Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy told reporters last year that he wanted his country to become a “‘big Israel’ with its own face” after the Russian invasion ends, stressing that security would likely be the main issue in Ukraine during the postwar period.
Zelenskyy, who is Jewish, was drawing supposedly some parallels between the future of Ukraine and contemporary Israel, where the images of soldiers and armed civilians are commonplace, and the government invokes security frequently.
The Ukrainian president stressed that his vision for his country’s post-conflict future included having armed forces in “all institutions, supermarkets, cinemas, there will be people with weapons.”
And he has on several occasions stressed the importance of maintaining close ties with Israel, which he hailed as a model for Ukraine.
“I am sure that our security issue will be number one in the next 10 years,” Zelenskyy said, dismissing the idea that postwar Ukraine would emulate a liberal European democracy such as Switzerland as a model. He said that the Ukrainian people “will be our great army.”
But at the same time, Zelenskyy insisted that notwithstanding its security challenges Ukraine would remain a functioning democracy like Israel. However, he said that, like the Jewish state, Ukraine would not be “absolutely liberal, European”; it would have to undertake a different modus operandi that reflects its unique geo-political situation.
“Ukraine will definitely not be what we wanted it to be from the beginning. It is impossible,” he told members of the Ukrainian media during a briefing. “Absolutely liberal, European – it will not be like that. It [Ukraine] will definitely come from the strength of every house, every building, every person.”
But the bottom line, he stressed, was that Ukraine would not slide into authoritarianism like Russia, adding: “An authoritarian state would lose to Russia. People know what they are fighting for,” he said. Ukraine, he stressed, represented Western democratic values as it faced a threat to its existence from an anti-Western authoritarian regime that dominated the neighborhood.
Indeed, Zelenskyy has been employing the Israeli model of a modern and progressive democratic nation, representing the values and interests of the West, fighting for its survival against a ruthless and corrupt dictatorship that seeks to destroy it.
Like Israeli prime minister Benjamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu, a former furniture salesman, Zelenskyy, a former comedian, has emerged an effective global marketing operator. He is telegenic and charismatic, fluent in American English, and familiar with the cultural codes of the Western elites’ political Zeitgeist.
And if Bibi, as some suggested, has tried to turn Israel into the fifty-first state of the United States, “Vlodko,” it seems at times, is hoping that his country was next in line to become the fifty-second state: A symbol of democratic values in a hostile region, with its educated population and an advanced economy, that could turn into another start-up nation, with a large and powerful diaspora, all translated into American congressional and public support.
Ironically, Israel, reflecting its complex ties with Russia—that for all practical purposes now maintains a protectorate in neighboring Syria—has resisted pleas from Kyiv for advanced weaponry. Air defense systems, in particular, have not been forthcoming and Israel has remained neutral in the war between Russia and Ukraine.
But the notion that Ukraine will try to be “like Israel” may not sound so farfetched. For instance, like the Jewish State, Ukraine enjoys wide public support among Americans and their representatives on Capitol Hill, who believe that the Ukrainians, like the Israelis, are “like them,” while the Russians, like the Arabs, are the detested “other.”
And, indeed, like in the case of Israel, Ukraine’s efforts to position itself as a natural ally of Washington, in both interests and values, has been accepted as a diplomatic axiom by powerful American foreign policy forces. Both Republican neoconservatives as well as many “conservative nationalists” on the political Right, and by liberal internationalists who dominate the thinking among Democrats, including the one currently occupying the White House, have come on board.
For many Americans, the notion of an alliance with Israel is accepted today as a given, one more example of how history is seen sometimes as moving in a linear direction (“tides of history”). But much of what happens in international relations is less a reflection of the wisdom of history and more contingent on unexpected developments, or for that matter, cannot be explained by what political scientists refer to as a “rational actor model.” Instead, it is a product of clashes between personalities, bureaucratic rivalries, and Niccolo Machiavelli’s fortuna, those circumstances which human beings cannot control, and in particular, the character of the times.
From that perspective, the American relationship with Israel evolved not as part of an effort to protect or advance U.S. national interests in the Middle East. In fact, the members of the Washington foreign policy establishment, led by then-Secretary of State George Marshall, had opposed U.S. recognition of Israel in 1948 based on the consideration that Americans needed to win the support of the Arab states, in particular the Gulf oil-producing nations, to strategically protect Western interests at the onset of the Cold War with the Soviet Union (as well as out of fears that the United States could be drawn into an Arab-Israeli war).
Much has been said and written about the reasons that then-President Harry Truman rejected Marshall’s advice and established ties with the newly created Israel. Suffice to note that his decision was driven by the same reasons that large segments of the American public and elites supported Zionism at the time, which include Christian attachment to the Promised Land and the People of the Book, the impact of the European Holocaust and the plight of the Jewish refugees fleeing postwar Europe, and the existence of a politically active Jewish community.
Yet the United States had imposed an arms embargo on Israel until the early 1960s and clashed with Israel over numerous issues, including its decision to join France and Britain in attacking Egypt in 1956, forcing it to withdraw its troops from Sinai, as well as over its conflict with the pro-American Jordan, and later on, over its development of nuclear military power.
And when it came to values, Israel was ruled during its early years by a socialist government and elite that only reluctantly decided to support the American side during the Korean War.
Hence the notion of an “alliance” between the United States and Israel only started to make sense after the 1967 Six Day War, and the launching of a pre-emptive Israeli military strike against Egypt after receiving a “yellow” light from then President Lyndon Johnson to take action. Driven by U.S. support for Israel, anti-Americanism in the Arab World reached its peak during the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the ensuing oil embargo against the United States.
Notwithstanding all the talk about Israel’s being America’s “strategic asset” in the Middle East during the Cold War, the military contribution of the Jewish state to America’s victory over the Soviet Union was marginal, mostly by protecting Jordan against outside threats and sharing critical intelligence.
If anything, in addition to igniting anti-American sentiments in the Arab and the Muslim World during the Cold War, American support for Israel brought the United States and USSR to the brink of nuclear conflict during the Yom Kippur War and forced the United States into costly military interventions in the Middle East, like in the aftermath of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
But if you were a Zionist who believed that Israel’s survival aligned with America’s sense of its own history and identity, like the majority of Congressional Democrats and Republicans and most Americans did, the suggestions that support for Israel failed to align with Realpolitik-based considerations or that Israel wasn’t a perfect democracy were beside the point. Those sentiments were demonstrated by the massive military and economic assistance Washington has provided Jerusalem through the years and its unyielding diplomatic backing for Israel.
Therefore, although Zelenskyy may recognize that Realpolitik may dictate limits on the U.S. support for Ukraine, a scenario exists in which the United States, like in the case of Israel, is gradually drawn into an alliance of sorts with Kyiv that goes beyond just trying to re-establish the status quo that existed before Russia’s invasion.
Like the Arab-Israeli conflict, the long-standing conflict between Ukraine and Russia over issues related to national rights, ethnic identity, borders, and sovereignty does not touch directly upon American interests or even values, involving issues like who should control the West Bank or for that matter, Crimea.
But then Israel and its American supporters have been successful in gaining U.S. support for its positions in the conflict with the Arabs, including its refusal to allow the 1947 Arab refugees to return to Israel proper, and most recently, in the decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital as well its annexation of the Golan Heights. Hence, perhaps Kyiv could win American backing for its demand that it, and not Russia, rightfully controls Crimea.
Indeed, Zelenskyy hopes that in the same way that the majority of Americans continue to instinctively side with Israel and lack sympathy for the Arab side, most Americans would feel the same about the conflict between the Ukrainians and the Russians.