by Oleksandr Bulin
- Israel’s Pragmatic Balancing Act: Israel faces a challenging dilemma as it attempts to balance its public support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity with its pragmatic ties to Russia. This balancing act reflects the complexity of Israel’s foreign policy in a rapidly changing global landscape.
- Strategic Partnership with Russia: Israel has developed a multifaceted partnership with Russia over the years, encompassing trade, security, and regional stability. This strategic alliance plays a crucial role in Israel’s diplomatic maneuvering, particularly in the Middle East.
- Western Pressure and National Security: Israel’s stance on the Russian war against Ukraine has led to increased pressure from its Western allies, particularly the United States. Managing these relationships while safeguarding its national security interests poses a significant challenge for Israel’s leadership.
- Humanitarian Aid and Weapon Supply: Israel has provided humanitarian aid to Ukraine during the war, including medical supplies, equipment, and food. However, the extent of its military support, particularly the supply of lethal weapons, remains a subject of debate and contention.
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has forced many countries around the world to choose one of the sides and reassess their strategic priorities in foreign policy. At the same time, many states are trying to take a neutral position, without explicitly supporting either side. Israel officially supports the territorial integrity of Ukraine. However, at the same time, it is actively cooperating with Russia and does not supply the military equipment that Ukrainian officials ask for. Such a policy creates tension between Ukraine, Israel, and their common Western partners, and leads to a gradual deterioration of relations between states.
In this article, we analyze which position Israel takes regarding the War against Ukraine and why relations with Russia are so strategically important for Israel.
Formation of Israel’s Relations with Ukraine and Russia
Since the declaration of independence by Ukraine, relations between states have been built mainly around the trade and cultural spheres.
In the 1990s, during the post-Soviet Aliyah, a large number of Jews moved from Ukraine to Israel. Now their number is about 500 thousand, including 35 thousand ethnic Ukrainians.
Ukrainian city Uman is the location of the grave of famous Judaic religious figure Nachman of Breslov. Thousands of Breslov Hasidim, adherents of Nachman’s teachings, come to Uman annually to his grave on Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year).
Although the main trend in Ukrainian-Israeli relations always was positive, there were several points of deterioration in it. The main regarded the Ukrainian policy of honoring members of the Ukrainian Anti-Soviet nationalist movements, such as the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. This policy began during the presidency of Viktor Yushchenko (2005-2010). The Israeli government protested against this policy, referring to the anti-Semitic views of some members of the Ukrainian nationalist organizations, and their possible participation in crimes against Jews during World War II. Although OUN and UIA were not convicted at the Nuremberg trials as Nazi collaborators, this question still remains controversial in contemporary relations between states.
At the same time, strong Israeli-Russian relations developed. Several factors contributed to this process, among which a large number of repatriates and the traditional perception of Russia as the cultural successor of the USSR. Russia’s abundant natural resources cemented the relations, as for 2022, mineral fuels, iron, and steel became the main items of Russian imports to Israel. Additionally, Russian influence in the Middle East, especially its cooperation with the Arab states, which were once Soviet partners, made Russia a valuable partner.
So, since 1991 Israel has successfully cultivated relations with both Ukraine and Russia. However, due to Russia’s greater geopolitical influence, the ties between Israel and Russia have gained considerable strength, overshadowing the former’s relationship with Ukraine. Moreover, because of the Russian influence on the Middle East, maintaining good relations with the Federation became Israel’s strategic priority.
Netanyahu-Putin Special Relationship
The 12 years of Netanyahu’s premiership from 2009 to 2021 have become the time of the most serious rapprochement between Israel and Russia in the history of relations between these states. The Israeli prime minister has repeatedly declared a “special relationship” between him and Putin.
He visited Russia an unprecedented 17 times. During this period, he made more visits only to the USA. In 2018, the Israeli prime minister even took part in the celebration of Victory Day on Red Square. Netanyahu marched in the Immortal Regiment march next to Russian President Putin and Serbian President Vucic.
Such steps from Israel’s side are explained by the increasing presence of the Russian Federation in the Middle East. Especially after the start of the civil war in Syria in 2011, and the Russian intervention in 2015, which gave the latter an opportunity to secure a foothold in the region and directly influence the parties to the conflict. As Russian aviation and air defense forces were now located in Syria it was essential for Israel to gain consensus with Putin about access to Israel’s own enemies, such as Iran-backed Hezbollah. Accordingly, the main topics of meetings between Netanyahu and Putin were usually either the war in Syria or the Iranian nuclear program.
