With 2022 coming to an end, I’d like to share with readers of this far too infrequent newsletter some thoughts.
Yes, the new Israeli government is their legitimately elected one
There is a phenomenon that has gripped liberals both in the United States and in Israel of denying their affiliation with the government elected by their citizenry. Americans did it with Donald Trump, as one after another liberals and Democrats declared Trump “not my president.” Now, in Israel, with the election of what is, by a fair degree, its most radical right-wing government ever, some protesters are saying the government is “illegitimate” while others are saying it is not reflective of Israelis.
It's all nonsense.
I’m an American, and, to my everlasting shame, Donald Trump was, for four years, my president. George W. Bush was my president for eight years, Ronald Reagan the same. Richard Nixon was, long before I could vote, my president for over five years. I didn’t want any of them. But I got them all the same.
I’m an American, and so I never said these horrifying men were “not my president.” I was not going to duck my responsibility for countering their hateful, cruel, and murderous actions. I was not going to pretend that a significant part of the reason that these loathsome men were elected is because I and others who share my beliefs had failed to get policies passed that would have demonstrated that sharing, caring, and compassion for ALL our fellow citizens was not only right but beneficial to us all.
Today in Israel, it’s even more stark. The voters have in fact spoken, particularly the Jewish majority. Those voters ended up allotting 64 seats to the parties that are part of the new government. But they also voted an additional 18 seats to the right-wing National Unity and Yisrael Beiteinu parties. Those parties are just as far right as much of this government; they just don’t like Benjamin Netanyahu.
That’s 82 seats on the right. We can also consider the 24 seats the Yesh Atid party received. While certainly not as right wing as the others, the fact that Yesh Atid is often described as “centrist” when its platform includes a refusal to share Jerusalem with the Palestinians and its leader, Yair Lapid, once kicked off an election campaign with a rally in the settlement of Ariel says a great deal about the Israeli body politic.
When the relative left in Israel was desperate, the leader of the Labor party, Merav Michaeli, was so afraid of anything resembling progressive politics that she refused to join with the more left-wing Meretz party. The result was that Meretz failed to make it into the Knesset and Labor itself barely qualified with the minimum of four seats.
This government is not some alien force that descended upon Israel and distorted or even thwarted the will of the people. This right-wing monstrosity is what Israel is. It has been moving in this direction since at least 2000, so there was plenty of warning, plenty of chances for Israelis and their supporters to change course. They either failed or did not wish to do so.
Maybe that’s not surprising, since trying to change this course would have meant confronting the racism that is at the heart of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line. It would have meant taking stock of the very nature of political Zionism. It would have meant recognizing that Zionism did not fail to set up a state that respects the rights of all, but that, self-serving rhetoric notwithstanding, it was never intended to do anything of the kind.
But Jewish Israelis can’t duck the responsibility they, as citizens and voters, now have any more than we Americans can duck that responsibility for our own murderous, callous, corporate, and/or warmongering leaders, of whatever party.
Diplomacy in Ukraine
If 2022 demonstrated anything it was that liberals often love war just as much as anyone.
Ukraine became a cause celebre, and with good reason. Russia’s invasion was a massive war crime, one which easily ranks with the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But the hostility to the mere mention of a diplomatic resolution to the war in Ukraine is, frankly, shameful.
I’ve been, as most of you know, involved in Israel-Palestine for over two decades. That is not an issue known for the cool heads of those involved. But I have rarely experienced the venom that I have this year over Ukraine, often from people I’ve known for years.
Liberals have absolutely and unquestioningly bought into the U.S. narrative of this war, which states that Russia, with evil and insane intent, and for no reason other than a madman’s need to take more territory and fulfill some ridiculous ethnic theory, invaded Ukraine. They have also bought into the idea that the United States can do nothing but give Ukraine arms until Ukraine says differently.
It’s obvious that none of this is true. It’s also obvious that defenders of Russia on the left have thoroughly undermined any effort to have a rational discussion about policy regarding the Ukraine war. One clear example is John Mearsheimer, who argues that Russia, while certainly engaging in a criminal and ill-advised action in invading Ukraine, had good reasons to do so.
