Greenfield vs. Puder: Israel's 'Balancing Act' in the Russia-Ukraine War

A Frontpage Mag exchange.

Editors' note: Below is an exchange between Frontpage contributors Daniel Greenfield and Joseph Puder on Israel and the Russia-Ukraine War. We hope our readers will find this dialogue/debate between two of Frontpage's finest to be thought-provoking and enlightening.

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Joseph Puder: Israel and the Russian-Ukrainian War.
Jerusalem seeking to mediate a delicate balancing act. 

Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett flew to Moscow on Saturday, March 5, 2022. This trip on the Sabbath for an Orthodox Sabbath observing, kippah-wearing Prime Minister was certainly unprecedented. Judaism however, permits the desecration of the Sabbath in order to save lives. Bennett’s mission was to try to bring a cease-fire to the raging war in Ukraine, and offer Israel’s good offices, to mediate between the warring parties: Russia and Ukraine. A poll taken in Israel had shown that more than one half of the Israelis polled believed that Bennett’s trip on the Sabbath was justified. A majority of Israelis, 52 percent, support Israeli mediation of the conflict.

Israel appears to be in a delicate position in this European conflict. There are relatively large Jewish communities in both Russia and Ukraine, as well as ex-patriots from both countries living in Israel as full fledge citizens. Some of them still have relatives and friends living in both Russia and Ukraine. That is, nonetheless, the easy part. Far more delicate and sensitive is the fact that Russia has a military border with Israel in Syria. Currently, Israel is coordinated with the Russian commanders in Syria regarding flights over Syrian territory, to bomb Iranian targets in Syria along with their proxies who are seeking to operate against Israel from around the Golan Heights border. Israel also targets lethal weapons shipped by Iran to the Hezbollah in Lebanon through the Syrian land corridor. The Hezbollah terrorist organization is now in control of the Lebanese government, and seeks to establish a second front against Israel from Syrian territory. Additionally, with Moscow sitting at the nuclear negotiating table with Iran in Vienna, Israel can ill afford to alienate Putin by openly siding with Ukraine.

Israeli planes could easily encounter Russian ground-to-air missiles, or Russian pilots might engage Israeli pilots in aerial dogfights. Such outcomes, were they to occur, are not only dangerous for Israel, but they would be critical to Israel’s security. Fortunately, there has been a positive understanding between Israeli leaders (previously PM Netanyahu and now Bennett) and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. It has enabled the Israeli Air Force (IAF) to operate over Syrian airspace unmolested.

Vladimir Putin, it must be said, has a very warm relationship with the Jewish community in Russia, and especially with the Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi there. Many of his close friends growing up were Jews, and some are still a part of his inner circle. Putin, unlike his Soviet predecessors, has had a soft spot for Israel. He is aware of the fact that a large portion (12% according to the New York Times) of Israel’s population speaks Russian, and that they belong to Russia’s cultural sphere. There are few other places on the globe where there is such a large concentration of Russian speakers. In 2005, Putin bought a Tel Aviv apartment for Mina Yuditskaya Berliner, his beloved high school German teacher who immigrated to Israel in the 1970’s. 

In terms of realpolitik, namely pragmatic policies, devoid of emotional, ethical, and moral considerations, and based on Israel’s national interests, dictates a definite tilt toward Russia in the conflict in Ukraine. But Israeli society and Israeli governments have always been guided by moral and ethical considerations. The Holocaust has left an indelible impact on the people and leaders of Israel. Israelis have always identified with the suffering of people in areas of conflict or natural disaster, sending medical teams of doctors and nurses as well as material aid to countries (even hostile ones) devastated by earthquakes, flooding, or war.

There is also another factor added to Israel’s delicate balancing act. For Israel, as a close ally of the United States (US) supporting the US line is essential albeit, it is not always mutual as the case of the nuclear talks with Iran shows. The US is acting contrary to Israel’s security interests. Still, Israel followed the US position at the United Nations General Assembly vote to condemn the Russian invasion into Ukraine.

In the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, most Israelis are closely identified with the Ukrainian people and their Jewish President, Volodymyr Zelensky. Even those Russian-Israelis, who like and admire Putin, recognize that he is the aggressor in this conflict. One Russian speaking Israeli from former Soviet Moldova, Eduard Shtrasner, held a minority view and he told the NYTimes, “I am not in favor of war, but I can justify what Putin is doing. I read, I listen, I gather information, and if I were him (Putin), I would do the same thing.” Israelis are shocked by the scenes of the devastation of Ukrainian cities, and moved by the plight of the refugees, some of whom have been brought to Israel.

