I’m not sure who would be more insulted by the comparison, but this week Natfali Bennett reminded me of Jeremy Corbyn.
Just look at the words of the two men, when confronted by evidence of Russian war crimes committed in the Ukrainian town of Bucha. Israel’s prime minister said: “We are of course shocked by the terrible sights at Bucha — awful scenes — and we strongly condemn them. The suffering of Ukrainian citizens is immense, and we’re doing everything we can to assist.”
And here’s the former leader of the Labour party: “The horrific discovery of mass graves in Bucha must be investigated and those responsible held accountable. There must be an urgent and immediate ceasefire in Ukraine to end the bloodshed that has already taken so many lives.”
Can you spot the two words missing from both statements? One is “Russia” and the other is “Putin.” Both the onetime leader of Jewish settlers in the West Bank and the MP for Islington North were at pains to tiptoe around the question of who exactly had bound the hands of civilians in Bucha before shooting them dead, leaving their corpses to rot in the streets.
We can speculate why Corbyn might want to avoid saying it was Russian forces that had occupied Bucha, but Bennett is the more intriguing case. He is the prime minister of a country that prides itself on being part of the western alliance, which has shown a remarkable degree of unity in opposing Vladimir Putin’s attempted invasion of Ukraine.
What’s more, Israel’s chief strategic partner is the United States — and the US has happily placed itself at the head of the global anti-Putin coalition, led by a president who does not hesitate to brand Putin a “war criminal” and a “thug” who has no business being in power. Why on earth would an Israeli PM be reticent when it comes to naming names?
It’s not so that he can play mediator between Moscow and Kyiv: Bennett had already decided not to take a stand against Russia, long before any question of acting as a go-between had arisen. Instead, the answer, in the words of Yonit Levi, my Israeli co-host for our weekly podcast Unholy, is that Israel is caught between dad (Joe Biden) and evil step-dad (Putin). Of course, the more natural affinity is with America. But Israel believes it has to tread carefully around Russia, which is a dominant player in its back yard. It’s the Russian military that makes the weather in neighbouring Syria, allowing Israeli fighter jets to carry out strikes against Iranian or pro-Iranian targets in the country.
Even if Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky cannot accept that logic, it’s not obvious why he should be that bothered by Israel’s refusal to pick a side. After all, Israel is a small country. It’s not a member of Nato or the EU; it’s not a big economic player in his region. Zelensky may be disappointed that Israel has failed to impose sanctions on Moscow or that Israel’s finance minister, Avigdor Lieberman, could only say of Bucha that Russia and Ukraine have been exchanging “mutual accusations”, and that Israel condemns “all war crimes”. But why should he care what one tiny nation in the Middle East thinks?
Except Zelensky does care. That’s been clear from the start. After the 24 February invasion, one of the Ukrainian president’s first appeals was aimed at Israel and the world’s Jews. He addressed Israel’s parliament before France’s. Revered as a hero across the planet, backed by scores of the world’s nations, Ukraine’s leader nevertheless craves the support of Israel. He desperately wants Israel to be Kyiv’s unequivocal ally.
Part of the explanation is that Ukraine’s Jewish president is pro-Israel, and in quite an old-fashioned way. For several years, he did an annual comedy tour of Israel, playing to sell-out crowds of Russian and Ukrainian speakers, with the last shows in Haifa, Tel Aviv and Ashdod in 2018. This week he told Ukrainian journalists that, when the war is over, Ukraine “will become a ‘big Israel’ with its own face” with “representatives of the Armed Forces or the National Guard in cinemas, supermarkets.” In post-war Ukraine, he predicted, security will be the number one issue, just as it is in Israel.
But part of it is that Zelensky sees Israel as custodian of the memory of the Holocaust, and he has drawn on that history throughout this war, casting Putin in the role of Hitler and, to many Israelis’ irritation, Ukrainians as the Jews. When he spoke to the Knesset, his theme was that Putin wanted a “final solution” to the Ukrainian question. He clearly believes his case will have greater force if Israel is on board.
You don’t have to buy that reasoning to know that Zelensky is right to urge Israel to come off the fence. As Israel’s former prime minister, Ehud Barak, put it on Unholy last week: “Not choosing sides is a grave mistake.” Does Israel really want to stand alongside Belarus, Syria, Iran and China, as one of the countries that cannot point the finger at Putin?
Strategically that makes little sense and morally it is indefensible. Russia is committing great crimes in Ukraine, acts of wickedness that will be remembered for generations. There can be no neutrality in the face of such horror. That, Zelensky believes, is the lesson of the Jewish experience. The leaders of the world’s only Jewish country should need no prompting to see that for themselves.