Israel’s Russia-Ukraine dilemma
Mar 2, 2023 | Daniel Rakov
The inauguration of Binyamin Netanyahu’s new Government has led to increased international pressure for a change in Israel’s semi-neutral, reserved position on the war in Ukraine. On the one hand, Washington and like-minded Western countries demand that Jerusalem go the extra mile in supporting Ukraine. On the other hand, the Kremlin expects Netanyahu, who has boasted in the past about having an extraordinarily close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, to preserve and deepen Russian-Israeli cooperation.
What considerations drive the Russian and the Israeli thinking about each other, and will Netanyahu change his country’s policy toward Russia?
From the Russian perspective, Israel remains, despite the Russian-Western rupture, one of the friendliest Western-oriented countries. Israel continues a high-level political dialogue with the Kremlin; it staunchly refuses to give offensive weapons to Ukraine; it hasn’t imposed national economic sanctions on Russia; it hasn’t abolished flights to/from Russia; there is still a visa-free regime between the two countries, and it didn’t expel Russian diplomats.
Russia sees Israel as an important regional power capable of inflicting severe military and political reputational damage on Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin is known for his sympathy for Israel and the Jewish people and, over the years, has invested heavily in his relationship with Netanyahu in the expectation that the latter might help bridge the gaps between Moscow and Washington.
From the Israeli perspective, the war in Ukraine put potential Russian damage to Israel’s national security at the forefront of the bilateral relationship and diminished the benefits to Israel from this relationship. Three main threat scenarios dominate the Israeli view of Russia: that the Russians would exploit their hegemony in Syria to restrict Israeli freedom of military operations therein; that they would cooperate closely with Iran against Israel; or that Moscow would hinder the repatriation of Russian Jews to Israel.
In the eyes of Jerusalem’s decision-makers, Russia’s status as the most stubborn supporter of Iran’s clerical regime among global powers is an important factor in Israel’s multi-faceted confrontation with Teheran. Moscow’s growing use of Iranian weapons for the war in Ukraine (mainly attack drones), and export routes to Asia through Iranian territory have yet to expand into joint action between the two countries against Israeli operations in Syria. Russia is not happy about the frequent Israeli strikes against Iranian targets in Syria, yet so far has been sticking with its policy of acquiescing to them. At the same time, the Israelis are anxious about growing security cooperation between Moscow and Teheran – including the joint venture to produce Iranian-designed drones in Russia, the sale of Russian military-grade imaging satellites to Iran, and reports that advanced SU-35 fighter jets are soon to be supplied to Teheran.
Moscow pays attention to the public debate inside Israel about a possible change, of course, considering the Ukraine war, and uses info-warfare to try to dissuade Jerusalem by raising the threat that Russia will retaliate by obstructing Israeli freedom of operations in Syria. Still, looking at the poor Russian military performance in Ukraine, many Israeli pundits question whether the small Russian military contingent in Syria is realistically capable of, or willing to, limit the ability of the Israeli Airforce to operate in that arena.
In the past, Israel has succeeded in convincing Russia to abolish some of its arms deals with Iran and restrain Iranian nuclear ambitions. Netanyahu may be hoping to do so again. Israel still thinks that the nuclearisation of Iran is contrary to Russian interests. Yet, Jerusalem has no illusions that Moscow would be prepared to undertake any proactive diplomacy to deter Teheran from crossing dangerous red lines towards becoming a nuclear threshold state.
Moscow has identified Israeli fears that it will stop aliya (immigration to Israel) of Russian Jews, and initiated legal proceedings in July 2022 to terminate the activities of the Jewish Agency in Russia, the body which facilitates such immigration. Court deliberations on the decision resumed on February 17 after being postponed repeatedly since August. This might serve as yet another signal from the Kremlin to Netanyahu to refrain from drifting further away from Moscow, although the prolongation of the procedure implies that the threat of shutdown serves the Kremlin’s interests better than the actual closure of the Jewish Agency offices would.
While Israel has not imposed national sanctions on Russia [and indeed lacks a legislation framework for doing so, Ed.], the scope of economic cooperation between the countries has dwindled, as Israel has acted vigorously to find substitutes for importing Russian oil and grains.
The memory of the Holocaust, which provided the seemingly uncontroversial basis for relations due to Israeli gratitude over the Red Army’s liberation of the main Nazi concentration camps in WWII, became toxic after Moscow branded Ukraine, led by the Jewish President Volodymyr Zelensky, a “Nazi regime”. Moreover, Israelis cannot accept the increased usage by the Russian propaganda machine of antisemitic narratives in attacking the West.
