Middle Israel: Can Israel be neutral on Ukraine?

The Jewish state has diplomatic, geographic, economic – and Jewish – reasons to shun the international arena’s hottest flash point.

Pro-Russian supporters in Ukraine attend a rally in the Crimea. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Pro-Russian supporters in Ukraine attend a rally in the Crimea.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Bored by life in the opposition and missing his previous career’s action, Moshe Dayan decided to go to Vietnam, take a close look at what then was the world’s only major war, and report his impressions in several newspapers.
The Americans – still confident of their victory – rolled out the red carpet for the celebrated general as he landed in Saigon, showing him whatever he wished, from close-range fighting to large-scale deployments, and showering him with briefings, tours and dinners with assorted generals, including the war’s commander, Gen. William Westmoreland.
Jerusalem, however, was less enthusiastic.
Responding to protestations in the Knesset, even from Dayan’s own Rafi faction, over a famous Israeli personality arguably taking sides in the conflict, foreign minister Abba Eban told the plenary he could not stop a private citizen from traveling wherever he wished. The Jewish state, however, had elaborate and sensitive interests in Asia, and “would welcome any effort that would lead to opening negotiations for a settlement of just peace in this conflict.”
This was 1966, when the IDF’s main weaponry was European, and American aid was modest and strictly civilian. Israel, in short, owed America a lot less than it owes it today. Then again, Israel’s current response to the steadily escalating conflict between Russia and Ukraine smacks of the same reluctance to take sides displayed during the Vietnam War.
The only difference is that now there are many more reasons – global, regional and Jewish – to shun the international system’s hottest flash point.
THE UKRAINIAN situation deteriorated twice this week. First, when the interim government in Kiev ordered, for the first time since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, military action, and secondly, when the pro-Russian secessionist euphoria spread beyond Ukraine, to Moldova.
With 40,000 Russian troops mobilized on its eastern border, and challenged by ethnic Russian militias roaming its eastern cities, Ukraine ordered a military operation. Retaking an airport lost previously to pro-Russian militias, it initially seemed as if the Ukrainians have a plan and know what they are doing.
However, what was initially trumpeted as a Ukrainian “offensive” soon proved hollow, when a lightly armored column was stopped in its tracks by unarmed pro-Russian civilians.
The seizure, at the same time, of Ukrainian armored vehicles elsewhere, and their display in the town of Slovyansk a day before three Russians were killed in a skirmish with Ukrainian forces, all raised fears that a bloody clash was but a matter of time. The roars of Ukrainian fighter jets above the flatlands east of the Dnieper River served as a reminder that, whether in terms of its size or resources, Ukraine is not Georgia.
If hostilities flare, the Red Army will sooner or later be seriously challenged, and fighting might be fierce and also protracted.
The West, meanwhile, remained perplexed.
As American, European and Ukrainian diplomats prepared to hold talks with Russia Thursday, US President Barack Obama again blamed the crisis on Moscow, but when asked to shift from rhetoric to action he failed to deliver more than the vague vow that each Russian attempt to “destabilize” Ukraine will bear “consequences.”
In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was not much more specific when he said the American- led alliance will reinforce its presence along its eastern frontiers – apparently referring to NATO members Poland, Slovakia, Romania and Hungary, all former Warsaw Pact members bordering Ukraine.
Rasmussen had hardly finished his statement when fresh developments again exposed the West as responding to events rather than shaping them. In Moldova, the former Soviet republic of 3.5 million abutting southwestern Ukraine, the regional parliament of Transnistria formally asked Russia to recognize its secession.
A forlorn land where streets are still named after Marx and Lenin and the flag still sports the hammer and sickle, this esoteric province’s separatism would ordinarily inspire political parodies like Peter Sellers’s The Mouse that Roared or Woody Allen’s Bananas.
But these are not ordinary times, and Transnistria’s Russian longings raise suspicions of a grand plot, one masterminded in the Kremlin and aimed at reassembling some of the dismantled Soviet Union, if even gradually, piecemeal, and by what will be presented as demand from below.
In itself, Moldova may still seem marginal for Westerners, but the next candidate for such secessionist emasculation is Latvia, a NATO member more than twice the size of Belgium with a sizable Russian-speaking population directly opposite Stockholm, across the Baltic.
