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BRUSSELS — Defense ministers flying into the Belgian capital for a NATO meeting starting Wednesday were expecting to spend their time backing Ukraine — instead, they find their intel briefings full of a region mostly forgotten in the past two years: the Middle East.
From the White House’s new military support for Israel to emergency meetings across European capitals, to a fumbled EU response to the crisis, NATO allies are grappling with a renewed sense of urgency over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Hamas’ surprise attacks on Israel over the weekend has led to the Israeli government’s vow of total retaliation in the Gaza Strip, with a record number of 300,000 reservists already drafted within 48 hours.
The timing is an inconvenience for the Ukrainians, who aim to galvanize further support from NATO countries in what will be the first defense ministers’ meeting following a NATO leaders’ summit in July that saw beefed-up pledges for Ukraine’s security and military support.
Oleksandr Merezhko, chairman of the Ukrainian parliament’s committee on foreign policy, acknowledged the “fears” among his compatriots over whether the West can stay focused on Russia’s invasion while also dealing with the ongoing Israeli-Hamas situation.
“I can only speak for myself. Yes, there are such fears,” Merezhko told POLITICO. “But, at the same time, I think that in the end it will not be a problem, because the USA is such a powerful country in economic and military terms.”
While Ukraine’s new Defense Minister Rustem Umerov is scheduled to get hours of attention, Israel is also expected to be discussed — at least on the sidelines.
“I would be surprised if the situation in the Middle East isn’t mentioned at the meeting,” said a NATO diplomat granted anonymity to speak freely. A second diplomat said they expected strong interest in what U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had to say.
The interest isn’t unusual because Israel has a longtime partnership with NATO, another diplomat pointed out, so it would only be “natural” for the alliance to be concerned about its next steps.
Just a week before the Hamas attack, Dutch Admiral Rob Bauer, the chair of the NATO Military Committee, visited Israel to meet with President Isaac Herzog and military officials. Bauer also visited the Gaza border crossing, where he praised the Israeli military’s “unique expertise in underground counterterrorism activity.”
While the line from the White House is that the United States can deal with two regional crises at the same time, domestic skeptics of helping Ukraine are already piling on.
“Israel is facing existential threat. Any funding for Ukraine should be redirected to Israel immediately,” Josh Hawley, a Republican senator allied with former President Donald Trump, said on social media.
Pledges for Kyiv
U.S. officials are trying to dispel Ukrainian concerns, pointing out that the two countries have differing needs because they face very different threats.
“On the question of whether or not U.S. support for Israel could possibly come at the expense of U.S. support for Ukraine, we don’t anticipate any major challenges in that regard,” U.S. Ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith told reporters on Tuesday. “I suspect the United States will be able to stay focused on our partnership and commitment to Israel’s security, while also meeting our commitments and promise to continue supporting Ukraine as it defends its territory.”
“I think allies no doubt will want to talk about what happened in Israel and express their solidarity. We’ve seen all members of the alliance issue their own national statements — really in real time almost as the attack was ongoing. And I suspect that will be part of our conversation,” Smith said.
Ukraine still remains a key focus for this week’s NATO meeting.
It begins on Wednesday with the U.S.-led Ukraine Defense Contact Group, a regular gathering of NATO and Ukrainian ministers to discuss what weapons to give Ukraine. It will be followed by the NATO-Ukraine Council meeting, a format that’s already in its fourth edition since it was created in July, when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy attended the NATO Summit in Lithuania.
“I anticipate that the emphasis will be mostly on air defense and ammunition although no doubt the Ukrainians will come in with a variety of other requests,” Smith said. “It always is an organic meeting where ministers step forward and offer assistance in real time.”
Shortly before the NATO meeting, Umerov, the Ukrainian defense minister, reached out to his Dutch counterpart, Kajsa Ollongren, on Ukraine’s “urgent needs” for air defense systems, long-range missiles and artillery. The Netherlands has also been leading on the F-16 fighter jet training for Ukraine’s pilots.
That’s a sign that the alliance can juggle both Ukraine and Israel, Ollongren told POLITICO.
“Splits? No. But I think of course there will also be attention and focus on Israel and how the situation is developing over there,” she said. “But I think it’s very important, it’s a good thing that we are meeting tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, to underline that the support for Ukraine is not affected.”
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of the Dutch defense minister’s name: it is Kajsa Ollongren.