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AnalysisHolocaust parallels prompt more objection than reevaluation

‘You can’t mediate between good and evil’: Zelensky tells Israel how he really feels

In a bitter, accusatory address to lawmakers, Ukraine’s president castigates Israel for failing to help his country fight off Russia, savages Bennett’s approach to halting the war

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).

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks from Kyiv, Ukraine, to Knesset lawmakers on March 20, 2022. (Screen capture: YouTube)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks from Kyiv, Ukraine, to Knesset lawmakers on March 20, 2022. (Screen capture: YouTube)

The Jewish president of a country fighting for its very survival addressed the lawmakers of the perenially threatened Jewish state on Sunday evening. One might have expected the event to be stirring and electrifying.

Instead, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s speech was angry, accusatory, despairing, and brief — lasting less than 10 minutes.

He used it to make clear his belief that the Israeli government’s refusal to provide arms and fully open its doors to Ukrainian refugees is immoral — and shockingly so, given the Jewish people’s plight at the hands of the Nazis. And he savaged Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s strategy in a mediation effort with the Kremlin that he himself initially requested.

As Zelensky noted, Israel has declined to supply Ukraine with defensive weapons — he cited the Iron Dome missile defense system, but his ambassador’s public requests for flak jackets and helmets have also been refused. Israel has placed entry limits on Ukrainian refugees, he pointed out. It has chosen not to impose serious sanctions on Russia, he added.

The Israeli leadership’s fear of alienating Russia saw Zelensky’s initial request to formally set out his country’s case in an address to the Knesset rebuffed — with pretexts about parliament being in recess and undergoing renovation, when any appropriate hall could have served the purpose.

He was thus reduced to a speech via Zoom, albeit one that was attended by the overwhelming majority of Israel’s lawmakers, screened on the country’s main TV stations, and watched by a substantial crowd in Tel Aviv’s Habima Square.

Demonstrators gather at Habima Square in Tel Aviv on March 20, 2022, to watch a televised video address by Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky. (Jack Guez/ AFP)

Rather than prompting empathy or a reevaluation, the immediate response from several lawmakers to his appearance was furious objection to the frequent parallels he drew between the plight of Ukraine — its cities bombed, thousands killed, and millions homeless — and that of the Jews in the Holocaust. He claimed that the Kremlin is speaking of this war as the final solution to the Ukraine question. Likud MK Yuval Steinitz, a former minister, said his use of such comparisons “borders on Holocaust denial.”

But then Zelensky, in his tone of baffled despair, taking a few minutes’ break from galvanizing his country’s resistance to invasion, spoke with the air of a leader who has all but given up on this potential ally. “You know how to protect your political interests, and to help Ukraine, to protect Ukrainians, to protect the Jews of Ukraine.” And yet, he charged, Israel was opting not to do so.

“Can you explain why we’re still waiting” for help from Israel? he wondered bitterly. “What is it? Indifference? Political calculation? Mediation without choosing sides?”

“I’ll leave you to provide the answers to these questions,” he continued, but offered his own conclusions nonetheless. “I want to point out that indifference kills,” he said. “Calculations can be wrong.” And, fist clenched, making crystal-clear how he really feels about Bennett’s mediation efforts between Kyiv and Moscow, “You can mediate between countries, but not between good and evil.”

MKs watch Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky’s address, March 20, 2022. (Knesset channel screenshot)

Israel and Israelis will have to live with the choices they have made during this war, Zelensky told those watching political leaders in their little Zoom boxes. And then he went back to fight it without them.

Hebrew media reported later Sunday that Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid were “surprised” by the ferocity of the Ukrainian president’s critique. Nonetheless, “senior sources” were quoted by Channel 12 saying Israel’s policies will not change in the wake of his address. Precisely as he would have expected.

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