Washington Watch: Ukraine’s lessons for Israel

Ukrainians feel they can relate to Israel. Russian troops and enemies are massed at the borders. Many Ukrainians we encountered were worried about Russia occupying the eastern part of their country

Benjamin Netanyahu visiting Ukraine (photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
Benjamin Netanyahu visiting Ukraine
(photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
I just returned from Ukraine, where grandparents of mine and of my wife left a century ago for the “goldene medina,” America. Today, a small remnant of a large Jewish population remains in a country where Yiddish was once an official language spoken by a third of the population; it even appeared on the nation’s currency. The first thing I noticed on entering the terminal after landing in Odessa was numerous signs in Hebrew.
The place I visited before leaving Kiev was Babi Yar, the ravine where, 78 years ago this month, on the eve of the High Holy Days, 33,771 Jews plus thousands of Roma, homosexuals, Soviet POWs and others were massacred, their bodies dumped in a slash in the earth. Another 100,000 people were murdered there by the end of the war.
The Nazis and then the Soviets tried to cover up – literally – what happened to the Jews there, but today it is a memorial to the victims and a poignant reminder of the past. The country’s Jewish population is but a fraction of prewar times, but to the astonishment of the world it has a Jewish prime minister, Volodymyr Groysman, and a Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky.
People I met in Odessa, Dnipro, Zaporishzhia, Kherson and elsewhere wanted me to know about their Jewish president, their Holocaust memorials and synagogues. They also liked reminding us that Golda Meir was born in Ukraine.
Many Israelis visit Ukraine every year; over 200,000 Jews have immigrated to Israel since 1990, and many more have roots there. As many as 400,000 Jews still live in Ukraine. The two countries have good political, economic and tourism relations.
Ukrainians feel they can relate to Israel. Russian troops and enemies are massed at the borders. Many Ukrainians we encountered were worried about Russia occupying the eastern part of their country and trying to gobble up the rest of it. One told me their new tourism slogan should be “Visit Ukraine before Putin does.”
Their anxiety about Putin’s designs on their country is real and exacerbated by Donald Trump’s recent actions. They know of his admiration for the Russian leader and want to know why the American president was withholding nearly $400 million in congressionally appropriated military assistance needed for their defense.
After returning to Washington I found out why. Trump was apparently using military aid to a vulnerable and threatened country to coerce it into digging up dirt for him to use against a political rival. A week before phoning Zelensky, Trump ordered the aid package held back, The New York Times and The Washington Post reported Monday night.
Zelensky is under intense pressure from Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and the president’s lawyer-fixer Rudy Giuliani to dig up dirt on Joseph Biden and his son, Hunter, that could be used against the former vice president’s pursuit of the Democratic presidential nomination.
Zelensky needs a buffer to Russia – American and European arms and backing – and Trump knows that and is using it to blackmail him into doing his political dirty work.
Trump made it clear in the 2016 campaign that he wanted “Russia if you’re listening” to help dig up dirt on his opponent, Hillary Clinton, and this year told George Stephanopoulos on ABC TV that he’s willing to take any information about his opponents from any foreign source, friend or foe.
This year he’s chosen Ukraine, and he appears willing to resort to bribery and extortion to force cooperation. Trump’s MO is clear: any potential opponent will get the full “corrupt” smear from the president, Rudy, Fox News and their allies. And facts be damned.
The Wall Street Journal – owned by Trump’s friend and ally Rupert Murdoch – reported that the president pressed Zelensky eight times in a July phone call to investigate the Bidens. Trump finally admitted he raised the subject but insists he made no threats.
It is worth noting here that current and previous Ukrainian officials have consistently said there is no evidence Biden or his son had broken any of the country’s laws. CNN reported: “Fact-checkers have already debunked Trump’s claims” about the Bidens.
Zelensky knows of Trump’s admiration for Putin and that a volatile American president can threaten to tell his friend in Moscow that he doesn’t care what happens in Ukraine.
THERE IS a lesson in this for Israel. It is not a weak and vulnerable country like Ukraine with a powerful, aggressive neighbor chomping away at its territory, but it could be vulnerable to the angry whims of a vindictive American president.
In the past, presidents have threatened to cut aid to Israel and have even halted delivery of arms, but today it would be much more subtle than the 1980s.
The pressure would more likely come in the form of limits on intelligence sharing, weakening support at international organizations, elusive White House meetings, fewer joint military exercises, cutbacks on technology sharing.
Trump has other options as well. He is anxious to meet with the Iranians, though, so far, they’re waiting for more than a photo-op, and Trump has long claimed he can negotiate a better nuclear deal with Tehran than Barack Obama. That rapprochement would cause great heartburn in Jerusalem.
There’s also the possibility of an agreement with Russia limiting Israel’s freedom of action in going after Iranian forces in Syria.
Picture this. Trump finally launches his “Deal of the Century” for Middle East peace and it lands with a dull thud. The Palestinians have preemptively rejected it, and most Arab leaders object because there’s no provision for a Palestinian state. The Israelis know flattery is what Trump craves, so they’ll praise him, say it’s nice and they’re ready to make peace, but nothing can happen until the other side meets Israeli demands.
And if it is like all the other peace plans, it will wither and die from neglect. But Trump has been billing this as his great foreign policy goal, his legacy, his son-in-law’s gift to the Jewish people, and he doesn’t want to go into the 2020 election with the aura of failure on his much-ballyhooed art of the peace deal.
If he wants results, the only party he has clout with is Israel.
Not known for his subtlety, Trump still has options that don’t involve a Reagan-Bush-Ford frontal assault that the Congress can easily reverse. Don’t forget, for Donald Trump, loyalty is a one-way street.