Netanyahu’s desire to attract more repatriates from the post-Soviet countries to his side was another factor that contributed to the rapid Israeli-Russian rapprochement. About 15% of the Israeli population are Russian-speaking citizens. They, especially the older generation, prefer to vote for right-wing parties in elections, including Netanyahu’s Likud party.
However, research shows that Russian-speaking Israelis tend to feel a lack of representation in the government. Therefore, they tend to vote for parties aimed at representing specifically the Russian-speaking population of Israel. For example, in the 2019 elections, 40.2% of the votes of repatriates from the post-Soviet space voted for the Yisrael Beiteinu party. Its head is Avigdor Lieberman, a native of Chisinau. Netanyahu’s Likud party in those elections received 26.7% of the votes of the same social group.
Thus, in carrying out a cultural rapprochement with Russia, Netanyahu tried to use the feelings of the dual national self-identification of Israelis from the post-Soviet states. On the one hand, he tried to gain more support from Russian-speaking voters, and on the other hand, to create a platform for interaction with political forces aimed at Russian-speaking voters.
One of the most striking examples of cultural cooperation with the Russian Federation was the transfer of the Russian Compound to the ownership of the Government of the Russian Federation in 2019. Russian Compound is an important Orthodox shrine built in 1890 by the Emperor Orthodox Palestine Society. Nowadays, the ownership of this shrine is argued between the Russian government and the Emperor Orthodox Palestine Society, which has been in exile since the 1917 revolution and controlled this cultural object during all these years. In 2019 the Israeli government decided to transfer ownership to the Russian government. This action was not publicly announced at first and was only post-factum published in the media. However, legal problems have so far prevented the Russian government from taking ownership, and the dispute over it is continuing.
Israeli Position on Russian Aggression in 2014-2022
From the very beginning of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, Israel took a neutral position in the conflict. The representative of Israel was absent during the UN General Assembly voting for the Resolution in support of the territorial integrity of Ukraine on March 27, 2014. This resolution became the first international document condemning Russia’s violation of the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
The restrained stance continued with the unfolding war in the East of Ukraine, which followed Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. Israel was limited to statements about the need for negotiations and a diplomatic settlement of the conflict. Furthermore, the country did not join the sanctions against Russia. It became a safe haven for Russian oligarchs who tried to rescue them from Western restrictions. In 2018, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman even argued the need for Moscow to take a more pro-Israeli stance on Syria and Iran by reminding that Israel did not join the anti-Russian sanctions.
Subsequently, Israel voted several times on resolutions condemning Russia, and individual Israeli officials spoke out in support of Ukraine.
Nevertheless, the higher echelon of Israeli politicum, especially the prime minister never spoke out condemning the Russian invasion and occupation. Israel continued to take the maximum possible neutral position: non-recognition of the change in the borders of a sovereign state, along with non-intervention in the conflict were maximum high signs of condemnation that could be observed in statements.
After the Full-Scale Russian Invasion: Israel’s Gripping on Silence
After the outbreak of a full-scale war in Ukraine, the Israeli government is still trying to maintain its longstanding policy of neutrality in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict. However, over time this becomes more and more difficult to do.
On the day the invasion began, 24 February, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid condemned Russia’s actions. Prime Minister Naftali Bennet only promised to provide humanitarian assistance to Ukraine and said: “Our hearts are with the civilians of eastern Ukraine who were caught up in this situation.” When, in July 2022, Yair Lapid became prime minister for six months, he changed his rhetoric regarding the RF to a more moderate one. The practice of prime minister neutrality repeated. Israeli politicians can condemn the actions of Russia, while the head of government remains publicly neutral.
Again, Israel didn’t join the economic sanctions against Russia referring to local legislation that doesn’t allow the imposition of unilateral sanctions against any state. Moreover, Israel became a safe haven for “Russian refugees”, powerful Russians who do not want to be associated with Putin’s regime. Even if they actively collaborated with him before the war or still continue doing it.
At the same time, since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, Israel has continued to supply Ukraine with a large amount of humanitarian aid. Among them are medicines, medical equipment and machinery, a field hospital, military protective equipment, power generators, food, and drinking water.
What About Weapons?
Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, the Ukrainian government has repeatedly asked Israel to supply weapons, primarily the Iron Dome air defense systems.
Initially, the Israeli government tried to limit itself to humanitarian aid. Nevertheless, on November 17, 2022 (the 9th month of the war), under pressure from the United States, which strengthened due to massive Russian attacks against the Ukrainian energy structure, Israel lifted the restriction on the supply of weapons with Israeli components by third states. Also in May 2023, information appeared about the supply of 16 Israeli radars to Ukraine to detect air targets. Money for the purchase of radars was collected in Lithuania.