That’s not the case. Nor is it the case that this was some long-term conspiracy to reignite the Cold War by “forcing” Vladimir Putin into invading Ukraine. The ideas that some on the left are pushing are just ignorant propaganda born out of a need for the United States to be the villain in every scenario.
But neither is the U.S. narrative true when it states that Vladimir Putin simply went mad and decided to invade Ukraine based largely on a racist theory that denied the existence of a Ukrainian national identity.
Mainstream thinking has banned the idea that the United States, after agreeing to halt NATO expansion in the wake of the collapse of the USSR, not only went ahead with that expansion, but also encouraged the kleptocracy that came to power under Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, paving the way, however unintentionally (but certainly foolishly) for a strongman like Putin. Mainstream discourse has also stigmatized the rather obvious fact that, when George W. Bush announced American support for NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia, it was a key, though not sole, impetus for Moscow’s turning more aggressive and planning offensive wars.
Whether people want to admit it or not, that was a strategic blunder of gargantuan proportions. Many world leaders and many American foreign policy experts warned Bush of the foolishness of this move. He didn’t heed that advice, but also did nothing to plan for increased Russian aggression in response. Thus, the U.S. had no clear policy to respond to Russia’s aggression in Georgia in 2008. Obama fared little better in 2014, when Russia captured Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine, the invasion that was a prelude for the current fighting. He, too, was not prepared with an effective response, and the situation stayed stagnant but potentially explosive for years.
Every one of these was a war of aggression on Russia’s part. There was, at every turn, real European opposition to American policies that everyone with an ounce of sense knew were going to put Russia on more of a war footing and increase Putin’s (whether he was officially the president of Russia at the time or not) nervousness about NATO deployments. One look at this map of U.S. troop deployments and how much of those forces was close to Russia is enough for anyone to understand the provocative nature of those deployments. European leaders generally understood this and didn’t like it. Americans are either unaware of it or just believe that such deployments which would provoke an immediate military response if they were that close to our borders should be understood by Russia to “not be a threat.”
I’ll repeat again, none of this remotely justifies Russia’s invasions. Invading other countries is simply an unacceptable option, whether that country is Ukraine or Iraq. But it’s also true that the United States worked to influence who the new leadership in Ukraine would be after the uprising that ousted Viktor Yanukovich in 2014. While it’s not the case that the U.S. engineered the uprising (they certainly supported it rhetorically, but the evidence of anything beyond that is sorely lacking), American involvement in the aftermath inevitably raised major concerns in Russia. Those concerns were far from irrational, even if the response was murderously, illegally unacceptable.
One other myth that is enforced and inviolable in public discourse is the constant refrain of “Nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine,” a clumsy bit of language that sounds axiomatic but has implications that are simply untrue. One such implication is that the United States is a mere supporter, following the will of Ukraine and supporting its self-defense.
Now, I fully support helping Ukraine defend itself, and while there should be much more monitoring of how U.S. weaponry is used, in a hot war such as this one, that can be difficult (though not so difficult as to justify the almost total lack of such monitoring that is happening now). But we cannot pretend that this massive flow of money to U.S. corporations for the sake of buying weaponry (and we should not ignore the potential danger of birthing such a cash cow for the arms industry) doesn’t influence Ukrainian thinking. Volodymyr Zelenskyy was calling for talks early on, then changed his tune abruptly, eventually even saying that there could be no talks as long as Putin was president. That statement, which Ukraine has since downplayed, effectively meant there could be no talks. There is no way Ukraine takes such a position without the United States guaranteeing the continued flow of arms and support for that stance. Interestingly, as I’ve pointed out in the past, when Zelenskyy was talking about diplomacy, U.S. spokespeople were talking about the need to “diminish” Russia’s capabilities, undermining any feelers Zelenskyy might be putting out.
Diplomacy around Russia’s war in Ukraine is not a simple matter. The modern fashion of setting certain pre-conditions on negotiations has become a method to refuse talks while claiming to be open to them. Putin, for instance, has said talks would only proceed if Kyiv recognized Russia’s annexation of Crimea, an obvious non-starter that contradicts and nullifies Russia’s repeated statements that it was ready to talk to all parties. Ukraine, for its part, has said that Russia must withdraw its forces before talks could commence, equally a non-starter.
The idea that simple diplomacy is somehow a compromise is utterly wrong-headed. Many peace talks have commenced and concluded while fighting raged on until an agreement was reached. It’s the point of the talks.
