Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was precipitated by assurances from China, Germany, and the United States that each of Russia’s major trading partners either backed his position or had zero interest in getting in his way. President Joe Biden’s invitations to Putin to bite off more chunks of Ukraine made it clear that America was not interested in a fight with the Russian dictator in his own backyard. Surely, the mighty Putin would make quick work of the Ukrainians. After all, he helped put down the Syrian rebellion to preserve Iran’s stake in Syria, and thereby sealed Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with the clerical regime in Tehran. So why make a big fuss, especially since at the same time Putin is intent on breaking Ukraine, he is also brokering the new Iran deal with U.S. negotiators in Vienna?
The problem for Biden is that Putin is not winning his war in anything like the quick and easy fashion that the White House and other world powers apparently expected. Moreover, the prospect of a dictator murdering thousands of Ukrainians in Europe in a prolonged war may be a tougher pill to swallow for so-called Western elites than the same dictator helping to murder half a million Syrians.
Biden’s position has thus become difficult, even with a captive media eager to read from a script in which the president of the United States bravely rallies NATO to do something, while in fact doing as close to nothing as politically possible. Luckily, the White House has a playbook for situations in which the contradictions between appearance and reality threaten to overwhelm the ever-changing storylines about who is responsible for, say, $6 per gallon gas. The playbook, like the Iran deal, is a legacy of the Obama administration, and a variation on an age-old incantation: “Blame the Jews.”
In the case of Ukraine, blaming the Jews might seem like a stretch—the Jewish state is a regional power in a region far from Ukraine. But senior Capitol Hill sources told Tablet that the Biden administration is trying to put Israel in the line of fire by pushing Jerusalem to mediate between Kyiv and Moscow. The point is to position Israel to catch the blame if Putin doesn’t relent, or the stubborn Ukrainians prove unwilling to surrender enough territory to end the war on terms that the Russian president finds acceptable.
Sources explain that the Israelis have reluctantly relayed messages between the two states but don’t want to get further involved, for two reasons: First, with Russian forces on their Syrian border, the Israelis don’t want trouble with Putin; second, they see that the White House is setting them up for failure by forcing them into taking a stand against Putin.
Team Biden’s PR offensive blaming Israel for the failure of two-faced U.S. policy has included Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland’s warnings to Jerusalem not to help hide “dirty money” belonging to Putin-allied oligarchs. Nuland also said that Israel should join the international sanctions regime targeting Russian assets—a regime that notably does not include world powers like China and India, which Nuland failed to mention.
The administration’s misdirection campaign also relied on Biden validators from the foreign policy establishment. Richard Haass and Aaron David Miller tweeted to the effect that if Israel wants to be an American ally, it should stand with America’s values, embodied by its moral stance toward Russia, which includes impoverishing ordinary Russians by crashing the ruble.
The coordinated operation to embroil Israel culminated in a story last week pushed out by the White House’s communications infrastructure inside Israel, whose lead publicist, Axios reporter Barak Ravid, proved his value during the Obama years. The story, which quickly went global, claimed that Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to accept Putin’s terms of surrender. A “senior Ukrainian official claimed Bennett initiated the call,” according to an account sourced to an anonymous Ukrainian official and given to Ravid. The source claimed that Bennett “recommended Zelensky take the offer.”
Was the story true? The Ukrainian government said it was false, and moved to correct the record the next day. Zelensky adviser Mikhail Podolyak wrote on Twitter that Israel did not push the Ukrainians to accept the concessions Putin demanded to end the invasion. Zelensky’s adviser tweeted that Bennett, “just as other conditional intermediary countries, does NOT offer Ukraine to agree to any demands of the Russian Federation.” Instead, he wrote, “Israel urges Russia to assess the events more adequately.” He also pointed out that the source could not have been on the call, which was private, and was probably not in Ukraine.
But whether the surrender story is true or not, shouldn’t the Israelis be openly and proudly pro-Zelensky? Ukraine’s president has won the affection of decent—and smart—people the world over, who have festooned their Facebook pages and Twitter feeds with the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag. And he’s Jewish! Why doesn’t Israel join in?
The reality is that Israel has frequently stood up for Ukraine against Russia, and with little to show for it. But the issue in this case is simple: The Russian military is on Israel’s border, kind of like it was on Ukraine’s border before it invaded. The difference is that the Russian-Ukrainian border is a geographical fact. Russia is only on Israel’s border due to a geostrategic power play that Moscow implemented with the acquiescence of the U.S. political faction now trying to drive Israel toward conflict with Putin.