Israel has responded immediately to the crisis in Ukraine. Just three days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Israel announced that it is sending 100-tons of humanitarian aid and medical supplies to Ukraine. In addition, Israel is setting up a field hospital in western Ukraine near the Polish border. At the same time though, Israel has rejected requests to send military and intelligence equipment to Ukraine, to placate Russian concerns. The Israeli government did, however, allow private Israeli companies to sell Ukraine military communication equipment and robotics.

As a security conscience nation, Israel is siding with Ukraine, whose national sovereignty was brutally violated by the Russian invasion. But Israel also has to show consideration, if not agreement, with Putin’s position. Putin was born in 1952 and grew up with stories of the “patriotic war” as the Russians refer to World War II. His father fought the invading Nazis in the Red Army uniform. In his mind, Russia must secure its western flanks against potential invasions. Russia was indeed invaded by Nazi Germany in 1941 from the West, and by Napoleon in 1812. To the many of us in the West, it may not be a realistic fear nowadays, but for some Russians, it is.

In a 2014 interview with the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, he (Gorbachev) stated that he thought that the NATO enlargement and incorporation of former Warsaw Pact countries was a “big mistake,” and a “violation of the spirit of the statements and assurances made in 1990.

Putin, rattled by worldwide condemnations and sanctions, is an angry man, hence, Bennett’s mediation has its significant risks particularly since he lacks the charisma of his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu, nor does he have his international experience. Dealing with a former KGB agent will test him like never before. Ukraine President Zelensky, the true hero in the present crisis, has reportedly asked Bennett to mediate between the two sides. For Bennett, who has been facing a beating in recent polls, and is subject to public criticism in Israel, mediating on the international stage might be the opportunity to raise his profile as a world leader. Hopefully Bennett can rise to the occasion, become a skilled juggler, and perform a delicate balancing act for Israel.

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Daniel Greenfield Responds: Israel Doesn't Need Another War.
The best thing for Israel to do in Ukraine is to keep its distance.

Israel is fortunate enough that there is a conflict that has the attention of the world and that does not in any way, shape or form involve it. Unfortunately, everyone is trying to drag Israel into it anyway. Including Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, the head of a dysfunctional leftist coalition, whose efforts to “mediate” between Russia and Ukraine, have satisfied neither side and only infuriated everyone.

Joseph Puder states that Israel is in a “delicate position” in the conflict. But Israel doesn’t need to occupy any position in this conflict. Both Russia and Ukraine are Iranian allies and regular foes of Israel at the United Nations.  Neither side could remotely be described as friends or allies.

Puder refers to a balancing act, but what a balancing act does is annoy everyone.

It’s better not to be involved in someone else’s war than to create ambiguity about whose side you are really on. Denying support is less offensive than appearing to support the other side.

Every time Bennett reaches out to Putin, he infuriates the Biden administration, the Europeans and the Ukrainians. When Israel provides a platform for Zelensky, it angers Putin and the Russians.

There’s no point in playing at mediating a conflict in which both sides are determined to win.

Putin wants to carve up Ukraine and the Ukrainians want the Russians to leave. Negotiations under these circumstances are a farce. Neither side has any interest in listening to anything Bennett has to say.

If anyone should have learned of the futility of peace negotiations in a zero-sum territorial conflict, it’s the Israelis. But Bennett, who cut a traitorous deal that put Islamists and Communists in a governing coalition, betraying his party’s conservative voters so he could spend two years playing at being a leader, is particularly incapable of understanding that both sides in the war actually do mean what they say.

The smart play for Bennett would have been to stay out of someone else’s war. Or, at the very least, to cut a meaningful deal in Israel’s national interest in exchange for supporting either side. Considering Russia’s presence in Syria and its ties to Iran, along with Ukraine’s role as a major trading partner for Iran, all sorts of potential options might have presented themselves to someone with the wit to take them.

The United States and the European Union have sided with Ukraine and have pressured Israel to get more involved. But considering that the Biden administration and the EU are rushing to cut a nuclear deal with Iran, it’s hard to see why Israel could or should rush over to do them any favors.

When Biden tried to wheedle the UAE and the Saudis into doing him a favor by raising production, their leaders refused to take his phone calls until the negotiations broke off. And that appears to have happened. The Bennett government rushed to do favors for Biden and got nothing for it in return.

What indeed have Prime Minister Bennett and Israel gotten in exchange for their aid and mediation?

Both sides continue to badger and threaten Israel. Rumors spread around the internet, such as the false claim that Bennett urged Zelensky to surrender, amp up the antisemitism and the attacks on Israel.

