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Ukraine sides with Israel. How will it affect Kyiv’s relations with Arab world, Global South?

by Dinara Khalilova November 26, 2023 12:42 AM 10 min read
Ukrainians and Israelis who support them gather during a protest against Russian attacks on Ukraine, on March 12, 2022, in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
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When Hamas launched its attack on Israeli settlements on Oct. 7, killing around 1,200 people, according to Israeli government data, President Volodymyr Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials condemned the terror and supported Israel's right to defend itself.

Zelensky has compared Hamas to Russia, while his chief of staff Andriy Yermak suggested that Israel's fight with Hamas and Ukraine's defensive war are "elements of an asymmetric war waged against the free world by the' axis of evil'."

Though the combat was halted on Nov. 24 to exchange Israeli hostages for jailed Palestinians, the war is expected to resume after the temporary ceasefire is over.

Combined with deteriorating relations between Israel and Russia, Kyiv's position fueled hopes that Israel would get tough on Moscow and consider military aid for Ukraine.

But as the death toll in the Gaza Strip has been constantly increasing, now in its thousands, Zelensky was slow to acknowledge the suffering of Palestinian civilians. He avoided criticizing Israel's indiscriminate airstrikes and blockade of the enclave, seen by international organizations as collective punishment.

Some experts raised concerns about Kyiv's official stance on the Israel-Hamas war, warning it can damage Ukraine's relations with the Arab world and the countries of the so-called Global South, which have accused the West of valuing Ukrainian lives more than those of Palestinians.

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Historical relationship

Compared to Palestine, Israel is a lot closer to Ukraine historically, economically, and culturally.

Jews have lived in Ukraine for centuries; hundreds of thousands came to Israel when the Soviet Union collapsed. Many prominent Ukrainians, including Zelensky, have Jewish roots. And some Israeli leaders, such as Prime Ministers Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir, were born in Ukraine, which is also home to a major pilgrimage site for Hasidic Jews.

Kyiv established diplomatic relations with Israel shortly after Ukrainian independence in 1991. Ukrainians and Israelis have enjoyed a visa-free travel regime between their countries since 2011 and a free trade agreement since 2019.

Ukraine has had diplomatic relations with Palestine, currently comprising the Gaza Strip run by Hamas and the West Bank governed by the Palestinian Authority, since 2001. Kyiv cut ties with Gaza when Hamas, designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. and the EU, came to power in the enclave.

The Palestinian Authority supported Ukraine's territorial integrity after Russia's occupation of Crimea and Donbas in 2014. But it never condemned the full-scale invasion, reportedly because it wants to be on good terms with the Kremlin.

While Ukraine recognized Israel's right to sovereignty, it supported United Nations resolutions condemning Israeli settlements in Palestine and calling for the International Court of Justice to weigh on the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.

In 2016, Volodymyr Yelchenko, Ukraine's UN delegate at the time, compared Israeli settlements in Palestine to Russia's occupation of Crimea in the sense that both violated international law.

In July, Israeli Ambassador to Ukraine Michael Brodsky warned that Ukraine's voting in favor of "90% of anti-Israel" resolutions could harm his country's support, highlighting increased tensions between Ukraine and Israel during Russia's full-scale invasion.

Frustrated by Israel's refusal to send military aid or sanction Russia, Kyiv in June accused Israel of "blatant disregard for moral boundaries" and "a clear pro-Russian position."

Israel explained that it needed to cooperate with Russian forces in Syria and was worried that Israeli weapons could end up in the hands of its enemies, namely Moscow's ally Iran.

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'Shared destiny'

When protests against Israel's response to the Oct. 7 attack filled the streets in Arab countries and Western capitals alike, Brodsky uncharacteristically called Ukraine "the most pro-Israeli" country in Europe, which may soon declare Hamas a terrorist organization.

Ukraine was among the 45 countries that abstained from voting for a UN General Assembly resolution calling for a humanitarian truce between Israeli forces and Hamas on Oct. 27 because the document failed to condemn Hamas' attacks against civilians.

Ukrainian officials have said that their country, which has long fought for its independence, has "a shared destiny with Israel," and public opinion appears to mirror this position. According to a January poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, most Ukrainians maintain a positive attitude toward Israel despite being disappointed about its refusal to send weapons.

According to Samantha de Bendern, Associate Fellow at the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House, "Zelensky has often been trying to position Ukraine as being very similar to Israel in this fight for existence and against anti-democratic forces and authoritarianism."

"So, in a way, the Ukraine-Israel alliance is a much more natural one than one in which Ukraine and Israel would not be together," de Bendern told the Kyiv Independent.

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Kyiv's pragmatism?

