu initiated a telephone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin last Tuesday night (April 15) in which the two discussed the Iranian nuclear negotiations, and the crisis in Ukraine.
However, it should also be noted that Netanyahu canceled a visit to St. Petersburg scheduled for June, where he was to have attended a gala concert with Putin in honor of Russian-Israeli cultural relations.
The US administration, which has several axes to grind with Netanyahu’s government, views the fact that Israel seems to be investing great effort into balancing its relations with the US and Russia, as ungrateful and disappointing at best, and disloyal at worst, given that it is the US which keeps providing Israel with full diplomatic backing in international forums, and continues to grant it $3 billion a year of military aid, while it is not at all clear what Russia has to offer Israel.
On April 13 the head of Defense Ministry’s political-security department, Maj. Gen.
(Res.) Amos Gilad explained in an interview with the IDF radio station (Galei Zahal) that Israel’s position on the situation in the Ukraine is based primarily on its national security concerns, which, he added, are not identical to those of the United States.
Fair enough, but what seems missing is a more general analysis of the broader meaning of the situation, which has much more far-reaching implications than Israel’s immediate security concerns.
Much too frequently Israel seems to forget that the lessons to be learned from the Jewish experience in the Holocaust – which are the cornerstone of its foreign policy – do not only include the words of the sage Hillel “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And when I am for myself, what am ‘I’? And if not now, then when?” but various general realpolitik and moral principles, which had they been pursued more vigorously by the Allies before the outbreak of World War II might well have helped mitigate the results of the Holocaust, or prevented its occurrence altogether.
Israel’s close relations with Apartheid South Africa, its refusal to recognize the Armenian genocide in order not to anger Turkey, its licentious arms sales policy (including sales to the government of Rwanda at the time that it was slaughtering the Tutsis), are some of the most marked examples of this amoral – some would say immoral – approach.
But back to the Ukrainian crisis. In 1922, Ukraine and Russia were two of the founding members of the USSR, and in December 1991 signed a treaty that terminated the union, recognized Ukrainian independence, and left over 11 million Russians under Ukrainian rule. Between these two dates Joseph Stalin created in the 1930s a deliberate famine in Ukraine (the Holodomor), and Nikita Khrushchev granted Crimea to Ukraine in 1954, to mention but two bizarre events in the history of the relations between the Russians and the Ukrainians.
Among Russia’s currently professed concerns are its wish to keep NATO and the EU as far away from its doorstep as possible (not unlike the US policy concerning the incursion of Communism and Soviet missiles into Cuba at the time of the Cold War), and the welfare of the Russian settlers who remained in many countries, which had formed part of the former Soviet Union and Soviet bloc. It should be noted that in many cases after 1990 Russians moved back into Russia, but large Russian minorities remain in numerous countries.
According to the latest official Ukrainian statistics, in 2001 there were over 8 million Russians in Ukraine (17.2 percent of the total population). In Kazakhstan the figure for 2009 was close to 4 million (23.7% of the population), in Latvia close to 6 million (26.9% of the population), and in Estonia around 326,000 (25.2% of the population).
However, one cannot avoid comparisons with Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Germany had legitimate geopolitical concerns, and there were 12 million Germans living in the newly independent states of post- World War I Eastern Europe, in addition to just over 6.5 million German-speaking Austrians. On these grounds there were many who felt Germany was justified in annexing Austria, and demanding the Sudetenland, with its 3 million Germans, from Czechoslovakia, which it was granted in 1938 on the basis of the infamous Munich Agreement. The only problem was that this was only the first step in the direction of additional German expansion, which finally resulted in the outbreak of World War II.
The question now is whether Russia today will stop with Crimea, and possibly additional territories in Eastern Ukraine in which there is a Russian majority. Furthermore, given the means Russia has used since 1990 to crush uprisings by minorities within its territory, its complaints about the treatment of the Russians in Eastern Ukraine, who are acting up with Russian encouragement and support, seems hypocritical and cynical.
Since no one denies that there are many Russians dreaming of reestablishing a Russian Empire of one sort or another, and that these include some of the men surrounding Putin, and possibly Putin himself, one cannot help making the comparison with pre-World War II Germany.
Though no Western government has said as much openly, many political commentators and journalists have. One of these is Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution and a former deputy secretary of state in the Clinton administration.
Doesn’t all this concern Israel? I believe it does. Do Israel’s genuine security concerns justify ignoring the broader issues? I believe that they do not. It is for this reason that Israel’s sitting on the fence with regard to the situation in the Ukraine is unacceptable, even if the Ukrainians are far from being saints, and even if the Americans weren’t pissed off with us.
The writer is a retired Knesset employee.