Bennett’s meditation hasn’t helped Israel, but it’s raising his profile. Where Prime Minister Netanyahu used international forums to pursue Israel’s interests, Bennett is pursuing his own image. Before too long, he will have to hand over the big chair to Yair Lapid, a leftist who is Israel’s version of Trudeau, as part of the deal with the devil that he and his allies made in order to force Netanyahu out of office.

Prime Minister Netanyahu recently called out Bennett's foolish posturing, saying that, “In days like these, it’s advisable to take positions with the utmost caution.”

“I call on the government to behave responsibly, to speak less about what they don’t need to talk about and to deal more with existential security threats,” he urged.

“The nuclear deal with Iran threatens our existence,” Netanyahu said. “And on this very issue Bennett and Lapid aren’t saying anything and aren’t doing anything.”

Netanyahu was far from a perfect leader, but he understands the stakes in a way that Bennett does not.

While the world focuses on Ukraine, the Biden administration is ready to cut a deal that will put over $100 billion in the pockets of an Islamic terror state while signing off on a nuclear weapons program meant to wipe out Israel. A serious leader would focus on Iran instead of chasing hashtags in Kiev.

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Joseph Puder Responds: The Hope that Bennett May Rise to the Occasion.

As indicated in my previous piece, the majority of Israelis surveyed support Israel’s mediation between Russia and Ukraine. Daniel Greenfield overlooked the fact that Bennett was asked by Ukraine’s President Zelensky to serve as a go-between. Neither I nor Daniel Greenfield are qualified to judge whether Russia and Ukraine are “satisfied” with Israel’s mediation, and there is no way to verify whether the parties involved are “annoyed” with Israel. The fact of the matter is that both Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky have been on the phone with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett for hours, and have continued to have ongoing conversations with him.  

Bennett is not the only one trying to mediate between the warring parties; Turkey’s authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is doing the same. Bennett is clearly seeking to bring the parties to declare a humanitarian cease-fire, which is a gesture that virtually all Israelis support.  

While Russia’s anti-Israel voting record at the UN might be deplorable, closer to home, Russia has given Israel’s Air Force a green light to attack Iranian and Hezbollah targets throughout Syria. To Israelis, this is far more relevant and critical to our national security than a UN vote, which is far less vital to Israel.    

Greenfield is wrong about Bennett’s mediation “infuriating” the Biden administration. Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper reported (March 15, 2022) that the US ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides said that the Biden administration has “no complaints” with Israel acting as a go-between for Russia and Ukraine. Moreover, it appears that Bennett’s mediation has done some good. According to the Times of Israel (March 15, 2022), “The Russians initially demanded the ouster of Zelensky and disarmament of Ukraine. That is no longer their position. And the Ukrainians have also come down from their previous positions,” regarding joining NATO.  

PM Bennett explained to his cabinet following his meeting with Russian President Putin in Moscow that Israel has “a moral responsibility” to try to bring an end to the human suffering in the Ukrainian war. Given the relatively large Jewish communities in both Russia and Ukraine, Israel is compelled to seek their protection, especially in embattled Ukraine. Concurrently, there are large Russian and Ukrainian born Israeli citizens, with relatives living respectively in both Russia and Ukraine.    

As I pointed out in my piece, Israel and the Russian-Ukrainian War, “Israeli society and Israeli governments have always been guided by moral and ethical considerations. The Holocaust has left an indelible impact on the people and leaders of Israel. Israelis have always identified with the suffering of people in areas of conflict or natural disaster, sending medical teams of doctors and nurses as well as material aid to countries (even hostile ones) devastated by earthquakes, flooding, or war.”    

Maj. General Yaakov Amidror, currently a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, “commended” Bennett for his efforts. He pointed out that, “If the Russians were in a situation where they don’t think Israel can be an honest broker, they wouldn’t waste half a day speaking with the Prime Minister.” Considering that Israel voting with the US and the Europeans at the UN General Assembly to condemn the Russian invasion into Ukraine is proof enough that Putin takes Bennett’s mediation seriously.  

At this time, when death and destruction is occurring all over Ukraine, it is hardly the time “to cut a meaningful deal in Israel’s national interests in exchange for supporting either side,” as Greenfield has suggested. This would surely come when the fires of war have been extinguished, and Israel has had a part in it.   

As I pointed out in Israel and the Russian-Ukrainian War, Bennett’s mediation has its significant risks particularly since he lacks the charisma of his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu, nor does he have Netanyahu’s international experience. Dealing with a former KGB agent will test Bennett like never before. I also addressed the alleged complaints from Biden and the Europeans about supporting the Ukrainian side. For Israel, as a close ally of the United States (US), supporting the US position is essential, albeit, it is not always mutual as is the case of the nuclear talks with Iran show. The Biden Administration is acting contrary to Israel’s security interests.

