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Do We Really Need Another ‘Special Relationship’?

The “Israel model” for relationships doesn’t even work with Israel; why implement it with Ukraine?

Tel,Aviv.,Israel,-,March,20,,2022:,Rally,In,Support
Credit: Israfoto

At a recent meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin unveiled yet another aid package for Ukraine, adding another $200 million to the more than $40 billion already gifted by Washington. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, it includes:

…more artillery, additional ammunition for the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or Himars, precision aerial munitions, electronic-warfare equipment, missiles, anti-armor systems, small arms and more than 16 million rounds of small-arms ammunition.

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Yet this latest aid package has additional, subtextual reasons behind it. First, it is meant to assuage Zelensky’s anger at not achieving an invitation to join NATO at the Vilnius summit in July. The other, more importantly from the standpoint of the Washington establishment, is to get Ukraine on a path to permanent U.S. dependency. 

And that path has a name. In Washington it is now commonly referred to as the “Israel model,” meaning that Washington will, in the absence of a formal treaty of alliance, provide significant financial and economic support, military aid, intelligence sharing and diplomatic support for Ukraine in return for virtually nothing. Ultimately, the point of such a policy is to find a way to bind Washington and its European allies to Ukraine outside of the confines of NATO.

Given the events of the past week, such a policy needs, at the very least, to be the subject of a vigorous debate on its merits—though of course, Washington being Washington, that is unlikely to happen. 

But in the months since the NATO summit in Vilnius this past July, the Israel model has emerged as the preferred alternative to NATO membership among Ukraine’s most devoted partisans.

In a new and adoring profile of Biden national security adviser Jake Sullivan, the neoconservative journalist Susan Glasser reports on Sullivan’s efforts to convince Zelensky of the wisdom of the Israel model. Glasser quotes Sullivan, who she takes great pains to portray as a modern day Metternich, as saying that the administration has had “a long conversation about this in which the President said he wanted to use the meeting in Kyiv to lay out for Zelensky his view that there is a pathway to NATO—it’s not for now, it’s for later—and the bridge to NATO is the Israel model.”

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Glasser further reports that “American officials, meanwhile, have held two rounds of formal negotiations with Ukraine over the terms of a memorandum of understanding—Sullivan’s ‘Israel model.’”

The question then becomes: Is the so-called Israel model the right one for Ukraine? 

As recent events have shown only too clearly, the model—that of a permanent flow of financial aid combined with diplomatic cover for even the most egregious violations of international law and human rights—has proven to be deeply problematic. So why would one recommend it as a kind of sister-policy for Ukraine? The answer, glib, but no less true because of it, is that in Washington nothing succeeds like failure.

As we have seen, such a policy has encouraged successive Israeli governments to indulge in lawless and self-defeating policies such as the 16 year illegal blockade of the 2.3 million inhabitants of Gaza. The attitude there seems to have been: We can do as we wish because the Americans are in our pocket. 

Now consider the domestic behavior of the Zelensky regime, which is repeatedly held up as a kind of “frontline democracy” battling authoritarian Russia on behalf of the West, in the years since the money began to really flow from Washington. No fewer than seven opposition media channels have been shuttered by the regime. By the end of March 2022, Zelensky had banned eleven opposition political parties. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian intelligence service, the Security Service of Ukraine, or SBU, has launched a list of foreign enemies of Ukraine called Myrotvorets (Peacemaker) which includes the names of American citizens who have criticized the war, including John Mearsheimer and Henry Kissinger.

As sociologist Olga Bashya puts it:

…the situation [in Ukraine] is very similar to what has been happening in Russia since the beginning of SMO–here, media are also instructed to present the only “reliable” (i.e., approved by the government) version of “truth.” The only difference is that nobody in the world argues that Russia is a “beacon of democracy”—the way Ukraine is presented for global audiences today. 

Might endless amounts of money, military aid and political support from Washington exacerbate those anti-democratic trends in Kiev?

The other problem is that, over time, the necessary distinction between the client’s interests and those of the patron diminishes to a point to where it becomes—as it has in the case with Israel—scandalous to even suggest that the interests of Washington and Jerusalem may not always and everywhere be in lock step.

Still worse, the Israel model has also shown that the clients’ appetite grows with the eating. It is already the case that the Captive Nations Lobby (CNL) already wields far too much power in Washington. And, while it would be ridiculous to suggest its influence is nearly as pervasive as the Israel Lobby, it has already, through its agents of influence, interfered directly in the 2016 campaign and was directly involved in the plot to impeach a sitting president over a phone call its agents objected to. In the end, adopting the Israel model for Ukraine will only embolden the CNL, further crowding out the voices of realism and restraint in the policy debate.

The way forward for Ukraine is at the negotiating table. The Israel model should be treated as a cautionary tale rather than as a kind of panacea, or worse, as a runner-up prize for failing to get the nod to join NATO. The last thing we should wish for Ukraine is for it to follow Israel’s path of dependency on Washington. 

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