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Analysis | At NATO summit, Gaza is the elephant in the room

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In Washington’s giant downtown convention center, one issue will loom above them all: Ukraine. The country’s plight as it resists Russian invasion is the central focus of NATO leaders gathering in the U.S. capital this week. While Kyiv is not expected to come away with the direct invitation into the alliance it much desires, U.S. officials and their partners are mustering a package of other political and security commitments to help Ukraine turn the tide of the war.

The urgency of the moment was underscored after yet more Russian missile strikes hit civilian areas in Ukraine on Monday, killing dozens and, in one instance, destroying a children’s hospital in Kyiv. Ukrainian officials have been pleading for months for their Western allies to transfer more air defense platforms and munitions to thwart the Russian barrages, and stepped up their entreaties in Washington.

“We’re looking for some serious and strong decisions from the Washington summit about concrete systems of air defense because it’s one of the most critical moments,” Andriy Yermak, chief of staff of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, told reporters in Washington ahead of the summit.

On Tuesday, President Biden unveiled plans to provide Ukraine with additional air defenses. However, while the summit’s final communiqué, intended to be signed by all the delegations, may discuss Ukraine’s path toward NATO accession as “irreversible,” no time frame has been set for that process. Biden is reportedly hesitant about Kyiv’s inclusion into the alliance, and has tasked aides to include language in the final document that stresses the progress on political and anti-corruption reforms that Ukraine still has to make.


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“What they will get are some things that are more than just window dressing, that are improvements in how we will assist Ukraine in coming years,” Jim Townsend, a former Pentagon official for Europe, told my colleagues. “So it’s glass half empty, or glass half full.”

But behind NATO’s urgent deliberations over Ukraine looms another conflict. Since Oct. 7, Israel’s devastating campaign in Gaza has taken global attention away from the Russian invasion and inflamed passions about perceived Western hypocrisy. Many critics pointed to the gap between U.S. and European ire over Russia attacking Ukrainian hospitals and their relative quiescence as Israel repeatedly levels medical facilities and schools in its war against militant group Hamas.

At this week’s summit, it’s unlikely Gaza will draw much significant comment — though at least one member state intends to make it a talking point. Ahead of arriving in Washington, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been sharply critical of Israel since the war began, said he wanted to bring the catastrophe in Gaza into “the spotlight at the summit.” In a statement, he lamented that the “the international community failed to stop Israel in this dire situation” and added that “it is impossible for global conscience to be relieved without the establishment of a fair, permanent peace in Palestine.”

Such a peace does not seem close in either the Middle East nor Ukraine, whose embattled leadership is grimly hoping to turn the tide of battle against Russia’s war machine. But the absence of meaningful Western pressure on Netanyahu or condemnation of some of Israel’s attacks on civilians, argued a leading Turkish delegate, makes NATO’s impassioned embrace of Ukraine all the more glaring.

“It is very clearly hypocrisy, a double standard,” Numan Kurtulmus, speaker of the Turkish parliament and a long-standing Erdogan ally, told me in an interview Monday in Washington. “It’s a kind of racism because if you don’t accept Palestinian victims as equal to the Ukrainian victims, it means you want to create a kind of hierarchy within humanity. It’s unacceptable.”

In just a span of months, the Israeli bombardments have produced more rubble in Gaza than in multiple years of war in Ukraine. The densely packed territory has been pulverized. Reconstruction, whenever it starts, will take decades. Most Gazans have been forced from their homes and a sprawling set of humanitarian crises prevails, including, per U.N. experts, a full-blown famine.

The war has killed close to 40,000 people, according to local authorities and U.N. estimates. The Lancet, a respected British medical journal, calculated that the real death toll, including those missing in Gaza’s ruins and “indirect” deaths from malnutrition, disease and other conditions brought on by the conflict, could be around 186,000 people — that is, roughly 8 percent of Gaza’s population.

In the face of such an onslaught, leaders from countries in the so-called Global South have already expressed their disquiet. “When Russia invaded Ukraine, the West led the global campaign of condemnation. It called for the world to denounce Russia in the name of human rights and international law,” wrote Indonesian President-elect Prabowo Subianto earlier this year. “Today, however, the same countries are allowing yet another bloody conflict, this time in Gaza.”

Last November, outgoing NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg rejected the “double standard” charge. “Ukraine never posed a threat to Russia, Ukraine never attacked Russia,” he told reporters. “The Russian invasion of Ukraine was an unprovoked invasion, a full-scale invasion, of another country. So, of course, Ukraine has the right to self-defense against an unprovoked attack and to uphold territorial integrity.”

Stoltenberg’s successor, Mark Rutte, until recently the longtime prime minister of the Netherlands, has walked an awkward line on the war in the Middle East. He has expressed criticism of the Israeli approach to the Gaza campaign, but critics accuse him and his allies of stifling internal Dutch government condemnation of Israel, perhaps to safeguard his own ascension to the top NATO post. Rutte has denied these charges.

Still, only weeks into the start of the war, a leaked memo from the Dutch embassy’s military attaché in Tel Aviv effectively accused Israel of planning to commit war crimes, suggesting the Israeli military “intends to deliberately cause massive destruction to infrastructure and civilian centers.” The Dutch defense minister at the time said the leaked memo did not represent official policy, and characterized some reports on the memo’s contents as selective and “unfair.” But the leak itself was a demonstration of burgeoning Western discontent with Israel’s prosecution of the war — a discontent that threatens to become more pronounced with time. Just don’t expect to hear about it in Washington this week.

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