🔒 Nuances and double standards: Ukraine needs the full support of the West – as does Israel: Niall Ferguson

In this thought-provoking piece, Niall Ferguson reflects on the contrasting international perceptions of Ukraine and Israel in their current struggles against adversaries. Drawing parallels between the two democracies facing armed conflicts, Ferguson questions the double standards in global attitudes. He explores the historical context, leadership styles, and public diplomacy, asserting that a more nuanced understanding is needed to appreciate the complexities of each situation. Ferguson concludes with a call for recognising both nations’ fights for Western civilisation.

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By Niall Ferguson

This is a tale of two democracies, each under attack by a sworn foe of Western civilization. One is in Eastern Europe; the other in the Middle East. One is vast; the other tiny. One is just 33 years old; the other has been in existence for three-quarters of a century. One is relatively poor; the other quite rich. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Both have recently seen unarmed civilians, including children, brutally slaughtered, tortured and kidnapped by their enemies. Both are sending their sons and daughters, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers into brutal battles.

Both democracies are struggling with the economic challenges of war: the increased spending on the means of defense and destruction, the reduced revenues from shuttered businesses and empty hotels, the inevitable inflationary pressures. Both are wrestling with the political strains of conflict, too: the recriminations about whether war could have been avoided, or whether it could more easily be won. And both must manage the elaborate diplomacy of wartime: wooing or placating allies, begging for or borrowing arms and money, trying to avoid making more enemies, trying to avoid making intolerable concessions in return for peace.

And yet, despite all these resemblances, these two fighting democracies are treated much differently by the world. One is praised for its heroism; the other is condemned — even accused of genocide and ethnic cleansing. One is encouraged to fight on to victory, “for as long as it takes”; the other is told to agree to an immediate cease-fire before victory has been achieved. The armed forces of one country can do no wrong; those of the other are charged with “war crimes.”

After a week spent first in Germany, at the annual Munich Security Conference, and then in Israel, I am very struck by these differences. Over seven intense days, I met not only with Ukrainian and Israeli decision-makers but also Ukrainian and Israeli soldiers and civilians. I did not find myself feeling more sympathetic to one or the other. Rather, I felt an almost identical compassion: for the agonizing dilemmas of the leaders, for the heroism and self-sacrifice of the “ordinary” people, who are in both cases anything but ordinary — the female army medic who was taken prisoner and tortured at Mariupol; the young man who on Oct. 7 raced to rescue families from the depredations of Hamas.

How can we explain the fact that Ukraine is lionized and Israel reviled? Why were there no Russians or pro-Russians in Munich to justify Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine but at least a dozen representatives or proponents of the Palestinians?

Is it because the enemies of Ukraine and Israel are in some way different? That cannot be the reason. The Russian Federation and the Islamic Republic of Iran — Hamas’ sponsor and Israel’s true existential threat — are of course far from identical, one predominantly Orthodox Christian, the latter predominantly Shia Muslim. Yet in other ways Russia and Iran are like two peas in a pod. They are sham democracies that hold phony elections. They are brutal autocracies in which the rule of law and human rights count for nothing. They murder without compunction their enemies at home and abroad. They each pose threats that extend far beyond Ukraine and Israel.

Yet I have friends and relatives who are critical of Israel in terms they would never direct against Ukraine. I can think of one eminent historian who lets not a day pass without posting his support for the Palestinians, whereas he would rather be seen dead than endorse Russia’s war aims in Ukraine. To him, the Palestinians have a just cause. They lost their land as a result of military defeats at the hands of Israel in 1948 and 1967. Their attempts to win it back by means of war, terrorism and insurrection have all failed, but that somehow only makes their plight more poignant.

Such attitudes hold an extraordinary sway over millions of people. Yet they are not, to my mind, a great deal better than the arguments propounded by President Putin to Tucker Carlson in their notorious interview earlier this month. For the case for Palestinian statehood rests about as much on a caricature of history as the case against Ukrainian statehood. To call Israel a “settler-colonial” state is as preposterous as to claim that Ukraine has been Russian since 1654.

Thirty years ago, Israel agreed with the Palestine Liberation Organization on the beginnings of Palestinian self-government — “a separate Palestinian entity short of a state,” in the words of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin — under the Oslo Accords. Prime Minister Ehud Barak went even further at Camp David in 2000, but PLO leader Yasser Arafat walked away from the table. Have the Palestinians enhanced the case for statehood in the subsequent years? No. The Palestinian Authority is an oxymoron; Palestinians despise it, and it has no authority. A large majority of the inhabitants of Gaza, to say nothing of the Palestinians of the West Bank, prefer Hamas. The nature of Hamas was laid bare on Oct. 7, which should be regarded as an event disqualifying the Palestinians from self-government, not entitling them to it.

The contrast with Ukraine is striking. The Ukrainians had independence thrust upon them in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. The first 23 years of Ukrainian self-government were an unedifying spectacle. The country was riddled with corruption and run by oligarchs. Yet a decade ago, in 2014, a new generation of Ukrainians stood up in Kyiv’s Maidan Square and risked their lives to defy and chase away a crooked puppet of Moscow. When Putin seized Crimea and sent his “little green men” into the Donbas in 2014, the Ukrainians fought. And when he unleashed the full might of Russia’s colonial army eight years later, they fought again — like lions — driving the invaders back from the gates of Kyiv and then from Kharkiv and Kherson.