The purpose of the Biden team’s anti-Israel smear campaign is not just to make the Israelis look like they sympathize with a tyrant while offering to hide the blood money of their Russian co-religionists. That part is just ugly propaganda. The strategic purpose of the administration’s campaign is to force Jerusalem into an error that would give Putin reason to move against Israel, and thereby further limit its ability to strike Iran or its allies. As with Obama, Biden’s moves against Israel are keyed to the Iran deal.
Despite some occasional public vows of affection for Israel, Obama’s performative progressives, who staff nearly every important position in the Biden administration, do not see it as an ally. Insofar as Israel jeopardizes the Iran deal, it is a U.S. adversary. Russia, on the other hand, is an important partner in getting the deal across the finish line.
The hypocrisy, gaslighting, and attempt to blame Israel for Russian depredations started more than a decade ago with the onset of the Syrian war. Putin stood behind Moscow’s Cold War-era ally and its only remaining regional partner, the regime Bashar Assad inherited from his father, Hafez. The Russians armed the Syrian government and represented it in international forums like the United Nations, where they regularly blocked action against Assad. When Obama’s U.N. Ambassadors Susan Rice and Samantha Power complained about the Russians’ immoral support for Assad, their shrill protests appeared designed to underscore American impotence. In fact, it disguised the disturbing reality that Obama was on the Russians’ side.
That’s because by defending Assad, Moscow was also defending the nuclear deal with Assad’s other patron, Iran. Instead of owning up to a policy that put the United States on the side of tyrants in Moscow, Damascus, and Tehran, the Obama team claimed that the fault lay with its regional allies, especially Israel, which was said to be pleading to keep the Russian-backed strongman in power. The idea then, as now, was to make the Israelis take the blame for what was in fact the American position: supporting despotic and anti-American regimes.
Israel’s then-ambassador to the United States Michael Oren repeatedly tried to correct the record. “I must once again state,” Oren wrote in 2011, “that Israel wants the Assad regime to be replaced by a genuine Syrian democracy that eschews terror, turns its back on Iran, and seeks peace with its Israeli neighbor.” But it didn’t matter how many times Jerusalem explained its actual position. Israel’s alliance with the United States prevented it from blaming the Americans, which meant that the Americans were free to act in bad faith and blame Israel.
Even with Moscow supporting Assad’s war on their border, the Israelis stood publicly with Ukraine. Shortly after Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, Israel voted at the U.N. in defense of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Soon, Russian forces would move toward Israel’s border with its 2015 escalation in Syria, a move celebrated at the time by U.S. officials but in no way welcomed by the Israelis.
In public, Obama’s aides claimed Russia would help rid the world of ISIS and other terror groups, but that’s not why Putin dispatched his forces at the request of Iranian terror commander Qassem Soleimani. The Russians were there to support Iran. And that’s what Obama wanted, too. What was the point, after all, of legalizing Iran’s industrial-scale nuclear program, if the Iranian regime was going to lose its war in Syria? Iran had to win, which meant Putin had to help. The government of then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu understood that for the first time in half a century, Jerusalem would not have Washington’s support if it wound up in a shooting war with Moscow.
Accordingly, the Israelis worked out a modus vivendi with Putin, a “deconfliction” mechanism by which Israel was permitted in certain circumstances to attack Syrian and Iranian forces, including Hezbollah. But should the Israelis get it into their heads to conduct air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities, they’d have hell to pay on their border. Putin supplied the deterrence that protected the only foreign policy goal that really mattered to Obama. With Putin in Syria, Israel could only go so far.
Yet even then, in December 2016, Israel again took Kyiv’s side at the U.N. in a vote on the human rights situation in Crimea.
How did Vice President Biden show his appreciation for Israel’s principled stance against Putin’s war in Europe? Less than a week later, he strong-armed the Ukrainian president to vote for Security Council Resolution 2334, finding that Israel was in occupation of Palestinian land—which according to the resolution included historical Jewish holy sites. The Ukrainians asked to abstain, but Biden said no. Kyiv then asked for a delay. There was a large and influential Jewish community in Ukraine with family ties to Israel. And after all, what would the optics be of turning against Jerusalem just days after the Israelis had stood with Ukraine? That was not good enough for Biden. So the Ukrainians joined the other powers the Obama team had corralled into voting against Israel.
The Biden administration’s moves against Israel over Ukraine are part of a ghoulish puppet show. Yes, the administration will sanction the Russian economy until it bleeds—at the same time that the nuclear deal with Iran gives Russia a cash-rich client eager to buy Russian arms. And why not? From the perspective of the Obama-Biden faction, Russia is hardly the main problem. That distinction is reserved for Israel.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).