President Zelenskyy, one Israel is enough

The Ukrainian leader’s recent declaration that his country will become a ‘big Israel with its own face’ after the war invites a blunt, unambiguous reproach.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks in Kyiv, Ukraine.
In this image posted on Facebook on March 15, 2022, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks in Kyiv [Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP]

One of the advantages of writing for a news organisation with the breadth and influence of Al Jazeera is that important people with important jobs might read your stuff.

Anyone familiar with who and what I write about knows that I do not tailor this column to appeal to important people with important jobs like presidents or prime ministers, kings or queens.

I like to think that, as a general rule, I write about people that other writers have forgotten. I write about people who have lived quiet, largely anonymous lives. But something – usually wrong or bad – has happened to them that requires that you and I pay attention. The privilege of writing a column for Al Jazeera can help do that.

Still, there are times when the circumstances demand that I address a column to an important person with an important job in the remote, but conceivable chance, that a president or prime minister – or someone close to them – can read and consider what I have to say.

This, I suppose, is one of those times.

Like you, I have watched, with a mixture of impotence and sadness, the horrors that Ukrainians have had to brave and endure for 55 terrible days and counting – the consequences of a sick, little man with big ambitions.

Perhaps, like you, I have been impressed by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s eloquence and bravery as he has rallied and stiffened a nation’s righteous resistance to thwart that sick, little man and his big ambitions.

However much we may admire a president or prime minister, it is necessary not to succumb to the easy, sentimental temptation to treat any leader, including President Zelenskyy, as a saint.

Given his previous career as an ego-puncturing satirist and comedian, I believe President Zelenskyy understands this imperative better than most and would be among the first to discourage any effort to confer a halo – symbolically, of course – above his crown.

So, it is in that spirit that I must call attention to recent remarks made by President Zelenskyy that should not only give us urgent pause, but invite a blunt, unambiguous reproach.

On March 20, President Zelenskky spoke by video conference from Kyiv to Israel’s Knesset and Israelis. He began his speech by insisting that the fates and histories of Ukraine and Israel were “intertwined”.

“I don’t need to convince you how intertwined our stories are. Stories of Ukrainians and Jews. In the past, and now, in this terrible time. We are in different countries and in completely different conditions. But the threat is the same: for both us and you – the total destruction of the people, state, culture. And even of the names: Ukraine, Israel,” he said.

Writing in Middle East Eye, the Palestinian academic and writer, Asad Ghanem, delivered the blunt, unambiguous reply that President Zelenskyy’s wanting historical parallel deserves and that I would not deign to improve upon.

“Your recent speech before the Israeli Knesset was a disgrace when it comes to global struggles for freedom and liberation, particularly of the Palestinian people. You reversed the roles of occupier and occupied. You missed another opportunity to demonstrate the justice of your cause and the broader cause of freedom,” Professor Ghanem wrote.

Then, Professor Ghanem gave President Zelenskyy a sharp history lesson he would do well to heed.

“I am also concerned,” he wrote, “by your apparent double standards towards the legitimate Palestinian struggle against occupation, oppression, killings, racial discrimination and displacement – crimes that Israel has practiced for more than seven decades against my people.”

President Zelenskyy’s transparent “double standards” towards universal human suffering have, as Professor Ghanem points out, translated into his “taking public positions in support of Israeli occupation”.

In 2020, Ukraine won the giddy approval of Israel’s foreign ministry after it quit the United Nations Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, a small body which, as its title suggests, tries to protect the vanishing rights of imprisoned Palestinians under Israeli occupation.

Reportedly, President Zelenskyy “authorised” Ukraine’s abrupt departure.

And, in blatant contrast to his humanist credentials, President Zelenskky has sided with the oppressor, rather than the oppressed, as Israel has waged lethal invasions and wars – by land, sea and air – on besieged and outgunned Palestinians again and again.

Despite this, President Zelenskky complained that Israel had not reciprocated by providing him with weapons or imposing sanctions on Russia.

His grievances have revealed a stunning naïveté.

President Zelenskyy has discovered, belatedly, that his shining avatar of democracy, decency and the international rules-based order prefers, these days, to snuggle up quietly to a genocidal thug intent on obliterating his homeland and millions of Ukrainians with a psychopath’s glee because it is in Israel’s geopolitical interest to do so.

That is not the happy “narrative” Israel and its agreeable allies, including President Zelenskyy, have promoted forever about the Middle East’s gleaming oasis of Alex de Tocqueville-like enlightenment in a combustible region populated, otherwise, by uncivilised, Arab thugs.

President Zelenskyy has learned, by now, that the much-heralded ancestral ties that allegedly bind Ukraine and Israel are as flimsy as his historical revisionism.

As for Israel’s refusal to adopt sanctions against Russia, President Zelenskyy appears to have forgotten that Israel and its clichéd confederates in London, Washington, DC, Paris and Ottawa have spent a lot of time, energy, and money crucifying anyone or any group who, at any time, has tried to confront an apartheid state by boycotting that state, divesting from that state and sanctioning that state.

Surely President Zelenskyy is familiar with the pleasant pantomime that goes like this: Israel is ever so pleased when useful hypocrites like Joe Biden, Boris Johnson, Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau are all in on sanctions against Moscow, but smear anyone who supports BDS as an “anti-Semite”.

Israel is not going to do sanctions, President Zelenskyy, since that would mean that Israel would have to acknowledge – implicitly or explicitly – that not only do sanctions work, but have to be levied by the “international community” when country A occupies country B with the aim of erasing country B no matter how many people and places are destroyed to satisfy country A’s inhumane colonial designs.

In this ugly regard, perhaps President Zelenskyy needs reminding that human rights groups inside and outside Israel have made clear – in careful, measured detail – when, where, why and how a regime that trite Western politicians and pundits champion as a “model” state has, instead, descended into an apartheid state guilty, under international law, of crimes against humanity and decency he and they claim to abhor.

Stubbornly wedded to silly notions of what Israel is and its phantom allegiances to Kyiv, President Zelenskyy told reporters in early April that a post-war Ukraine will resemble a “big Israel”.

“We will become a ‘big Israel’ with its own face. We will not be surprised if we have representatives of the Armed Forces or the National Guard in cinemas, supermarkets, and people with weapons. I am confident that the question of security will be the issue number one for the next 10 years. I am sure of it,” he said.

I do not know what the European Union envisions, but the prospect of another brutish security state modelled after Israel on the eastern edge of Europe, is not, I imagine, welcome news for countless Europeans who have hitherto praised Zelenskyy but assailed Israel’s hideous human rights record and grinding, state-sanctioned persecution of Palestinians.

President Zelenskyy, one Israel is enough.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.