Israel’s New Government Trying To Remain Neutral on Russia-Ukraine Conflict

Israel's sentiment is with Ukraine, but reality in the Middle East dictates that it stay on Russia's good side, expert says
January 6, 2023
Demonstrators gather to watch Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s speech to the Israeli parliament as it broadcasted at Habima Square on March 20, 2022 in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

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Israel’s new government is already being tested by the warring sides in Europe as it continues to maintain a balancing act between Russia and Ukraine.

On Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke on the phone with his new Israeli counterpart, Eli Cohen. Prior to that conversation, in his inaugural speech at the foreign ministry, Cohen outlined his policy on the conflict.

“With regard to the Russia-Ukraine issue, we will do one thing for certain. In public – we will talk less,” Cohen said.

He vowed to continue humanitarian aid to Ukraine, adding that the ministry he heads will formulate a “responsible” policy on the war.

Indeed, for almost a year in which the war has been raging in Europe, Israel has tip-toed between the sides:  trying to not offend while simultaneously condemning; helping Ukraine, but not giving it all it wants; all while safeguarding Israel’s own geopolitical interests and maintaining its strategic alliances with the United States.

The US understands that there is only so much Israel can say publicly. But, behind the scenes, Israel has increased its assistance to Ukraine.”

Israel denounced the Russian invasion, but did not join the sanctions regime put in place by Western countries.

“Israel’s policy is to sit on the fence,” said Dr. Dina Lisnyansky, an expert on the Middle East and Russia in the Middle East from Tel Aviv University and Shalem College. “It is clear that Israel’s sentiment is with Ukraine. But the reality in the Middle East dictates that Israel has to operate with countries that it disagrees with, Russia being one of the more important ones.”

Cohen’s comment was interpreted by some as a change in Israel’s position to a more pro-Russian stance.

Leading US Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican, immediately tweeted criticism of Israel’s foreign minister.

“The idea that Israel should speak less about Russia’s criminal invasion of Ukraine is a bit unnerving,” he tweeted. “To stay quiet about Russia’s criminal behavior will not age well.”

Israel cannot disconnect itself from Russia – it has no choice

Caught in the middle, Israel has yet to clearly align itself with either side.

“The US understands that there is only so much Israel can say publicly,” said Dr. Yonatan Freeman of the Department of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “But, behind the scenes, Israel has increased its assistance to Ukraine.”

When the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, then-Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett made a failed attempt to mediate between the sides.

Bennett was then replaced by Yair Lapid. Lapid, however, spoke repeatedly against Russia’s actions in Ukraine. As premier, Lapid instructed Israel to vote in support of Ukraine and to condemn Russia at the United Nations earlier last year. He took the risk, despite the fact that many of the country’s interests lie with an appeased Russian leadership.

Since the start of the war, Israel has refused requests from Ukraine for weapons. Kyiv is keen to put its hands on Israeli air-defense technologies, an ask that has been too large for Israel.

“Although circumstances could change, it is unlikely Israel will give Ukraine air-defense systems,” said Lisnyansky. “Russia would view this as an unequivocal provocation.”

“It is a very delicate situation for Israel and therefore Israel is being very careful,” she added.

Yet there are small indications that things may be changing.

Israel and Russia both operate in Syria, requiring close military cooperation. Just this week, an attack on the international airport in Damascus was attributed to Israel. For Israel, the freedom of operation it is granted by Russia in Syria is critical in its fight against Iranian-backed militia organizations. Israel is believed to be behind hundreds of strikes in Syria, as a cornerstone of its policy to push back on Iranian influence on its doorstep. Any tensions with the Kremlin could limit Israel’s work in Syria.

Israel’s new government led by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was sworn in last week. Netanyahu has had a long-time history with Russian President Vladimir Putin and often has taken pride in what he calls their close relationship.

Yet, one of Netanyahu’s first phone conversations with a foreign leader was with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Most details of the talk were not released, except a short comment on the Ukrainian abstention on the recent UN General Assembly vote on a resolution to ask the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague to deliver its opinion on the legal implications of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including Israel’s “annexation” of territories and the “legal status” of the occupation.

“This is a signal, that at this point in time, the Netanyahu government is taking a more Ukrainian-oriented stance,” said Lisnyansky. Since his swearing in, Netanyahu has not spoken to Putin and only the two countries’ foreign ministers have spoken, in what could be seen as a diplomatic tip-off.

Netanyahu was at the helm before the Russian invasion and was careful to not criticize Moscow openly. During the last election campaign he said he would consider military aid to Ukraine. It was a change of direction.

So far, Israel is known to have provided Ukraine with humanitarian assistance. It has supplied medical supplies and defensive equipment for Ukrainian troops, such as helmets and protective vests. It is expected to supply electric generators and armored ambulances in the near future.

For Israel, one of the main considerations when making any foreign policy decision is Iran. Iran’s increasing presence in the Middle East together with its increased involvement in the war between Russia and Ukraine have not gone unnoticed.

“Israel cannot disconnect itself from Russia – it has no choice,” said Lisnyansky.  But, she adds: “Already before the war, Israel had a good relationship with Ukraine that includes many bilateral agreements.”

The more Iran is involved, the more Israel will want to be on the side that opposes it

Pulling in the opposite direction is the Russian-Iranian alliance which has been outed in the war. Iranian-made Russian drones have become a go-to tool in the Russian offensive on Ukraine.

“This has increasingly caused Israel to lean toward the Ukrainian side,” said Freeman. “The more Iran is involved, the more Israel will want to be on the side that opposes it.”

Before Ukraine, Israel had already been the target of drone attacks. Unnamed Ukrainian officials have been quoted on various media outlets as saying that Israel has been sharing its drone-thwarting experience with Ukraine.

Another major factor that Israel cannot ignore is the large Jewish community that resides in the Russian Federation.

“Russian Jews are essentially being held hostage as a bargaining chip vis-à-vis Israel,” said Lisnyansky. “Putin may sound irrational to Western ears, but even the smallest threat he makes could easily be materialized.”

Just this week, Moscow’s chief rabbi, who is living in exile outside of Russia, called on Russian Jews to leave the country, citing antisemitism and fear that political instability will make the Jewish minority an easy target. Over the summer, Russia shut down the office of the Jewish Agency for Israel in the country. The Russian branch is in charge of promoting and facilitating immigration to Israel.

According to the Jewish Agency there are approximately 150,000 Jews in Russia, making it the 7th largest Jewish community outside of Israel.

“Jewish communities have always played an important role in Israeli foreign policy,” said Freeman. In the call between Cohen and Lavrov, Israel’s foreign minister “made extensive references to the Jewish community and Russia … and their importance to the relations between the countries.”

Moscow could harm Israel on several levels and is using that leverage against Israel.

As Netanyahu again settles into his office, it soon will become evident whether he can maintain Israel’s precarious position or be forced to finally take a side. The developments in the war could easily influence his decision.

And as long as Israel sees its security interest dependent on its freedom to operate in Syria, it will remain seated on the fence, carefully trying not to fall off on either side.

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