4 ways the Ukrainian situation is going to make things harder in the Middle East

For starters, progress in Syria seems all but impossible for the foreseeable future

By Noga Tarnopolsky
March 5, 2014 6:30PM (UTC)
main article image
John Kerry testifyies on Capitol Hill, Sept. 4, 2013, before a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Syria. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

Global Post JERUSALEM — The nail-biting turmoil in Ukraine is causing significant political upset in Europe and in Washington. But the pain of the crisis also extends to the Middle East, where Secretary of State John Kerry was preparing to announce a "framework agreement" for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks this month, and where the carnage in Syria and the West's attempts to halt Iran's nuclear progression seem to hang in the balance of US-Russian ties.

With so much attention diverted to Ukraine, here are four ways the situation there will hurt the Middle East.


1. The Obama administration’s position on Ukraine hurts its position with Israel.

Obama's hard line with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — telling Israel it has to accept the current parameters for peace or offer a credible alternative — now looks somewhat knee-jerk, maybe even ill-advised.

The White House went to unusual lengths to publicly pressure Netanyahu, organizing anexclusive interview with the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg that was timed to appear two hours before the prime minister's arrival in the United States on Monday. In the interview, Obama takes an unusually blunt stance with Netanyahu, saying that if he "does not believe that a peace deal with the Palestinians is the right thing to do for Israel, then he needs to articulate an alternative approach."


Haa'retz, the left-leaning, pro-peace newspaper, is calling the interview a "perfectly-timed ambush." When Israeli television's Channel 2 asked Goldberg whether he could recall another instance in which a US president behaved thus with an Israeli prime minister, he responded that "it is not a common occurrence." The president's intentions toward Netanyahu, Goldberg said, were "To buck him up and box him in."

So how does Ukraine affect all of this? To many in this region, Obama appears to be taking a tough stand with Israel while positioning the United States very weakly with Russia over the Ukraine crisis — a words-only response that The Washington Post’s editorial board described as a "fantasy"-based foreign policy.

The juxtaposition of those different approaches hands Netanyahu — on a silver platter — the opportunity to blast Obama as a weak, misguided president who is ignoring the world's real crises at tomorrow's AIPAC policy conference, where he the Israeli leader's scheduled to be the keynote speaker.


As Netanyahu arrived Monday, the State Department briefing was hijacked by the Ukrainian crisis.

The Israeli right is already reveling in this moment. "Ukraine's Lesson for Israel: 'US Guarantee Worthless,'" read the headline on neo-Zionist Israeli news source Aurtz Sheva, quoting former National Union Knesset member Aryeh Eldad.


2. Palestinian grievances pale by comparison.

The Palestinian position is similarly not strengthened by the sudden urgency surrounding Ukraine's situation. Put simply, the awful images coming out of Ukraine and the blatant military aggression from Russia work to undermine the principal Palestinian claim: that their lack of self-determination and national well-being should be the top matter on the international agenda.

Even today's revelation that Israel doubled the pace of its West Bank settlement building in 2013 shrinks in importance when weighed against Russian tanks advancing against civilian populations.


Shmuel Rosner, the long-time political analyst, writes that "strategically, from an American viewpoint, it is wasting time on a relatively minor issue. More civilians were killed in Ukraine in the last seven days than in Israel-Palestine [the West Bank] in the last seven years."

3. Making any progress in Syria is now even more unlikely.

The next sentence in Rosner's piercing analysis is "more civilians are killed in Syria every month than in Israel-Palestine in the last 10 years."


Obama pulled back from engaging Syria even when it crossed the red line of chemical weapons use against civilian populations — in part because of the tricky international politics of taking a tougher stance: Taking on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad meant taking on Putin, who supports him.

"Obama is being portrayed, first in the Middle East and now in Ukraine, as 'risk averse,'" Yossi Alpher, another pro-peace activist, says mournfully in an interview with Americans for Peace Now.

"Putin seemingly can allow himself to ignore the American president's current threat that there will be 'costs' for Russia's behavior in Ukraine," while “in the Middle East the US position on Ukraine is liable to trouble America's friends and encourage its detractors, like Iran and Syria."

To Israeli and Arab eyes, the ongoing massacre in Syria is interpreted to be the result of Obama's weak, indecisive dithering. Obama is now trapped in this regard: If he does not act in defense of Ukraine, he will be accused of appeasing Putin. If he does act, vis-a-vis Ukraine, it will be perceived as proof of his disregard for Arab lives, and de facto kowtowing to Putin and his protege, Assad.


"This appears to many to confirm the sense that in Syria the Russian-allied 'camp' [Assad, Iran, Hezbollah] is prevailing over US-supported opposition forces at least in part because of Russian assertiveness and US hesitation," Alpher explains.

Russia was supposed to be assisting the US-led effort to destroy Syria's chemical weapons, which has missed its deadline. Instead, the Kremlin is waylaid in central Europe, and, in the eyes, of many, proving in every way to be an unworthy partner for Western peacemaking efforts.

4. What happened to the Iran talks? And who is watching over Egypt?

Secretary of State John Kerry was due on Monday to depart for Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. This unplanned conjunction is being used as a metaphor for the United States having simply too many crises to manage at once, even before Ukraine erupted.


The US was counting on Russia, in one way or another, to cooperate or assist US efforts to end the Syrian civil war, stabilize Egypt, contain Iran’s nuclear project — and even sustain the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan. The future of each of these initiatives is now in question.

Iran’s nuclear program, in fact, was the first matter Obama brought up at the beginning of his Washington meeting with Netanyahu.

Regarding all of these burning issues, the uncertainty now is how much leverage Obama can exercise, even when it comes to keeping allies like Israel in line. "The question is whether, under current circumstances, Netanyahu feels as free to ignore American presidential admonitions as Putin apparently does," Alpher says.

Noga Tarnopolsky

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