As world patience thins, Israel, Ukraine race against time
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For Ukraine and Israel, nothing short of outright victory in their wars would be sufficient, but they are both fighting against the clock. Russia and Hamas have time enough to aim for a stalemate.
For while these two very different leaders are fighting two very different wars, they face a strikingly similar political challenge.
Each has vowed to defeat an enemy that explicitly rejects their country’s right to exist. But they know that other countries, including key allies, are making judgements of their own about how these wars are fought, for how long, and how they might end.
The result is that Israel and Ukraine are not just fighting Hamas or Russia.
They are also fighting the clock. They are fighting what might be called “stopwatch wars.”
And to the frustration of Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Zelenskyy, Hamas and the Kremlin are both calculating that time is on their side – that merely by denying the other side its existential victory, they will come out on top.
They know that for Ukraine and Israel, “freezing the war means losing it.”
Still, what happens next – when and whether the stopwatch intervenes – will depend on complex, and quite different, sets of circumstances in Gaza and Ukraine.
For Israel, the international pressure is more immediate.
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Israel’s allies, and many other governments worldwide, do not challenge Israel’s right to defend itself in the wake of the savage Hamas attack on Oct. 7 that left an estimated 1,200 people dead and dozens more taken hostage. They understand the Israeli government’s desire to crush Hamas.
But the scale of destruction that the Israeli attacks have brought to Gaza – and above all, the reports and images of civilian suffering – has alarmed even Israel’s closest friends.
The United Nations and international nongovernmental organizations have been calling for a cease-fire.
And with the death toll climbing above 11,000, the United States and other allies have insisted on the need to protect civilians and greatly increase supplies of vital aid. They’ve urged a “humanitarian pause” to accomplish this, and to facilitate a hostage deal.
Two Western leaders, French President Emmanuel Macron and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, went further this week, saying “women, children, and babies” were being killed, and that this had to “stop.”
Still, at least for now, Mr. Netanyahu seems likely to resist expanding any “pause” into a full-scale cease-fire.
That may be partly because of personal political calculations. With most Israelis blaming him for allowing the Hamas surprise attack, he is determined to restore his image as “Mr. Security” in hopes of remaining in office.
But with the trauma of Oct. 7 still fresh in their minds, most Israelis back the military’s attempt to break Hamas’ hold on Gaza. The generals feel that is critical to restoring Israel’s badly tarnished regional deterrence.
Even if the fighting continues, however, the stopwatch is ticking on a political issue that Mr. Netanyahu may find harder to finesse: the need, voiced by U.S. President Joe Biden and the wider international community, to engage in serious postwar diplomacy on a peace treaty with the Palestinians that will give them a sovereign state.
For President Zelenskyy, the pressure of the stopwatch is no less daunting, yet different.
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Ukraine stunned not just Washington and other allies, but the Kremlin, too, by turning back the Russian invasion in February 2022. Then the Ukrainians drove Russian forces back in the east of the country and prepared for what they had hoped would be a wider counteroffensive.
All this was made possible by large-scale deliveries of arms and equipment from the U.S. and Europe.
But Mr. Biden has been determined to avoid direct confrontation with Russia, and that has meant that Ukraine’s allies have sent enough weapons to stave off defeat, but not enough to drive the invading forces back into Russia.
Now, officials in Kyiv fear even that support could be weakening. One sign that worries them is a growing reluctance among some Republican legislators in Washington to keep arming Ukraine.
And there was an inadvertent signal this month that the slippage may be wider.
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni – duped by Russian pranksters pretending to be African diplomats – said that “there is a lot of fatigue” among Ukraine’s allies. “We are near the moment when everybody understands that we need a [diplomatic] way out,” she added.
For Mr. Zelenskyy, that comment could not have come as a surprise. “The scariest thing,” he told Time, “is that part of the world got used to the war in Ukraine.” A kind of “exhaustion” had set in, he said.
And though he has made clear that his sympathies lie with Israel after Oct. 7, he knows that the world’s focus on Gaza risks exacerbating that exhaustion.
While Mr. Netanyahu clearly wishes that the outside world would stop looking so closely at Gaza, and judging Israel so harshly, Mr. Zelenskyy yearns for the opposite.
He hopes that the world will keep paying him attention.