On a more basic level, Kyiv likely hopes that a better relationship may lead to Israeli weapons. Kyiv's support is also informed by its desire to align with the West. The European Union and the U.S., which send the most weapons, have mostly supported Israel.

A few experts said Israeli weapons are wishful thinking — Israel will not arm another country for war while fighting one of its own. And yet, reports soon emerged that Israel has sold some of its Barak MX air defense systems to Azerbaijan.

Israel and Ukraine are also competing for the U.S.'s resources and attention, which means that Israel is likely not a big fan of the White House's idea to combine aid to the two countries in one spending bill, according to Iliya Kusa, an expert on international politics and the Middle East at the Ukrainian Institute for the Future.

Meanwhile, as the Kremlin stepped up its criticism of Israeli actions in Gaza and accepted delegations from Hamas and Iran, Israel still has to take into account the Russian military presence in neighboring Syria, where Russian and Israeli warplanes are flying side by side to bomb targets of their interest.

"Tel Aviv has been long building a separate track for relations with Moscow, and considering the conservatism of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, they are hardly ready to change it quickly," Ihor Semyvolos, chief of Ukraine's Association of Middle East Studies, told the Kyiv Independent.

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Complications with Global South

While Kyiv is trying to push Israel to support Ukraine and, as de Bendern put it, "to cement the wedge driven between Netanyahu and Putin," Ukraine risks losing an already complicated race to charm the Arab countries and the Global South, a collective term for the developing nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

At a peace summit in Cairo on Oct. 21, the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia reportedly lambasted Western countries for staying silent about the suffering of Palestinian civilians in Gaza while unequivocally condemning Russian attacks against Ukrainian cities.

Accusing the West of hypocrisy towards international conflicts has been popular in the Muslim World for a long time.

"And so now, when we see Israel potentially committing war crimes in Gaza… the accusations of double standards are coming out again, directed towards the West. And, of course, they will put Ukraine within that same basket of countries who only apply humanitarian law when it arranges them," de Bendern explained.

A protestor holds a banner during solidarity with Palestine demonstration at the Main Square in Krakow, Poland on Oct. 13, 2023. Protests in support of both Israel or Palestine have been held worldwide after the Hamas Oct. 7 attack against Israel. (Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Kusa thinks, in turn, that Ukraine's official position on the Israel-Hamas war is unlikely to bring any fundamental changes in Kyiv's relations with these countries anytime soon.

Arab countries that kept good ties with Russia during the war don't want to miss the prestigious option of playing mediator, he said.

Saudi Arabia's efforts in brokering prisoner exchanges and hosting a major summit on Zelensky's peace formula have reportedly contributed to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's goal of rebranding his international image.

The Kyiv Independent requested comments from Ukraine's Foreign Ministry and Presidential Office, but there has been no response at the time of the publication.

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Could Ukraine do differently, and what's next?

Ukraine has limited room to support or condemn while balancing the West, Israel, and the Global South.

In Kusa's view, Kyiv's official stance on the Israel-Palestine war could be more leveled, but Ukraine's hands are tied by the antagonism between countries considered Western and non-Western. Ukraine often gets grouped with the former.

Criticism of Israel might expose Kyiv to accusations of antisemitism, amplified by Russian propaganda that tries to paint Ukraine as a neo-Nazi state, according to de Bendern. She added that avoiding radical steps in support of any side would be a wise strategy for Ukraine in the short term.

"And in the long term, I believe that we need to build a separate foreign policy that would be more autonomous from the Western agenda, including in the Middle East," Kusa said. "It is obvious that we will need partnerships in non-Western regions to deter Russia. And it will be difficult to achieve this by repeating the rhetoric of our Western partners."

De Bendern suggested Zelensky can pay more attention to India, one of the few countries of the Global South that has firmly sided with Israel after the Hamas attack.

While India has extensive economic ties with Russia, which it didn't want to sanction, there is an opportunity for Zelensky to "bring one of the most important countries in the BRICS onto Ukraine's side," she said.

The disagreements on how Israel has been handling the battle with Hamas are evident not only in the Global South but also in the West, where pro-Palestinian sentiments have been growing in tandem with the civilian death toll in Gaza.

Several European countries and some of the EU's staff reportedly criticized European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen for taking a more pro–Israel stance than agreed in the bloc and failing to stress the importance of protecting Gazan civilians.

Zelensky should watch the Middle East, and what the international community says to Israel in the coming weeks if he hopes to avoid alienating not only the Arab Countries but his Western allies as well, de Bendern said.

"The most important thing is keeping European allies on his side. And if you look at the mood in Europe right now, the cards are all up in the air."


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