These talks will be very difficult and complicated. While it is not reasonable for Ukraine to expect Russia to withdraw from all the territory it still holds before talks can commence, it is eminently reasonable—in fact, crucial—that Ukraine and its allies hold firm to the basic principle of the inadmissibility of acquiring territory by force. Therefore, Ukraine cannot and must not settle for anything less than the restoration of all its territory. That’s a position that must be adhered to.
Yet Russia, if it is to eventually agree to peace terms, must be offered something. By invading Ukraine, Putin has made that question much more difficult. Global support for NATO, which was severely waning, has skyrocketed. It is welcoming two new members. There is much more openness toward the idea of Ukraine joining the European Union, and, while major hurdles remain that will be difficult to overcome for Ukraine to join NATO, even that idea has more support now than it did a year ago.
Questions of security arrangements, deployments, removal of sanctions, and potential compromises on subjects like NATO membership should be on the table, while we bear in mind that “on the table” is not the same as “on offer” and even less is it actually granting such compromises. These are things that can be discussed and negotiated, although such dealings would have been far easier if Putin had aggressively pursued them before the invasion. Now, it ill be much harder for Ukraine, Europe, and the US to compromise and to find ways of guaranteeing that all sides will hold to their commitments. The experience of the Minsk Agreements, which neither Russia nor Ukraine abided by, doesn’t help either.
None of it will be easy, but the alternative is much worse. A long-term war will heighten tensions in many corners, as Global South countries, currently working hard to avoid choosing sides, will have to make difficult and controversial decisions. Food and energy shortages and rising prices will become bigger and bigger problems. And, most of all, the price the people of Ukraine and, perhaps at some point in the near future, Russia as well will pay is going to escalate. The devastation in Ukraine is already immense and, while the resilience of the Ukrainian people has been remarkable, even heroic, a war that lasts for years will surely test that.
Russia is inflicting enormous damage on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure. It remains to be seen what that will mean over the course of a winter that is only beginning. Ukraine has fought admirably against an enemy that has a vastly larger military capability. But there is a limit. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley bluntly stated that it is very unlikely Ukraine can reclaim all its lost territory by force of arms. "The probability of a Ukrainian military victory - defined as kicking the Russians out of all of Ukraine to include what they claim as Crimea - the probability of that happening anytime soon is not high, militarily," Milley told a news conference at the Pentagon shortly after one of Ukraine’s biggest victories, the recapture of the city of Kherson.
If the war drags on, eventually either the tide will turn against Ukraine or, fearing a loss, Russia will embark on a scorched earth campaign. It has the capability of wreaking unthinkable destruction if that is its only goal.
Only diplomacy can avert that deadly dilemma. And the time to start what will be an arduous, difficult, long-term task, is now, when Ukraine and NATO are in a position of relative strength and while all sides have good reason to find a way out of this situation. Sloganeering and the stifling of voices that are calling for a path out of war, which has been the overwhelming strategy of the Biden administration and very much the tone of the ostensibly liberal media and punditry, is only leading us all deeper into bloodshed, from which there will be no winner. It would be wise to start 2023 with more diplomacy and less McCarthyism.
It's been a while since I did one of these, so I’ll only list a few of the articles I’ve written in this time. But I encourage you to follow my blog at http://ReThinkingForeignPolicy.Org. I post links to every article I publish there. Also, don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @MJPlitnick or on Mastodon @MitchellPlitnick@journa.host
Happy 2023, everyone. May it be a damn sight better than the recent years.
Where to find hope
Can the U.S.-Israel relationship survive a far-right government?
Blinken tells J Street Biden will change nothing
The question of violence
"Global support for NATO, which was severely waning, has skyrocketed"
I'm not sure the evidence is there for that claim. It's true that those governments that the USA has directly under its thumb, such as the UK, Australia, South Korea et al, are steadfast in their determination to keep the killing going as long as possible. But I don't think that a majority of the world's population is with them, nor with your arguments.
The 2014 coup was most certainly assisted by the US government, as the words of Victoria Nuland demonstrated, and the support of the neo-Nazi Svoboda party showed it to be a fascist overthrow of a democratic government because it was too friendly to Russia.