However, there is no official evidence that Israel supplied lethal weapons to Ukraine. In September 2022, President Zelensky said: “I am shocked and I do not understand [this]. Israel gave us nothing, nothing, zero…”
Several times the media circulated rumors of the Israeli government considering the possibility of sending weapons to Ukraine, especially through third countries. Nevertheless, none of this information was officially confirmed.
The last deterioration in relations between Israel and Ukraine occurred in June 2023. Prime Minister Netanyahu said in an interview that Israel does not want to transfer its weapons to Ukraine.
As the first reason, he talked about the need for cooperation with Russia on the issue of Syria. The so-called Russian-Israeli consensus states that Russia does not prevent Israeli strikes against the armed forces of its ally Bashar al-Assad, and Iranian proxy groups.
As the second, he talked about the fear of Israeli weapons falling into the hands of the Russians, and from them to Iran and Syria. Netanyahu claimed that Israeli soldiers are already facing Western anti-tank weapons supplied to Ukraine at their borders. He did not provide evidence for his words.
In response to the prime minister’s allegations, the Ukrainian Embassy in Israel issued a critical statement about the Israeli government’s chosen path of close cooperation with Russia and a pro-Russian stance.
Netanyahu’s Dilemma: Between Western Pressure & National Security
Trying to balance between different sides in the Russian war against Ukraine, the Netanyahu government (the same as the Bennett-Lapid government) found itself in a difficult situation.
On the one hand, it is trying to maintain friendly relations with Moscow to secure a free hand against Russian partners Syria and Iran (including Iranian-backed proxy forces).
On the other hand, the pressure of Israel’s Western partners is increasing. The United States, Israel’s main ally and donor, is increasingly dissatisfied with its actions. Washington is concerned about the coming to power of a government that has been dubbed the most right-wing in the history of the country. It includes ministers who are known for their chauvinist views and who have previously been held accountable for extremism. This gains even more attention because the White House and Congress are controlled by Democrats, who are traditionally more critical of Israel.
Moreover, the United States is pressuring Israel to take a more active stance on the war in Ukraine. Thus, lifting of the embargo on the supply of weapons containing Israeli components to Ukraine was probably adopted under pressure from the United States. Washington, which has become the main supplier of military equipment to Ukraine, is trying to encourage other states to increase their supplies in order to reduce its own burden. The continuation of disagreement between Israel and the United States in long-term threatens a decrease in American military aid to the state. Voices to reduce aid to Israel are rising from both flanks of US politics: progressive caucus of the Democratic party and right-wing Republicans.
However, Israel’s shaky status quo is also threatened by the strengthening of ties between Moscow and Tehran. The news about the possible cooperation between the Russian Federation and Iran in the field of nuclear energy is especially concerning. The latest data claims Iran has reached a level of uranium enrichment above 80%, which is critically close to the 90% enrichment needed to create a nuclear weapon. In the event that Iran is close to this line, Israel may resort to the so-called Begin Doctrine. It says that Israel cannot allow its enemies to get their hands on weapons of mass destruction. The Begin Doctrine was applied twice in 1981 and 2007. Then Israeli aircraft destroyed nuclear reactors in Iraq and Syria, respectively.
The Israeli government sees no way to end Russo-Iranian cooperation by taking a more pro-Ukrainian stance. Therefore, it plans to continue to adhere to the status quo: partnership with Moscow and military operations against its partners. The only one who could contribute to changing this policy could be the United States. However, despite all of the contradictions between them, given that Israel continues to be the main ally of the US in the Middle East and the large pro-Israeli lobby present in U.S. politics, significant changes are unlikely to happen soon.
Since the beginning of Russian aggression against Ukraine in 2014, Israel has maintained a position of relative neutrality towards the conflict. With the beginning of the full-scale war, Israeli government retained its stance. The necessity to preserve its cooperative relationship with Russia, restricted Israeli government from supplying Ukraine with weapons, leaving space only for humanitarian aid and export of radar systems. Given Russia’s substantial military presence in Syria and its close alliance with Iran, it remains a key player that Israel must consider carefully. For the last decade building strong positive relations with Russia was one of the most important areas in Netanyahu’s foreign policy.
On the other hand, Israeli Western partners, first of all, its main strategic ally the USA, are unsatisfied with such actions. They put pressure on Israel and encourage it to take a firmer position. This policy brought some results such as lifting of the embargo on the supply of weapons containing Israeli components and supplying air radars to Ukraine.
However, Israel’s interests in maintaining a neutral position remain compelling and it is unlikely that Israelі policy regarding the war against Ukraine will change in the near future.
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