Ukraine war and Zelensky’s speech to Knesset

President Volodymyr Zelensky complained bitterly about insufficient support while comparing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to the Holocaust in a speech to the Israeli parliament on Sunday evening. As a Jew, Zelensky expects more support from the Jewish state and that explains his disappointment with Israel.

Russia invaded Ukraine under the pretext of “de-nazifying” the country. The claim is patently absurd because Ukraine´s democratically elected president happens to be Jewish. His father fought in WWII in the Soviet Red Army against Nazi-Germany and lost family members in the Holocaust.

“What will remain of Ukraine’s cities after this war?”, Zelensky asked and expected Israel and the rest of the world to support Ukraine to achieve an immediate cease-fire. He wants to start direct talks with Russian president Putin, possibly with mediation by Israel or another country, about a mutually acceptable political solution. That’s what we also want in Israel when violence escalates into war.

But Haaretz op-ed columnist Odeh Bisharat decided not to listen to Zelensky’s desperate appeal to the Knesset. In his latest op-ed in Haaretz (21 March), he writes that “Zelensky isn’t the right address” and that only Israeli right-wing politicians supporting Israel’s own occupation will benefit from his speech.

His position doesn’t come as a surprise. He is former secretary-general of the Communist party Hadash, now a member of the Joint List in Knesset. Two members of Hadash, Ofer Cassif and Aida Touma-Sliman, reportedly boycotted also Zelensky’s speech. At least Bisharat tries to explain himself but his argumentation isn’t convincing.

While he claims that he vehemently condemns Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and feels empathy for the millions of refugees now fleeing the war, he draws inaccurate comparisons with the Nakba and Israel’s wars with Hamas in Gaza.

Russia’s invasion was an unprovoked and illegal attack, trying to restore the power of former Soviet Union and Tsar-Russia, against the international order and a neighbouring country under the false pretext of “de-nazifying” it.

The war has already caused a humanitarian disaster. If any side in the Israeli-Arab conflict plays a similar role to that of Russia, it’s the Arab states that attacked the newly born Israeli state in 1948 to destroy it.

That failed attack resulted in the Palestinian refugee problem. We can feel Bisharat’s pain when he writes about his parents who were forced to leave their hometown in 1948 but that’s no reason to ignore what is going on in Ukraine right now or not to listen to Zelensky.

More appalling is his comparison of the Ukraine war with the Gaza wars. Civilians are victims and civilian infrastructure is destroyed in all wars but hardly anything can be compared with Russia’s indiscriminate and intentional bombardment of Ukrainian cities and civilian targets which has caused countless deaths, destruction and millions of refugees and internally displaced persons.

That does not exempt Israel from responsibility from doing everything possible to prevent the killing of innocent civilians in Gaza and reduce collateral damage to a minimum. Such calls, however, seem to be wasted on Russia which intensified the bombings after its ground forces met fierce Ukrainian resistance.

But it’s not only a matter of figures. From a moral viewpoint, Ukraine and Gaza cannot be compared. Gaza is ruled by Hamas, which the international community considers a terrorist organisation. It refuses to make peace with Israel and continues to launch missiles against civilian targets in Israel. It’s not, as Bisharat seems to think, that Gaza is ruled by a peace-loving regime which is doing nothing to provoke the wars.

He criticizes Zelensky for expressing solidarity with Israel during the Gaza war last year. Zelensky was surely not alone in the international community to support Israel’s its right to defend itself against Hamas. Most Jews in Israel and abroad did it. That doesn’t imply that they support the on-going occupation of Palestinian territories. The majority of them is in favour of a two-state solution.

If Bisharat himself believes in a two-state solution, reconciliation and peaceful Israeli-Palestinian co-existence, he would also support the Ukrainian people’s right to national self-determination and a state of their own. They have the same rights as the Palestinians. He would listen to President Zelensky’s desperate appeal for support to his country.

Furthermore, his appeal wasn’t only addressed to the Knesset, which includes members that turn a blind eye to Israel’s occupation and the violation of the human and political rights of the Palestinians living under an occupation which has become permanent.  It was addressed to the public opinion and all citizens in Israel, Jews and Arabs alike.

By refusing to listen to his speech, under false moral claims and distortion of facts, Bisharat has shown how alienated he is from his own country and the suffering in Ukraine.

About the Author
Mose Apelblat is a journalist and former official at the European Commission with a professional background in public auditing in Sweden and Israel. He writes about current EU and Israeli affairs from a European perspective. Born in Sweden to Holocaust survivors, he co-authored in 2019 a book on the second generation in Sweden and the memory of the Holocaust. He made aliya in 2015 and is engaged in a project to replace Israel's dependence on fossil fuels in the transport sector by an electric road system charging e-vehicles when driving.