Greenfield cited the growing trade between Ukraine and Iran, but the trade records I have seen for 2020 indicate that the trade between Israel and Ukraine is twice that of Iranian trade with Ukraine. Insofar as Ukrainian antisemitism is concerned, the need to go as far back as Stepan Bandera, Simon Petlura, and Bogdan Khmelnitsky is not necessary; my own parents escaped being murdered by Ukrainians during WWII while escaping the Nazis. My mother’s courage and Red Army soldiers saved them from certain death. Modern Ukraine is, however, different not that antisemitism suddenly disappeared completely from Ukraine, but at least under Jewish President Zelensky, Ukraine seeks to be modern, democratic, and is adopting western values. And clearly, Zelensky is not Petro Poroshenko, and he hopes to end the corruption that prevailed during his predecessors’ presidencies.     

In the final analysis, my hope is that Bennett can rise to the occasion, becoming a skilled juggler, and perform a delicate balancing act for Israel that will end the bloodletting in Ukraine, and serve Israel’s interests.

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Daniel Greenfield Responds: When One-Sided Nobility Turns Disastrous.

Joseph Puder argues that  “At this time, when death and destruction is occurring all over Ukraine, it is hardly the time ‘to cut a meaningful deal in Israel’s national interests in exchange for supporting either side,’ as Greenfield has suggested.”

Personally I can’t think of a better time.

Puder’s is a very noble sentiment and it’s the same one-sided nobility that has been disastrous for America, Israel, and other civilized countries who put chivalry ahead of national interests.

When death and destruction are occuring in Israel, no one has refrained from being so impolitic as to come with demands and deals in hand. Few in Israel outside the inner circle of politicians want the country to act like a ‘Freier’. No doubt the villagers on the firing line, from Hamas and Hezbollah, and potentially from Iran, would rather be noble and dead, than smart and alive.

As much as some Israeli politicians and cultural elites would like the country to act like it’s Belgium or Canada, it’s in a much worse neighborhood with a whole lot more on the line.

When the war is over, however it ends, Americans will be poorer for it and Israelis will have watched Prime Minister Bennett squander time and energy that would have been better directed at curbing Iran’s nuclear plots on a pointless episode of hollow posturing on the world stage.

After all the humanitarian aid, the rescue operations, and the refugees taken in, the international agenda will quickly flip back to denouncing Israel for not sufficiently appeasing Islamic terrorists.

Russia and Ukraine (assuming there still is one) will vote together to condemn Israel at the UN.

As they have repeatedly in the past.

Because as much as Russia and Ukraine may hate each other, they hate Israel even more.l

Contrary to Mr. Puder’s assertions, Bennett is not mediating the conflict (he would be hardly qualified to mediate a cafeteria food fight, let alone a war in a whole other region of the world), he is being used by both sides to put on their own show and generate more propaganda.

But perhaps while Bennett is spending “hours” on the phone with the two Vladimirs (Vladimir and Volodymyr – both names mean a variation on Ruler of the World) he can take a moment from listening to their grievances to ask them to stop supporting Iran. Or stop opposing Israel.

There is an unfortunate ‘Shtadlan’ history of Jewish leaders who spend all their time boasting about how much influence they have and how well their negotiations are going. From FDR’s ‘Court Jews’ who refused to be so rude as to mention the Holocaust in his presence, to ‘Rudolf Kasztner who negotiated so well with the Nazis that he practically became one of them, the professionally useless intercessor who just wants to be a big man is alive and well.

Unlike the millions of Jews who died in the Holocaust -- including in the Ukraine.

But if an Iranian nuclear weapon detonates killing millions of Jews, they can go to their graves knowing that Prime Minister Bennett was focused on negotiating an end to a war elsewhere.

Israelis don’t need more stories of how a prime minister they didn’t want and whose elevation was more of a coup than an election is engaging in carefully balanced negotiations not involving them. Or of how difficult this task that no one in Israel actually asked him to undertake is.

What Israelis, like Americans, should be asking is, “How is any of this in our national interest?”

Joseph Puder argues that even though Ukraine still venerates mass murderers of Jews like Stepan Bandera, Simon Petlura, and Bogdan Khmelnitsk, the country is no longer antisemitic.

"Ukraine seeks to be modern, democratic, and is adopting western values," he contends. Ukraine’s anti-Israel voting record at the UN certainly suggests that it has adopted the modern, democratic and western values of antisemitism.

But, as Russia shows, you don’t even need to be modern, democratic and western.

And as Israel shows, for too many Jewish leaders everyone else’s problems come first.

Joseph Puder is a regular Frontpage Mag contributor. Daniel Greenfield is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.

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