Last Tuesday, the Ukrainian president Volodomyr Zelesnky declared that, when the war in Ukraine is finally over, his country will emerge as “a big Israel.” Lahav Harkov suggests that Zelensky meant, in part, that Ukraine will learn to “view its neighbors the way Israel has long viewed its own: as enemies waiting to pounce.” Harkov also highlights the significance of Zelensky’s repeated requests that Russians and Ukrainians meet in Jerusalem—not Washington, London, or Brussels—to hash out a peace agreement, and the difficult situation in which the war has put Israel.
On the one hand, the Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid has repeatedly condemned Russia’s attacks, and on Tuesday, while discussing the Bucha massacre, he accused Russia of “war crimes.” On the other, [Prime Minister Naftali] Bennett has only expressed a more general sorrow about the loss of life. Reacting to the slaughter at Bucha, the Israeli prime minister said, “We are shocked by what we see in Bucha, horrible images, and we condemn them”—but he refrained from explicitly condemning Russia or Putin.
How did Israel end up walking this tightrope? In part, it’s because Israel exists to be a safe haven for Jews everywhere, and there are still nearly half a million in Ukraine and Russia. Israel wants to make sure it doesn’t alienate Putin—and complicate things for the Jewish community in his country. (Since the war began, over 10,000 Jews have applied to immigrate to Israel from Russia. The country has prepared to absorb as many as 100,000 refugees.)
But the bigger reason is waning American hegemony.
America’s post-Iraq war exhaustion with the Middle East led Israel to begin to see what Ukraine has just discovered: that it cannot rely on the assurances of an America that has turned inward—and away from the rest of the world. As the United States backed away from its “red line” in Syria and pursued a nuclear deal widely viewed in Israel as an existential threat, the former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu shifted Israel away from relying on the vaunted special relationship, forging new ones with China, India, and Russia, among others. Israel’s position in the Ukraine war has brought the Jewish state’s new geopolitical reality into stark relief.