When Russian and Ukrainian delegations meeting in Turkey on 29 March reached an initial understanding regarding a list of countries that could serve as security guarantors for Kyiv should an agreement be struck, Israel was one of those mentioned. The other countries included the US, Britain, China, Russia, France, Turkey, Germany, Canada, Italy and Poland.
We can explain Israel’s political significance to the Russian-Ukrainian talks based on Tel Aviv’s strong ties with Kyiv, as opposed to Russia’s trust in Israel. This is insufficient, though, to rationalise how Israel has managed to acquire relevance in arguably the most serious international conflict since World War II.
Immediately following the start of the war, Israeli officials began to shuttle between many countries directly or even nominally involved in the conflict. Israeli President Isaac Herzog flew to Istanbul to meet with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The outcome of this meeting could be “a turning point in relations between Turkey and Israel,” said Erdogan.
Although “Israel is proceeding cautiously with Turkey,” wrote Lavan Karkov in the Jerusalem Post, Herzog hopes that “his meeting with… Erdogan is starting a positive process toward improved relations.” The “improved relations” are not concerned with the fate of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation and siege, but with a gas pipeline connecting Israel’s Leviathan offshore field in the eastern Mediterranean to southern Europe via Turkey. This project will improve Israel’s geopolitical status in the Middle East and Europe. The political leverage of being a primary gas supplier to Europe would allow Israel even stronger influence over the continent and will certainly tone down any future criticism of Tel Aviv by Ankara.
That was only one of many such Israeli overtures. Tel Aviv’s diplomatic flurry included a top-level meeting between Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, and a succession of visits by senior European, American, Arab and other officials to Israel. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Tel Aviv on 26 March and was expected to put some pressure on Israel to join the US-led western sanctions on Russia. Little of that has transpired. The most significant rebuke in this respect came from Under-Secretary of State Victoria Nuland when, on 11 March, she called on Israel not to become “the last haven for dirty money that’s fuelling Putin’s wars”.
For years, Israel has hoped to free itself from its disproportionate reliance on Washington. This dependency has taken many forms: financial and military assistance, political backing, diplomatic cover and more. According to Chuck Freilich writing in Newsweek, “By the end of the ten-year military-aid package… agreed [between Washington and Tel Aviv] for 2019-28, the total figure [of US aid to Israel] will be nearly $170bn.”
Many Palestinians and others believe that, if the US ceases to support Israel, the latter would simply collapse. However, this might not be the case, at least not in theory. Writing in March 2021 in the New York Times, Max Fisher estimated that US aid to Israel in 1981 “was equivalent to almost 10 per cent of Israel’s economy,” while in 2020 nearly $4 billion of US aid was “closer to one per cent.”Still, this one per cent is vital for Israel, as much of the money is funnelled to the Israeli military which, in turn, converts it into weapons that are used routinely against Palestinians and neighbouring Arab countries. Israeli military technology is far more developed today than it was 40 years ago. Figures by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) place Israel as the world’s eighth largest military exporter between 2016 and 2020. In 2020 alone, Israeli arms had an estimated export value of $8.3 billion. These numbers continue to grow as Israeli military hardware is incorporated increasingly into many security apparatuses around the world, including the US and the EU, as well as the Global South.
Much of this discussion is rooted in a 1996 document entitled “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm”. The document was authored jointly by Richard Perle, a former US Assistant Secretary of Defence, and top leaders of the neoconservative movement in Washington. The target audience of their research was none other than Benjamin Netanyahu, who was then the newly-elected Prime Minister of Israel.
Aside from the document’s detailed instructions on how Israel could use some of its Arab neighbours, in addition to Turkey, to weaken and “roll back” hostile governments, it also made significant references to future relations which Tel Aviv should aspire to develop with Washington. Perle urged Israel to “make a clean break from the past and establish a new vision for the US-Israeli partnership based on self-reliance, maturity and mutuality — not one focused narrowly on territorial disputes.” A new, “self-reliant” Israel “does not need US troops in any capacity to defend it.” Ultimately, such self-reliance “will grant Israel greater freedom of action and remove a significant lever of pressure used against it in the past.”
An example is Israel’s relationship with China. In 2013, Washington was outraged when Israel sold secret missile and electro-optic US technology to Beijing. Tel Aviv was forced to retreat. The controversy subsided when the head of defence experts at the Israeli Defence Ministry was removed. Eight years on, despite US protests and demands that Israel must not allow China to operate Haifa port due to Washington’s security concerns, this was initiated officially in September last year.
Israel’s regional and international strategy seems to be advancing in multiple directions, some of them in direct opposition to those of Washington. Yet, thanks to continued Israeli influence in the US Congress, Washington does little to hold the occupation state accountable. Meanwhile, now that Israel is fully aware that the US has changed its political attitude in the Middle East and is moving towards the Pacific region and Eastern Europe, Tel Aviv’s “clean break” strategy is moving faster than ever before. However, this comes with risks. Although Israel is stronger now, its neighbours are also getting stronger.
Hence, it is critical that Palestinians understand that Israel’s survival is no longer linked to the US, at least not as intrinsically as in the past. As such, the struggle against Israeli occupation and apartheid can no longer be focused disproportionately on breaking up the “special relationship” that united Tel Aviv and Washington for over 50 years. Israel’s “independence” from the US entails risks and opportunities that must be considered in the Palestinian struggle for freedom and justice.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.