Zelensky Should Cancel His Visit To Israel Right Now
KYIV — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's planned visit to Israel on Tuesday was postponed after a weekend leak that revealed details of his arrival. Reports suggest that Zelensky remains eager to travel to Tel Aviv to express support for the Jewish state amidst the ongoing conflict.
This risks becoming the President's most significant foreign policy blunder since the start of the Russian invasion.
While an emotional rationale could be used to justify the visit to Israel, on a strategic and rational level, there are multiple reasons it could jeopardize the diplomatic efforts the Ukrainian government has invested in over the past decade — and that are crucial for defending against the Russian invasion.
A month is a long time
One month ago, on October 7, the world was shocked by news from Israel, where armed Hamas militants launched a large-scale terrorist attack on Jewish settlements in the southern part of the country.
There can be no excuse for the actions of terrorists. This is a widely accepted and undeniable truth recognized by the entire civilized world, and the events of that day served as a clear illustration of it. In response, numerous foreign leaders and diplomatic missions promptly expressed their support for Israel and sympathy for its people. Ukraine was among those, with an unequivocal statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a personal conversation between President Zelensky and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
However, the situation has evolved significantly over the past month. A massive Israeli air and ground operation is underway , which have sparked concerns and criticisms around the world. Thus the Middle East conflict is no longer as clear-cut as it may have appeared a month ago.
The question is this: should Ukraine publicly declare its support for the current actions of the Israeli government and military? That is exactly how a visit by the president to a country at war would be interpreted.
President Zelensky does exercise the authority to determine Ukraine's foreign policy, a mandate granted by the Ukrainian people in 2019 and enshrined in the Constitution. Yet it is crucially important for him to be aware that such a decision could potentially have significant repercussions for Ukraine .
Kyiv's Middle East policy
First and foremost, Ukraine risks undermining its Middle East policy objectives.
Even prior to the outbreak of the conflict with Russia, Kyiv had been working on restoring its relationships with Middle Eastern nations, even if these efforts had not been entirely sufficient.
In 2022, this task took on critical importance due to the bilateral relations involved. Without the support of Middle Eastern states, it is challenging, if not nearly impossible, to build a global coalition in alignment with Ukraine's vision of achieving peace and victory in the war against Russia. Leaders from the Arab and Muslim world can exert significant influence over other nations, particularly in Africa and Asia.
Support for Kyiv support is not guaranteed indefinitely — it must be continually earned.
It is essential to acknowledge that significant progress has been made in this regard over the past 18 months. The tireless efforts of numerous individuals have paved the way for dialogue with several regional capitals. This has yielded tangible results, both in official announcements (e.g., China's participation in a meeting on the "peace formula" in Jeddah, which was made possible with Saudi mediation ) and behind-the-scenes dealings (important military supplies from Gulf states, albeit not widely publicized).
By aligning itself with Israel in the current conflict, Ukraine risks jeopardizing these hard-earned gains. Such a choice would be unacceptable for Arab states. Therefore, relying on the expectation of maintaining their level of support following President Zelensky's visit would be shortsighted and naive.
October 18, 2023, Jerusalem: British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prior to a bilateral meeting on the Hamas attacks against Israel.
Simon Walker/Uk Prime/Planet Pix/ZUMA
What will Turkey say?
Israel's invasion of Gaza has also raised eyebrows among other international partners. The European Union has been increasingly critical of the Israeli government's conduct during the recent phase of the conflict, and for good reason. However, it's important to note that within Europe, there isn't a unified stance on the Israeli-Palestinian issue , which allows Ukraine, even as a candidate state, to maintain a certain level of flexibility without deviating from the European Union's common foreign policy.
On the other hand, the situation with Turkey is more straightforward. In recent weeks, President Erdogan has adopted a more radical stance , and this shift has been mirrored by Turkish society. The conflict in Gaza is not perceived there merely as Israel's war against Hamas, but as an Israeli-Palestinian conflict where the Israeli military is viewed as the aggressor and occupier, engaging in actions seen as barbaric and indiscriminate killings of Muslims. To millions of Turks, any state supporting the aggressor is seen as endorsing international war crimes.
