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Op-ed

Putin’s derision, the failure of diplomacy, and the stark lessons for Israel

With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the world order is being remade, US hegemony is no longer assured, and we are reminded to take seriously foes closing in on the ultimate weapon

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

US President Joe Biden meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in the Oval Office of the White House, on September 1, 2021, in Washington, DC. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
US President Joe Biden meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in the Oval Office of the White House, on September 1, 2021, in Washington, DC. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

An earlier version of this Editor’s Note was sent out Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

“The Biden administration has turned diplomacy into a religion,” an Israeli official was quoted telling Channel 13 news earlier this week.

It wasn’t intended as a compliment.

The unnamed senior official was speaking in direct relation to the administration’s relentless effort to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran — an effort that has made “substantial progress” over the last week, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Tuesday.

But the comments came in a wider context, too — most notably as Vladimir Putin began moving on Ukraine.

The collapse of the Soviet Union left the United States as the world’s sole superpower, self-charged, in principle, with upholding freedom and confronting tyranny around the world while, in practice, understandably also trying to minimize the costs of doing so in terms of American blood and treasure.

It was at once an immensely privileged and an immensely demanding position.

Increasingly — as marked by the failure to foster democracy in Iraq, the chaotic departure from Afghanistan, the gradual reduction of influence in Syria — minimizing those high costs has taken precedence over filling the role of global freedom protector.

At the same time, China has been rising to challenge that single superpower status.

And now Putin is asserting his ambitions, exploiting America’s perceived weakness, brazenly invading a Ukraine whose reformist, anti-corruption president was trying to draw closer to the US and the West.

Traffic jams are seen as people leave the city of Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022 (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

From the particular perspective of Israel, Putin’s untrammeled pursuit of his expansionist goals, in open defiance of American warnings and threats, resonates deeply.

It is a reminder — one that Israel did not need — to take with the utmost seriousness threats issued by rapacious adversaries, first and foremost Iran, who have the capacity, or are working to gain the capacity, to implement them. (As Foreign Minister Yair Lapid told me less than two weeks ago, “I’m looking at Ukraine and saying, thank God for the IDF and for our ability to defend ourselves.”)

And it is disturbing confirmation that the world order is being remade before our eyes, with America’s previous hegemony no longer assured.

**

The United States has been Israel’s key ally for decades, and remains so. But crucial to that alliance for Israel has been the knowledge that an America firmly and boldly engaged in this vast region provided stability for little Israel, helping to deter regional aggressors.

Today, that engagement is fading, and so too the deterrence. Iran’s march to the bomb is the most dangerous case in point.

The Iranian regime, far closer to a nuclear weapons capability than it was when the original lousy deal was reached in 2015, is evidently moving closer to accepting the revived accord proffered by the US — several of whose key clauses expire in the next few years, and under which Iran will apparently be allowed to keep its advanced centrifuges. The agreement will reportedly also bring the immediate release of billions of dollars in frozen assets to help finance Tehran’s regional warmongering. How gracious of Iran’s supreme leader, forgive my sarcasm, to consider consent.

As was the case in the run-up to the 2015 deal, Israel, although directly threatened by Iran’s rogue nuclear weapons program, has been neither a direct nor an indirect participant in the negotiations, and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s preference for behind-the-scenes efforts to influence the American stance would appear to have been no more effective than his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu’s openly confrontational approach.

An Iranian man holds an anti-US banner in front of missiles displayed at an exhibition in central Tehran by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Jan. 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Iran’s progress toward the status of nuclear threshold state has been marked by a succession of the worst of all possible lurches by the US.

The original Obama-era accord failed to achieve its necessary goal: dismantling the regime’s rogue program and ensuring it could not be resuscitated. The Trump administration’s 2018 withdrawal from the deal predictably prompted Iran to openly breach the accord’s generous terms and further advance its enrichment and bomb-making knowledge and capabilities. And the “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign had shown no sign of weakening the ayatollahs’ nuclear resolve even before it was doomed by Donald Trump’s electoral defeat. Now the Biden administration is desperately seeking to reinstate an accord that the president himself acknowledged needed to be longer and stronger.

**

Diplomacy is anything but a dirty word. Effective diplomacy, if backed by punitive measures and demonstrable resolve, might just have given Vladimir Putin pause. Effective diplomacy, backed by punitive measures and demonstrable resolve, could yet snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in the Iranian nuclear showdown.

Not so, however, diplomacy when turned “into a religion,” as the unnamed Israeli official, likely located not a million miles from the office of the prime minister, put it. Not so, that is, when diplomacy is pursued as some kind of act of faith, unrelated to or blinkered from realities shaped by increasingly emboldened, even derisive adversaries.

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