One of the things that distinguishes humans from other sentient beings is that we are good at seeing and identifying patterns everywhere we look. It allows us to evaluate situations quickly and react appropriately without having to start from scratch. This happens in hundreds of personal daily interactions, but also in the larger realm of foreign policy. At the moment, we see it with Russia’s assault on Ukraine, and within the community of analysts and commentators who deal with Israel and the Palestinians, there are two comparisons that many are making with attendant policy suggestions, neither of which strikes me as quite correct. One is that Ukraine’s fight against Russian aggression and occupation is similar to Palestinians’ struggle against Israeli occupation in the West Bank. The other is that Russia’s menacing of Ukraine, designs on other former Soviet republics, and even threats to non-NATO states such as Sweden and Finland are the same as Iran’s menacing of Israel and Sunni Gulf states.
The comparison between Ukrainians and Palestinians is easy to understand at first glance. Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank is the highest-profile in the world in terms of the attention devoted to it, and thus any other military occupation—such as the one that Russia is currently attempting to pull off in Ukraine—will inevitably draw comparisons to Israel. In addition, many see Ukrainians taking up small arms, making Molotov cocktails, and fighting back against a much larger, more powerful, and better equipped foe that is seeking to limit—or perhaps even eviscerate entirely—Ukrainian sovereignty and independence, which inevitably seems familiar to many who see similar dynamics at play in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The outpouring of support for Ukraine, and the glorification of ordinary Ukrainians making homemade explosives and attacking Russian army vehicles in defense of their homeland, seems incongruous with the way the world reacts to Palestinian attacks on Israeli soldiers and military checkpoints, and this quickly leads down the path of why the world covers for Israel’s violations of norms or why white Europeans are viewed in a different light than non-white Arabs.
Nonetheless, the comparison falls short in a number of ways. To begin with, the genesis of Israel’s control of the West Bank was not an invasion designed to recover a former Israeli republic or install a puppet government, but an enormously successful repelling of a multi-front invasion of Israel following Israeli strikes meant to prevent the imminent invasion. The issue is also complicated by the fact that unlike Ukrainians, Palestinians have an unfortunate history of terrorism against civilians, which is a tactic that is so far absent from Ukraine’s efforts to repel the Russian invasion. Relatedly, scenes of Russian shelling of Ukrainian cities unprovoked may remind people of scenes of Israeli jets striking Gaza, but Israeli strikes in Gaza are not one-sided as they are in response to Hamas and Islamic Jihad rockets.
Underlying all of this is the fact that Ukraine does not objectively represent a security threat to Russia—tangibly or conceptually—whereas while there is a wide-ranging debate about the extent of Israel’s reasonable security concerns, no serious observer believes that they are made up out of whole cloth. It is not credible to view all of Israel’s activities in the West Bank as completely justified and without fault, and there are plenty of abuses to be highlighted. But as with the charges of Israeli apartheid across every inch of land that Israel controls, something can be bad in its own right without insisting that it is the same as another bad thing. There are many valid reasons to view Ukraine’s fight against Russia as something very different from Palestinians’ fight against Israel, from the building blocks of the conflict to the relative merits of each side to the tactics displayed.
A similar blurring of categories and lines is at work with the comparisons of Russia’s behavior to Iran’s. Russia has now invaded another country with the presumed purpose of limiting its independence and installing a puppet government, thereby turning an independent state into a Russian proxy. This is not new behavior, following Russia’s 2008 incursion into Georgia and 2014 annexation of Crimea, and it is also part of a pattern of Russia trying to establish a sphere of dominance across its near abroad through a combination of direct military action, support for proxy groups, and rhetorical threats. It is easy to see why this reminds people of Iran, which dominates Lebanon through Hizballah, has flooded Syria with IRGC fighters and Iranian militias, supports the Houthis in Yemen, and supplies weapons to other proxies and militias throughout the region that have resulted in missile and drone attacks on Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.
Most critically, much of the world has quickly mobilized to prevent further Russian aggression and punish it for its actions in Ukraine through a combination of sanctions and isolation. This is at odds with the approach to Iran’s nuclear program and generally malignant regional behavior, where sanctions have been far leakier and less unified, and where the U.S. and other world powers are in the midst of negotiating another nuclear deal with Iran that will remove sanctions in return for Iran freezing—rather than rolling back or abandoning—its nuclear activities. As with the treatment of Ukraine versus the treatment of Palestinians, many see a double standard at work, and would like to replicate the global campaign to stymie Russia with a similar global campaign against Iran. The desire to do so is particularly acute since Iran does not yet have nuclear status, and preventing that from happening is the most important factor in ensuring that Iran does not end up with carte blanche to do anything it pleases.
In this instance too, the comparison falls short in a few ways. Without minimizing Iran’s status as a bad actor and its effective control of Lebanon and Yemen in particular, Iran has also not gone quite so far as Russia and in such a blatant manner by surrounding and invading another sovereign state. It does not lessen Iran’s own activities, but it does make them different. There is also the gap in capabilities; from the size of its military to its status as the country with the largest number of nuclear warheads and the most advanced delivery systems for them, Russian aggression in Ukraine is viewed as a more threatening harbinger for what could come next than are Iran’s efforts to destabilize the Middle East.
More saliently, there is the ever-present specter of the U.S. pullout from the JCPOA, colloquially known as the Iran Deal. Whatever one thought of the deal—and I was a skeptic—it was a negotiated solution to deal with Iran’s nuclear program, even if it was highly imperfect and had clear sunsets. When the U.S. unilaterally pulled out with Israel’s clear encouragement, that instantly made it harder to ever deal with Iran’s nuclear program or other activities going forward the way that the world is now dealing with Russia. The equivalent would be if the U.S. had signed a deal with Russia to never consider admitting Ukraine into NATO in return for a pledge of Russian non-aggression, and then pulled out of the deal and admitted Ukraine. It wouldn’t make a subsequent Russian invasion justified, but it would absolutely make it harder to marshal a response to Russian aggression along the lines of what we are now seeing. There are plenty of arguments to treat Iran the same way that Russia is now being treated, but they will inevitably fall short without dealing with the massive JCPOA elephant in the room.
Sometimes one thing truly is part of a pattern, and sometimes we just want it to be. In the case of what is taking place in Ukraine, it is horrific in its own right, but it is not the same as the regional challenges that Israel faces or the Palestinian struggle for independence.