Should We Read The Middle East And Ukraine As A Single Narrative?
For the future of our world, neither the stakes in Ukraine nor Gaza should be underestimated. But understanding the limits of the comparison is important to trying to find a way out of each, says veteran French political scientist Dominique Moïsi.
PARIS — Two wars are being fought simultaneously on the borders of Europe. The genesis, location, and military maneuvers are very different, as are the actors involved. But Ukraine and Israel share a common rallying cry: their right to exist as an independent state.
To be sure, Ukraine defending itself against the Russian invasion isn't neatly comparable to Israel's war in Gaza after the October 7 Hamas attack. And yet, the relentless images of war relayed from these distant battlefields onto our screens look identical, almost merging, from a city destroyed by bombs to the massacre of innocents.
Is it Ukraine or Gaza? Is October 7 in southern Israel just Bucha multiplied by 10?
The worst of it is how we get used to these images. They seem, if not logical — how could they ever be — somehow inevitable: the product of a world hurtling into chaos.
In order to make sense of this chaotic world, it is essential to consider the war in Ukraine and the war in Gaza in parallel. Both conflicts are likely to spread, and both may last for a long time. Ukraine and Israel are also linked by a similar narrative.
Parallels pushed too far
First, we must repeat a word of caution: these parallels cannot be pushed too far. Russia's aggression is completely gratuitous. Nothing can explain it, other than Vladimir Putin's historical revisionism and fear of having on his borders a functioning democratic model that could, in the long term, destabilize his Russian brand of despotism.
In the case of Israel, the reality is more complex. Hamas isn't ultimately fighting for the Palestinian cause. Its ambitions are more ideological than nationalist. The fact remains that for the terrorist group, the Palestinian cause represents a particularly effective sounding board — and even a form of alibi, if not an excuse for its cult of barbarity.
Kyiv and Jerusalem are defending nothing less than their legitimacy and survival.
Neither Ukraine nor Israel can afford a defeat that could spell the end of their existence as sovereign and independent states. Russia denies Ukraine the right to exist, just like Hamas (and behind it Iran) with Israel. For Moscow, Ukrainians must return under Russia’s authority, which they should never have left. For Hamas, Israelis must cross back over the Mediterranean, with Jews forced to disappear from the region.
In short, what Kyiv and Jerusalem are defending is nothing less than their respective legitimacy and survival.
There is another similarity. Faced with an existential threat, the two countries are standing up against their adversaries with absolute unity and determination, even though their respective shows of resolve have triggered widely varying moral and emotional interpretations by the rest of the world. Their armies are popular in the true sense of the word, and they are entirely mobilized against the “enemy.”
Bitter Emotional Divorce
What is also certain is that the war in Gaza, even more than the war in Ukraine, reflects and deepens the emotional divide within our world. The Global South may have lamented the Russian invasion, but refused to clearly take a side. Ukrainians were the ones who were attacked and Russians were the aggressors, but for countries in the developing world, Western support for Kyiv contrasted painfully with the indifference it has showed when victims are neither white nor Christian nor European.
As for the new war in the Middle East, emotions may be even deeper and more intense. The images of Gaza suffering quickly replaced those of the October 7 massacres. How to show the un-showable? The bombings that kill indiscriminate victims among the civilian populations of Gaza have pushed the savagery of point-blank murders out of our collective mind.
In addition to the October 7 humiliation inflicted on the regional strongman Israel — perceived in the majority of countries of the Global South as the incarnation of “the West, plus” — a form of increasingly open anti-Semitism started to appear in many states with a Muslim majority. And not only.
Israel is thus seen as not only guilty of its actions — bombing civilian populations (in a spirit of revenge, at least as much as out of self-defense?) — but also of what it was, the Jewish State. The blunders of a section of the far left in France, which refused to condemn the Hamas attacks, provide a particularly revealing illustration of an ideological, or quite simply anti-Semitic, drift.
A young boy stands atop a destroyed Russian tank in Central Kyiv
Risks of a global conflict
The war in Ukraine may spread geographically to other countries in Europe. If we are to believe Putin, it could even trigger the first use of nuclear weapons since World War II. Atomic blackmail is anything but neutral. But unlike the war in Gaza, the war in Ukraine doesn’t carry the risk of violent clashes in Western cities. We must keep a cool head. Civil war is not around the corner, despite what some suggest on social media.
Hamas has given Putin's Russia a gift
In contrast, the longer the war lasts in Gaza, the higher the risks of the conflict expanding to the whole region. Threats of violent clashes around the world will also become more likely.
Beyond the similarities or differences between the war in Ukraine and the war in Gaza, one question remains: the potential competition between them.
Hamas has given Putin's Russia a gift by making the world turn its eyes away from Ukraine. And by forcing the U.S. to open a new front, and supply arms and ammunition support to two allies at the same time. This might provide a perfect opportunity for China to make a move (more or less brutally) on the South China Sea. Would Beijing take that gamble?
To be sure, Hamas's gift to Russia doesn’t mean that Moscow is the controlling force behind Iran, as some analysts argue. It took Hamas almost two years to prepare an operation of this scale, meaning that it set its plot in motion even before the war in Ukraine began.
Believing the theory that Moscow is the puppeteer directing Tehran would mean bestowing it with a level of strategic thinking, however diabolical, that it is almost certainly incapable of. The fact remains that the longer the two conflicts last, the more dangerous our world becomes.
What is certain right now is that we cannot favor one front at the expense of the other.
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