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Note: The Israel options
Europe and Ukraine feel the ripples
The geopolitical shockwaves from Hamas’ cross-border raid and Israel’s retaliatory war to effect regime change in Gaza will be felt for many years. The scale, brutality and historical resonance of the Hamas massacre were designed to provoke a response that would catalyse uprisings in the West Bank, destabilise Egypt, terrorise the West, unravel Israel’s developing ties with Arab regimes, and force the great powers in the region overtly to pick a side.
Shock eddies have already washed across Brussels and widened the usually hidden fissures between member states and their institutional delegates over their disparate approaches to Israel, the Palestinian Authority (PA), and Hamas-run Gaza.
First came a unilateral decision by Olivér Várhelyi, the European commissioner responsible for relations with the EU’s neighbours, to stop all aid to the PA. Since none was due other than humanitarian assistance and the commission lacked the authority to block aid in any case, Várhelyi’s announcement should be seen for what it was – a message from Budapest. The second wave – and one that will have an impact on next year’s power transition in Brussels – came in the form of off-the-record fury from the more PA-friendly member states and their institutional officeholders to commission president Ursula von der Leyen’s one-day visit to Israel.
Yet, as politically signalling as these internal spats are, the more significant European impact of the new war will be felt in Ukraine. For Kyiv, the repercussions of the Gaza war are both a threat and an opportunity.
One and done
The threat is obvious. Twenty months into the full-scale war, external support was bound to wane but Hamas’ success in restarting a post-2001 clash of civilisations has accelerated this process. Let’s leave to one side long-standing popular pacificism in Germany, Italy and Spain. And let’s ignore – until tonight’s exit polls, at least – the loosening bond between Poland and Ukraine driven by farming interests and a stray word too many by president Volodymyr Zelensky.
These challenges are surmountable as long as US support holds. And it is this support – always more fragile than claimed by Washington insiders – that is withering as the 2024 presidential election approaches. Since 24 February 2022, old-time Reaganite officeholders have ensured that bills approving $45 billion in military assistance to Kyiv have repeatedly passed the House of Representatives and Senate with Republican support. But, increasingly, they have been doing so against the will of a Republican base and a growing band of legislators loyal to Donald Trump.
Trump has never hesitated in his support for the Russian cause. Ukrainian forces were still fighting for control of Hostomel Airport in the initial, critical engagement in the battle for Kyiv when he declared Russian president Vladimir Putin a “genius” for recognising the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics as justification for annexing them. A year later, Trump blurted out that, if he were still president, he would have offered Putin “a deal to take over something – there are certain areas that are Russian-speaking areas”.
As always, motivated exclusively by flattery or vengeance, the former president blames Zelensky and all Ukrainians for his first impeachment. His cult quickly followed suit and placed Ukraine on the Woke side of Americans’ forever culture war. Even before the Gaza war began, the Republican right had stepped up its campaign to end support for Ukraine. A House vote to end all military assistance to Ukraine attracted 93 Republicans – 42% of the conference. Now an ally dear to part (but not all) of the Trump coalition needs help, the same lobby claims Ukraine has suckered its senile client (that’s president Joe Biden to anyone outside the right’s online echo chamber) into handing over weaponry and cash earmarked for Israel.
The Biden administration is worried enough to be negotiating with Congressional leaders over a new aid package that either bundles support for Ukraine and Israel or amounts to a “one-and-done”, one-year allocation for Kyiv only. Whatever they and their most vocal public intellectual supporters still claim, the Ukrainians already knew they had to end this war before the last months of the presidential campaign. Any later risks the return of a Russian ally and a loyalist national security team to the White House. Biden’s “one and done” settles the matter.
In the absence of a Russian military collapse between now and next summer, that means a settlement that leaves much of eastern Donbas and Crimea in Russian hands. It also means keeping the Russians sufficiently weakened and unsure of Trump’s return that they are willing to settle for an outcome well short of their war aims and with the dream of a “restored” Russian-Ukrainian-Belarusian nation lost forever now Ukraine is rooted in the Western camp.
Anything short of outright victory will be considered a betrayal by many Ukrainians but, with few exceptions, this is how wars end. Outcomes are rarely as clean as the freezing of the line of contact in Korea in 1953. Typically, wars with external powers but with a civil component – like Bosnia, Georgia, Moldova, and Ireland – end with enclaves that permanently destabilise the new or reduced state. Like the two Koreas and the two Irelands, they often end with a settlement but with both sides maintaining their territorial claims. Crimea is almost certainly lost under any scenario but even reabsorbing a devastated eastern Donbas and that part of its population that chose Russian occupation is a challenge post-war governments could do without.
In March 2022, the Ukrainians offered to place Crimea and Sevastopol into a 15-year non-aggressive status negotiation with Russia, with a similar unspecified timetable for eastern Donbas. Convinced they could still win a war at that stage, the Russians refused the offer. Something similar but less generous could be on the table next summer together with sanctions relief from Ukraine’s allies. Even to consider such a concession, Ukraine will need security guarantees, and this is where Israel returns to the picture.
Kyiv is understandably wedded to the notion that only formal membership of NATO and the EU will provide it with true security and economic guarantees. No halfway houses will do. But the hard fact is that, until they can see the shape of the post-war settlement, NATO members – and the US especially – are not prepared to provide that level of guarantee.
Fortunately, an alternative blueprint is ready in the form of the Kyiv Security Compact co-sponsored by Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former NATO secretary-general, and Andriy Yermak, Zelensky’s chief of staff. This commits Ukraine’s allies and compact signatories to deliver weapons on a scale that allows Ukraine to repel or deter any further Russian aggression, enhance their intelligence sharing and train Ukrainian forces, and expand Ukraine’s domestic defence industry so it can produce its own weapons and ammunition.
The think-tank world is awash with papers deriding this “Israel option” and last weekend’s events further undermined the model. Speaking last week, Ihor Romanenko, Ukraine’s former deputy chief of the armed forces general staff, said: “The 'Israel option’, taking into account the fact that Israel is a nuclear state, did not provide the security that US experts talked about”.
Would Hamas have been deterred by NATO’s Article 5? No. The guarantees Ukraine needs are against Russian revanchism, which is an entirely different kind of deterrence. Not only does the compact provide that – pending Ukraine’s NATO membership if the alliance still exists after 2025 and a potential Trump restoration – but the experience of the past week shows the extent of the Israel Option. As Israel’s invasion plans became clear, the Biden team warned Iran against any involvement in the defence of its client and moved the USS Gerald R. Ford Carrier Strike Group into the eastern Mediterranean. Based around the world’s largest carrier (above), the strike group includes 80 planes and five destroyers and cruisers equipped with weapons to shoot down long-range ballistic missiles.
At the same time, Zelensky quickly spotted a second potential knock-on impact of the changed political and strategic landscape: the uncomfortable but solidly self-interested alliance between Israel and Russia could finally founder to Kyiv’s advantage. He was one of the first world leaders to respond loudly and unequivocally in Israel’s support. As a Jewish head of state, Zelensky has worked hard to persuade Israel to abandon its links with Moscow rooted above all in Israel’s need for Russian cooperation when targeting enemies in Syria. But, in this altered environment, Russia’s close military relationship with Iran and friendly links with Hamas are a liability for Putin. And his likening of the “unacceptable” Gaza blockade to the Wehrmacht’s 1941-44 siege of Leningrad will not have helped him one bit in Israel.