Before President Volodymyr Zelensky's visit to Israel, he must ask himself a critical question: Is he willing to risk Ukraine's relationship with Turkey for a meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu? Zelensky is well aware that Ankara's official stance regarding the Russian-Ukrainian war is delicate, and support for Kyiv support is not guaranteed indefinitely — it must be continually earned.
A question of values
There's another point that is no less important: we need to consider not only our interests, but also our values. Ukraine has consistently emphasized that human rights and international law are paramount. This steadfast position forms the foundation of our resistance to the Russian invasion, helps us cultivate global support, and should ultimately lead to international repercussions for the aggressor state and its current leadership.
In the first hours and days after October 7, when Hamas militants killed more than 1,000 innocent civilians , it was this principled stance that garnered support for Israel. The crimes committed by Hamas are undeniable, and the early global backing for Israel was well-founded, which included visits by Western leaders to Israel , one after another after Zelensky reminded the world how important such shows of support had been to Ukraine.
However, all these visits came to a halt on October 25, as the IDF was set to launch its ground operation in Gaza. From that point, the situation became increasingly complex. The number of civilian casualties rose sharply (while the data is imprecise, international organizations concur that the number of deceased children runs into the thousands).
Fewer people are now willing to endorse the actions of Israel. Even the United States is now discreetly engaging with Netanyahu to advocate for a change in tactics, as demonstrated by Secretary of State Antony Blinken's repeated visits to the Middle East.
It is undeniable at this stage of the conflict that Israel is seen as violating international law, and the actions of the IDF are "no longer proportionate" even to the horrible attacks of Oct. 7.
November 7, 2023: People conduct rescue work on a residential building destroyed in an Israeli strike in the southern Gaza Strip city of Khan Younis.
Would a visit to Israel bring any benefits?
So, why should Kyiv go against the prevailing global sentiment and express complete solidarity with Israel?
It's crucial to emphasize that the points made here do not equate to endorsing the administration of Gaza or supporting the policies of Hamas. As previously stated, the terrorist group's attacks cannot be justified. Period.
But in this war, there is no absolute right or wrong. The situation is far from black and white . Yes, the Israeli government was left with no choice but to launch an anti-terrorist operation. But the nature and scale of that operation are instead a point of debate.
Emotions may be good in rallying a nation in war, but are an unreliable guide in foreign policy.
None of this means that Ukraine should take sides, risking its neutrality on the world stage and jeopardizing support from its international partners.
There are simply no practical benefits or advantages to gain from a Zelensky trip to Jerusalem. It will not lead Israel to change its policy of refraining from supplying Ukraine with weapons , even after Netanyahu's departure from power. This is partially due to Israel's own future need for weapons, particularly air defense systems, which Ukraine is seeking.
Additionally, this visit will not alter the stance of the United States, the primary power that remains a staunch ally of the Israeli government. Ukrainian skeptics in Washington have different demands, focusing on reforms and accountability from Kyiv rather than a shift in foreign policy.
Head over heart
So, how did President Zelensky come to the decision to visit Israel?
Perhaps the most plausible explanation may stem from his emotional support for Israel, a sentiment that he doesn't conceal. Furthermore, it aligns with the president's tendency to make decisions based on intuition , even when his team holds different viewpoints.
It's hard to believe that the diplomat Andriy Sybiga, who previously served as the ambassador to Turkey and has a keen understanding of the potential risks in that direction, would have been in favor of this trip. It's equally unlikely that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs supported the idea, especially after changing its tone in mid-October to emphasize the necessity of reducing civilian casualties in Palestine. Andriy Yermak, who oversees the Middle East affairs, probably isn't thrilled with the possibility of jeopardizing these diplomatic gains either.
We must remember that emotions may be good in rallying a nation in war, but are an unreliable guide in foreign policy. That is particularly true for Ukraine, where the maintenance of external support is vital for its very survival.
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