The crucial predicament for Israel comes from Western demands to do more for Ukraine, especially in the military realm. The Israeli National Security Council is reportedly conducting an examination of Israel’s policy on the issue. Former PM Naftali Bennett himself admitted a few weeks ago that there is now a need to revisit his policy of not openly choosing sides, introduced during his premiership (2021-22) – and which was actually directly derived from a policy developed by Netanyahu in 2015.
While weighing the pros and cons of any choice, there are two primary considerations in Jerusalem militating against a dramatic policy shift. Firstly, Israel would rather avoid a significant crisis with Putin. Russia is not expected to remove itself as an influential player in the Middle East, as it tightens ties with Iran, Turkey, and the Gulf monarchies and has no intention of withdrawing its troops from Syria.
Secondly, Israel is unique compared to the vast majority of Western countries. It is not a member of any formal military alliance (such as NATO) and fights alone to defend itself. It constantly faces a never-ending series of prolonged explosive conflicts (in Gaza, the West Bank Lebanon, Syria, and Iran, to name a few) and ongoing domestic instability (especially surrounding the judicial reform proposals), forcing the Government to carefully consider which fights to pick. Therefore, the comparisons being made between Israel and the Baltic states, which did stand firmly with Kyiv (and contributed military equipment to Ukraine worth several percent points of GDP), are unfounded.
Nevertheless, several important factors are today encouraging an adjustment in Israel’s stance on Russia. First, as Iran openly approaches the nuclear threshold, Israel will need backing from the US and Western countries if it is to consider bold actions to stop Teheran. If Israel expects the West to support it against its major security threat, the Western leaders expect Israel in return to stand up to Russia, especially since Moscow has become Teheran’s leading strategic partner.
Secondly, Israel is facing other major challenges in the coming weeks and months that directly touch on its vital relations with the liberal, democratic West. For one, the controversial judicial reform proposals have led to warning messages from Washington and OECD countries which are worried that Israel may be shedding essential elements of its liberal democratic nature.
Similar tensions have also arisen surrounding the agenda of the current right-wing Government to push ahead with construction in settlements in the West Bank. The upcoming holy month of Ramadan is predicted to result in heightened volatility in the always combustive Palestinian arena, while in the background the danger of a sudden and broad flare-up vis-à-vis Hezbollah or Syria is always looming.
Therefore, Israel’s relations with the West must be actively maintained and improved, and convergence in Ukraine could contribute to their stabilisation.
Third, appearing to “sit on the fence” harms “Israel” as a global brand. The aforementioned unique circumstances of Israel’s strategic position are hard to explain and some interlocutors from abroad inevitably conclude that “Israel is afraid of Russia.” Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky still uses Israel as a metaphor for a strong country capable of defending itself if only given money and weapons, arguing Ukraine should become more like Israel in that respect.
However, the current policy undermines Israel’s image as a principled and powerful international actor and undercuts its credibility as a security partner to the West.
Israel-Ukraine relations remain tense under the Netanyahu Government as Kyiv continues to express expectations that Israel change its position and fully align against Russia. New Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen was harshly criticised during his first days in office when he agreed to receive a phone call from his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov before speaking with the Ukrainian Foreign Minister.
It took some time to organise a visit by Cohen to Kyiv in mid-February, with the Ukranians putting firm demands for an increase in Israeli financial support and a shift its declaratory policy further in favour of Ukraine. Still, Cohen, the most senior Israeli official to visit Kyiv since the beginning of the war, received a warm reception on Feb. 16, and was granted an audience with Zelensky. Russian commentators paid attention to the fact that Cohen refrained from criticising Moscow, or even mentioning it in any way, during the visit. Yet, Cohen promised to support a Ukrainian peace plan in the UN and to help with the country’s economic reconstruction.
Looking ahead, however, the reserved, semi-neutral approach still remains the consensus view across most political blocs in Israel. While the risk of reputational damage in the West remains, there is ongoing debate about its severity. Although Netanyahu promised that he would “look into” the transfer of weapons to Ukraine, two months after his return to the top job, it seems that his solution to the conflicting demands appears to involve only small, incremental changes in policy – a more publicly supportive line towards Ukraine, along with increased small-scale security assistance in non-lethal equipment to Kyiv.