Israeli politics, the Palestinian struggle and the war in Ukraine: what is going on?

There is a strong leaning here, in Israel, among both Jews and Palestinians, toward the Ukrainian cause. The problem is only the point from which someone supports it, the paranoid anti-NATO stance of the Communist party, and cynical right-wing Jewish politicians –  says Ofer Neiman, an Israeli left activist involved in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

Ofer Neiman is an Israeli citizen. He is active in the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign for equal rights to Palestinians. Ofer is a freelance translator and he lives in West Jerusalem.

How would you describe the way of depicting the war in Ukraine there in Israel? The question seems important to me especially in the context of the quiet huge Russian-speaking minority, having their own independent media, and not really integrated into general cultural environment of the country… 

In terms of integration – the younger generations are well integrated, there is a significant older generation which is not. They have their own media assets, publishing in Russian. But even taking this into consideration – my impression is that most of these people support Ukraine.

I think it is important to note here that a lot of Jews come from the former Soviet republics, and in fact the majority of Russian-speaking Jews come from Ukraine. It is related to Tsarist law that prohibited Jewish colonization in the Eastern parts of European Russian Empire. Jews were only allowed to live in what is today Belarus and Ukraine, and some parts of Southern Russia.

However, there are also people in Israel – a minority – that support Putin. Few weeks ago we had a pro-Russian demonstration, in which around a few hundred people took part. They were quite scary. One of them said that Zelenski might be Jewish, but he has a Nazi soul.

But, as I said, the demonstrations supporting Ukraine were much more popular. 

And when it comes to portraying the war in the media…

I don’t know what’s going on in Russian-speaking media, but the Hebrophone media are definitely sympathetic to the Ukrainian cause.

When it comes to Israel and Israeli politics, there are a couple politicians and lawmakers that do not want to condemn Russian invasion, for many different reasons. There is also a problem of Ukrainian refugees. If they are not Jewish – they are not welcome in Israel. They have to be recognized as Jews to enter the country.

At the beginning of the war, Naftali Bennett and the Knesset did not want to invite Zelenski for an online meeting. There were some diplomatic difficulties, in the end the meeting was held – but after a really long time. In Polish media it was portrayed as a clash between two groups of government politicians: pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian. According to Polish media, the final consensus was to maintain neutrality. 

I think it is a more pragmatic approach that is popular among some parts of the government. They do not want to upset Putin, because of strategic reasons, not because of some ideological leanings. Some of them look far ahead, I would say. If Russia wins the war and annexes Ukrainian territories, it would make things much easier for Israel, when it comes annexation of Palestinian lands and enforcing apartheid laws. It would have undermined the rule of international law. That is my view.

Some smart people on the Israeli right-wing understand that. That includes Netanyahu. He wants to weaken the European Union, he has supported everything and everyone that could serve this cause, from Brexit to Trump. There is a global agenda here, some sort of global coalition, from Saudi Arabia to White supremacists, evangelicals and right-wing parties of Europe. That agenda also includes undermining international law.

The USA has chosen deliberately their enemy here to impose sanctions, which are not so popular among the people who have just pointed. But on the other hand, if we look at the situation from another angle – everybody now can be cut off from global trade. It could be Saudi Arabia next time, if they chose to pay in yuans. It could be India and some other countries. In some other universe it could have been even Israel. Was there any discussion on that in Israel?

Our government was very slow on adopting sanctions. Right now I believe some sanctions are imposed, but as far as I know, Israel has imposed much lighter sanctions than the rest of the Western countries. Also states of the Arabian peninsula are much more sympathetic towards Russia.

There is a question of whether the regional alliance of Saudi Arabia and Israel is not trying to adopt a more independent foreign agenda. Someone might say that there is some material support for Russia, because some really important Russian figures have fled to Israel under the law of return, among them CEO of Yandex, a supposed Russian Google. Also some other people have returned here. And so there comes a question: are they bringing their money here? What if yes?

Some Polish geopoliticians, of the realist current, discussed back in February in March whether Israel is not selling documents saying that some Russian oligarchs are Jewish, just to bring more money to Israel…

Even before there were among us some Russian oligarchs living in Israel. But at least one of them, Leonid Newzlin, is now pro-Ukrainian. So something is going on here. I guess a lot of these people just do not feel safe in Russia, because of different reasons, political and economical. 

And what is the approach of Israeli left on the war in Ukraine? 

We do not have a major left here. Most of those who call themselves left are, in my view, pseudo-left political parties, liberal-Zionists. They typically support Ukraine, but, again, not necessarily calling for harsh measures. The economic left, which is for example the Communist party, is quite divided. The Communist party, composed mostly of ethnic Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, is against Ukraine; they support Putin ideologically, standing against NATO. If they are pushed they will ask: how can you support war? So they are playing pacifists, but we know that Communists are hardly pacifists.

What about the Joint List of the Arabic parties?

The Communist party is the main component of the Joint List. There are four, mostly secular, parties: Balad, which I usually support, Hadash- the Communist party, Mada and Ta’al, who are more center-left. There are also some minor religious organizations, but they are not preoccupied with the situation in Ukraine, even if they are, I think, rather pro-Ukrainian.

