Creating new perspectives since 2009

Israel is struggling to maintain a coherent position on Russia and Ukraine

February 14, 2023 at 2:19 pm

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) during a meeting in Sochi, Russia on 12 September 2019 [Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Handout/Anadolu Agency]

Israel has struggled for a whole year to articulate a clear and decisive position regarding the Russia-Ukraine war. The reason behind the seemingly confused Israeli position is that it stands to lose, regardless of the outcome. But is Israel a neutral party?

It is home to almost one million Russian-speaking citizens, one-third of whom arrived from Ukraine shortly before and immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Those Israelis with deep cultural and linguistic roots in their actual motherland are a critical constituency in Israel’s polarised politics. After years of marginalisation following their initial arrival in Israel, mostly in the 1990s, they managed to create their own parties and, eventually, exert direct influence on Israeli politics. Russian-speaking ultranationalist leader of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, Avigdor Lieberman, is a direct outcome of the growing political clout of this constituency.

While some Israeli leaders understood that Moscow holds many important cards, whether in Russia itself or in the Middle East, others were more concerned about the influence of Russian, Ukrainian and Moldovan Jews in Israel. Soon after the start of the war, the then Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid stated a position that took many Israelis and, of course, Russia by surprise. “The Russian attack on Ukraine is a serious violation of the international order,” said Lapid. “Israel condemns this attack.”

The irony in Lapid’s words is too palpable for much elaboration; suffice to say that Israel has violated more UN resolutions — “the international order” — than any other country in the world. Its military occupation of Palestine is also considered the longest in modern history. But Lapid was not concerned about “international order”. His target audience was Israelis — around 76 per cent of them were against Russia and in favour of Ukraine — and Washington, which dictated to all of its allies that half positions on the matter were unacceptable.

READ: Israel says it is poised to send quake aid to old foe, Syria

US Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Victoria Nuland, warned Israel last March that it must have a clear position on the issue, and “join the financial sanctions” against Russia if “you [the government in Tel Aviv] don’t want to become the last haven for dirty money.”

As millions of Ukrainians escaped their country, thousands landed in Israel. Initially, the news was welcomed by the Israeli government, which has been worried about the alarming phenomenon of Yordim, or migration out of the country. Since many of the Ukrainian refugees were not Jews, though, this created a dilemma for Israel. The Times of Israel reported on 10 March that “footage aired by Channel 12 news showed large numbers of people inside one of the [Ben Gurion] airport’s terminals, with young children sleeping on the floor and on a baggage carousel, as well as an elderly woman being treated after apparently fainting.” In January, the Israeli Aliyah and Integration Ministry decided to suspend the special grants for Ukrainian refugees.

Meanwhile, Israel’s political position seemed conflicted. Whereas Lapid remained committed to his anti-Russian stance, the then Prime Minister Naftali Bennett maintained a more conciliatory tone, flying to Moscow on 5 March to consult with Russian President Vladimir Putin, purportedly at the request of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Later, Bennet alleged that Zelenskyy had asked him to obtain a promise from Putin not to assassinate him. Although the claim, made several months after the meeting, was rejected vehemently by Kyiv, it illustrates the incoherence of Israel’s foreign policy throughout the conflict.

During the early phase of the war, Israel wanted to be the mediator, offering repeatedly to host talks between Russia and Ukraine in Jerusalem. It wanted to communicate several messages: to illustrate Israel’s ability to be a significant player in world affairs; to assure Moscow that Tel Aviv remains a neutral party; to justify to Washington why, as a major US ally, it remains passive in its lack of direct support to Kyiv; and, also, to score a political point, against Palestinians and the international community, that occupied Jerusalem is the centre of Israel’s political life.

READ: Israel won’t jeopardise its ties with Russia for Ukrainians

The Israeli gambit failed. It was Turkiye, not Israel, that was chosen by both parties for this role.

In April 2022, videos started to emerge on social media of Israelis fighting alongside Ukrainian forces. Although no official confirmation from Tel Aviv followed, it signalled that a shift was underway in the Israeli position. This evolved over the months to lead finally to a major shift when, in November, Israel reportedly granted NATO members permission to supply Ukraine with weapons that contained Israeli technology.

Moreover, Haaretz reported that Israel had agreed to purchase millions of dollars’ worth of “strategic materials” for Ukrainian military operations. In other words, Israel had ended any semblance of neutrality in the war.

Ever vigilant over Israel’s precarious position, Moscow sent messages of its own to Tel Aviv. In July, Russian officials said that Moscow was planning to shut down the Russian branch of the Jewish Agency for Israel, the main body responsible for facilitating Jewish migration to Israel and occupied Palestine.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s return as prime minister in December was meant to represent a shift back to neutrality. However, the right-wing Israeli leader pledged during interviews with CNN and France’s LCI channel on 1 and 5 February respectively, that he would be “studying this question [of supplying Ukraine with the Iron Dome missile defence system] according to our national interest.” Again, Moscow warned that Russia “will consider [Israeli weapons in Ukraine] to be legitimate targets for Russia’s armed forces.”

READ: Russia warns Israel against supplying weapons to Ukraine

As Russia and Iran heightened their military cooperation, Israel felt justified in becoming more involved. In December, Voice of America reported on the exponential growth in Israel’s arms sales, partly due to a deal with the US Lockheed Martin Cooperation, one of the major US arms suppliers to Ukraine. The following month, Le Monde reported that, “Israel is cautiously opening its arsenal in response to Kyiv’s pressing demands.”

The future will reveal even more about Israel’s role in the Russia-Ukraine war. However, what is quite clear for now is that it is no longer a neutral party, even if the government in Tel Aviv continues to repeat such claims.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.