In short, at stake is a major clash between Europe and Russia, a confrontation in which America has taken sides hastily and now expects its allies to follow it as it stumbles further into this European fray.
The Jewish state, it appears, is politely rejecting this demand.
THERE WAS a brief moment during Israel’s infancy when it toyed with the idea of assuming a policy of neutrality between East and West. That quest quickly proved unrealistic, as the Arab states loomed prominently in what became the nonaligned bloc, while the Jewish state could fit nowhere but in the West, whether in terms of its ideals, economy or diplomacy.
That is why even during the Korean War, when David Ben-Gurion turned down a request to send troops to fight alongside the US-led international force, Israel did send the South medicines and food, even though the Jewish state was at the time so strapped that it rationed bread, milk and eggs.
By 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, Israel had not even that minimal maneuver space.
Whereas America had by then become the IDF’s main supplier, Moscow had severed ties with Jerusalem following the Six Day War and emerged as the center of anti-Israeli gravity, whether in terms of its diplomacy, propaganda, arms exports, emigration policy or oppression of the Jewish faith. It therefore went without saying, when the US decided to boycott the Moscow Olympics of 1980, that Israel would do the same as Uncle Sam.
Today’s situation is different in just about every aspect.
First, Russia is not anti-Israel. Not only are relations between Jerusalem and Moscow normal, in many ways they are even warm. Traffic between the two countries is free and hectic, Russia has become Israel’s major oil supplier, it is a potentially deep destination for Israeli exports and the two countries are in the process of finalizing a free-trade agreement.
Then there is the Jewish aspect.
Though a million Jews have left, both Russia and Ukraine remain home to sizable Jewish communities.
According to last year’s World Jewish Population Survey there were 255,000 Jews in Russia and Ukraine, about a quarter of them in Ukraine.
Counting semi-Jews, as Israel must do, the number multiplies.
The Jewish state is therefore calculating its treatment of the Ukrainian conflict in a way that considers the fate of the Jews on both its sides.
Israel’s normalization of its ties with Russia is a major strategic asset, the happy aftermath of an epic struggle that was led jointly by Israeli leaders, American statesmen and the Jewish Diaspora. Barack Obama was too young to experience this hard-won struggle, but in Israel it is etched in every political mind, certainly that of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who joined that struggle as an ambassador at the UN, not to mention Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, who was born and raised in Soviet Moldova.
Then there is the Middle East.
The past three years’ upheaval across the Arab world has for now resulted in increased Russian presence and diminishing American prestige. Obama’s failed gambles in Egypt, where he chased Mubarak from power and then failed to avert the Muslim Brotherhood’s removal, have resulted in previously unthinkable arms deals between Cairo and Moscow.
Meanwhile, the unfulfilled threat to hit Syria if it uses chemical weapons has further enhanced Russia’s position, as Bashar Assad’s loyal and efficient sponsor.
Faced with such a Russian comeback, Israel would be foolhardy to squander its hard-earned relations with post-Communist Russia.
Lastly, there is geography.
The New York Times’s columnist Tom Friedman last week recalled that back in 1998 former US ambassador to Moscow George Kennan decried NATO’s expansion, arguing the US was mindlessly provoking Russia and committing to defend countries it did not intend to defend.
Kennan, who died last decade at age 99, did not live to see this, but current events vindicate him. America is now embroiled in distant Ukraine, and should the conflict spill into one of its NATO neighbors, Washington will be even deeper in distant East European squabbles where it does not naturally belong.
Israel’s situation is the opposite of America’s: Ukraine is close, and Israel is not involved. This, then, is the background against which Israel avoided participating in last month’s UN General Assembly vote that condemned Russia’s annexation of Crimea, with a majority of 100 to 11, and 58 abstentions.
Neutrality in this conflict seems for now Israel’s only plausible choice, and Jerusalem apparently expected Washington to understand this, as indeed does the Israeli opposition, where no one has so far attacked this policy, not even Meretz chairperson and human-rights champion Zehava Gal-On, with or without connection to her own arrival here, as a child, from Soviet Lithuania.
That is also why Netanyahu, in a phone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week, reiterated Israel’s hope that the conflict in the Ukraine would be peacefully resolved – just as Abba Eban once said of Vietnam.