The divide between Balad and Hadash has a long history. For example there was a difference among them when it comes to Syria, as Balad was strongly against Asad. The Ukrainian cause is a hard topic, because Palestinians see hypocrisy here. There is such a strong resentment against Russia now, and at the same time, what has been going on in Palestine? So there is a question: do we want to race to the bottom, or to the top? You can say: hands of Russia you hypocrites, or you can say: yes, these sanctions are justified, but we want to see sanctions on Israel, too.

If there are cunning right wing Israelis, are there their Palestinian counterparts too? I mean, are theree people among Palestinians who see also far ahead, and say that if we defend Ukraine now, then it would be easier for us to use international law instruments? 

An interesting question! And yes, this perspective is somehow present among Palestinians. If the West supports the sanctions, it is really infuriating to see the lack of sanctions on Israel. As a result, lots of Palestinians say: we hate the West, and we will not support your war on Russia. On the other hand, a lot of Palestinians support Ukraine. Palestinians in Syria, who have suffered under Asad, tend to be strongly pro-Ukrainian, they have this broader perspective. So as far as I can see, Palestinians are strongly divided.

I would add that there are Israeli volunteers who fight for Ukraine, while I do not know anything about volunteers who support Russia. 

Summing up, there is a strong leaning here, in Israel, among Jews and Palestinians, toward the Ukrainian cause. The problem is only the point from which people support it, and of course the anti-NATO stance of the Communist party, and cynical right-wing Jewish politicians. 

There are new plans on expanding Israelis settlements in the West Bank. Also, the murder of Shireen Abu Akleh, and the police violence during her funeral, perhaps would not have happened if the world was not preoccupied with Ukraine. Apparently the Israeli government is using the situation…

I am not so sure. There has been some sort of escalation, including attacks on Gaza, even before 24 February. I do not know if Israel feels safer because of the war in Ukraine.

As for Shireen Abu Akleh – if she was targeted deliberately, I am not sure there had been an order from above. Perhaps it was a decision taken by some soldiers and officers on ground, there are still things that we don’t know. Nevertheless, I would still clasify her death as a murder, and I tend to think that Israel as a state shall be blamed for it.

Also, the ruling of Israeli Supreme Court about South Hebron hills and the new settlements is not something new, and I am not sure if we should connect it to the war. The Supreme Court issued similar decisions for years.

I could also argue that some decision makers in Israel are more conscious that international law is stronger now, then a couple weeks before. I am now translating an article from Haaretz, in which Israeli legal scholar claims that Israeli politicians have to consider that things have changed.

When it comes to pure facts, there has been a major escalation in the Janin area. There have been attacks on Palestinians and Israeli civilians. Also the instability of Israeli government, which in my view will not last long, is the major factor here.

Why do you say it will not last long?

It is a very complicated coalition. There is Naftali Bennet, who is a far-right prime minister with strong support among settlers and Zionists, and then there are Palestinian Citizens of Israel, a conservative party. This presence of Palestinians in the government creates a lot of havoc among conservative Jews. They have only 60 MPs, in the parliament or 120, so the opposition has 58-59, and then there are a couple independent figures. Any day, Bennet can lose a MP or two, which breaks up the whole balance.

What is going on with Netanyahu in all of this?

His cases are on trial right now, and he has good lawyers. I am not a legal expert, but now there is a consensus that the case against him is quite strong. However, on one or two specific issues he has been successful. His lawyers have managed to defend him so far. He badly wants to come back to power and this actually can happen, even if I do not think he is as strong as he used to be.

If the government falls, he is not going to be Prime Minister, but he might be a leader of the biggest party in it. The next prime minister would be Benny Gantz in coalition with Netanyahu’s Likud. But still it would be a major victory.

I also think that Netanyahu is weaker with Democrats in White House, he would have been stronger with Trump in power. Now everyone is waiting for the midterms election and 2024 elections. If Democrats are not going to get a majority in the Senate, things might get worse, then Biden would be even weaker, and there would be a stronger presidential competition in 2024. So I think Netanyahu is hopeful, he still has some carts to play with. 

If Ukraine emerges victorious in the war with Russia, can it change anything in Israel? Will the stances of Israeli government come under more scrutiny? Will Tel Aviv be forced to change its relations with the West? 

Zelenski seems to be really supportive towards Israel, he even glorifies Israeli military power, in one of his statements he said that Ukrainian military would be reorganized in the same model. I do not think he has ever criticized Israel on the apartheid issue, policy towards Palestinians. If Ukraine wins, his rhetoric would be the same, or even more friendly. There is the question, would Israel invite him for a diplomatic visit? 

There is also the issue of Lawrow’s words about Jews being the biggest antisemites.

A top news in Israel for awhile. Some people say he is playing stupid to get a chance to resign, because he is not longer willing to represent Russia.

In the end, I think Israel is going to maintain good relations with Russia. That is because of the strategic importance of those for the safety of Israel. We just have to be aware of Russia’s presence in the Middle East, especially in Syria. That is not going to change and it is a really useful leverage in Russian hands. While Zelenski’s rhetoric is going to be sympathetic, Israel is going to maintain its neutrality, trying to bear the lowest possible price possible when it comes to relations with its Western allies. 

Cover photo: a protest against war in Ukraine in Tel Aviv, 24 February. Source: Twitter.

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