To visit Kyiv and Jerusalem is to be struck by profound similarities. These ancient and beautiful cities have been reborn in our time as capitals of free peoples who are prepared to fight and, if necessary, die for their freedoms. National flags fly everywhere, yet, as democratic peoples, Ukrainians and Israelis nevertheless reserve the right to quarrel among themselves.

No one abroad has a bad word to say about Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the Ukrainian president, and no one abroad has a good word to say about Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s veteran prime minister. In the US and Europe, I am regularly reminded of Netanyahu’s continuing trial for corruption or of the reliance on his current coalition on extremist parties. The non-trivial problem of Ukrainian corruption is swept aside as a MAGA talking point.

It is different story inside Ukraine and Israel. In Kyiv, there is mounting criticism of Zelenskiy’s handling of the war, especially since the debatable decision to replace his commander in chief. In Jerusalem, I heard not only noisy protests against the government but also an off-the-record tribute from one of Netanyahu’s principal political rivals to his political skill.

We are left with the puzzle of what begins to look like a double standard. Why do we prefer Ukraine’s struggle for its survival as an independent democracy to Israel’s? One possible answer, which is widely believed in Israel itself, is simply that the world remains — as it has been since time immemorial — rife with antisemitism. And yet antisemitism is not a sufficient explanation for Israel’s international isolation. As important is the striking failure of Israeli public diplomacy, public relations and propaganda. In this field, where Ukraine has excelled, Israel has abjectly failed. And I think I now understand why.

It is partly, of course, a matter of leadership style. Machiavelli says that a prince must either make himself loved or make himself feared. The former comedian Zelenskiy specializes in eliciting love. Netanyahu, the former paratrooper, prefers to be feared.

Moreover, Zelenskiy is still a novice at politics compared with Netanyahu. The Ukrainian leader is only just beginning to learn the hard way that those who pledge their love and support, even “for as long as it takes,” are not to be relied upon. The Israeli leader understood many years ago that the US is a fickle ally.

Viewed dispassionately, the Israelis have a better case to make than the Ukrainians. The latter insist that, if only the US and the European Union will give them the maximum quantity of military tools, they will finish the job, driving the Russian army back as far as the borders of 1991, after which peace talks may begin. The time frame is, to say the least, unclear, but it must certainly be years.

The Israelis are more realistic. They say: “Give us two more months to finish off Hamas as a military and political force in Gaza. We are close to victory. And, contrary to the other side’s claims, we have achieved this with lower civilian casualties than in any comparable battle for a densely populated area with a hostile population and an enemy tunnel network. But you must let us destroy the remaining Hamas battalions in Rafah, or Hamas will simply reconstitute itself. And after the horrors of Oct. 7, we cannot tolerate that.”

And there might have been far more bloodshed. Netanyahu could have heeded his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, who urged a preemptive attack on Hezbollah in Lebanon in the wake of Oct. 7. The Middle East was a hair’s breadth away from the full-scale regional war so dreaded in Washington. But Netanyahu overruled Gallant. Destroy Hamas, he argued, and then negotiate. Pursue talks initiated by the Lebanese government and encouraged by the US to get Hezbollah to withdraw its forces from the Lebanon-Israel border. Resume discussions with Saudi Arabia that may yet produce a rapprochement with Israel and a defense treaty with the US. And, if the world insists, resume the old back-and-forth about a Palestinian state.

A true Machiavellian, Netanyahu is not pursuing a popular course. While some Israelis agree with the military arguments for an all-out war, others want him to make concessions to save the remaining hostages, however many are still alive. Some compare his predicament to that of Golda Meir 50 years ago — the last time Israel fell victim to a surprise attack. I, too, thought Netanyahu was politically finished on Oct. 7. Now I cannot help but admire his craft and guile.

He has been careful in recent years not to antagonize Russia or China but instead to concentrate all attention on Iran and its proxies. He has perfected the art of defying the US while continuing to rely on it. No one who aspires to replace him as prime minister can disagree with him that Iran is the “octopus” whose tentacles most directly threaten Israel. No one can prove that the deal with the Saudis is now unattainable. “Bibi” balances his foreign and domestic foes against one another, ducking and weaving his way from crisis to crisis, unloved but unmatched.

Yet Israelis need love, too. They also were victims of aggression. They too are threatened with annihilation, as their ancestors were in the Holocaust. For many Israelis, there is a bitter irony that Ukraine — where so many Jews were murdered during World War II — has become the West’s favorite just cause, while Israel must endure condemnation at the International Court of Justice and the United Nations.

The irony will be even richer if, as I strongly suspect, it turns out that Israel is waging war more cleverly than Ukraine. Similar though the two countries’ predicaments may be, one is in fact much more likely to be victorious than the other — and it is not Ukraine.

If there were a few more Machiavellians in Munich, we might drop the double standard by which we judge the two democracies at war today. Both are fighting for Western civilization, one against Russian imperialism, the other against Iranian-backed Islamism. And we should want both to win — not just the one with the longer odds of victory.

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