As the Russia-Ukraine war enters its second year, Israeli political and military officials have watched US President Joe Biden’s visit to Ukraine closely and seen it as a sign of Washington’s support for Kyiv. Biden’s visit coincided with that of Knesset members Yuli Edelstein and Ze’ev Elkin, and that of Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen just before them. These developments may require Israel to take operational steps, especially given the growing military cooperation between Russia and Iran.
Israelis believe that it was good for Cohen’s visit to Ukraine to come days before Biden’s arrival. He was the first senior Israeli official to visit in any case, and there was a symbolic dimension in members of the Israeli Knesset standing with the Ukrainians alongside the US president. The expectations in Israel are that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will also visit Kyiv soon.
Israel has been very cautious about taking sides in the war ever since it was started a year ago by the Russian invasion. Netanyahu refrained from condemning Russia but did not express his sympathy with the Ukrainians. However, since he returned to power, he has started to outline his expected policy towards the war. He has said on several occasions that Israel would consider sending weapons to Ukraine, and agreed to Cohen’s visit. In such circumstances, he could make a solidarity trip to Ukraine without causing a crisis with Moscow.
All of these visits to Kyiv demonstrate that there is visible movement by the current Israeli government in its position on the war, unlike the previous governments of Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid. There is thus a greater possibility that Israel will respond to western requests for it to help Ukraine. However, the Israelis are keen not to anger Russia, in case this affects the situation in Syria, Moscow’s ally.
The factors that could lead Israel to change its policy towards Ukraine include the occupation state’s need for western support as Iran gets closer to the nuclear threshold, even as tension between Israel and the West increases over Netanyahu’s judicial “coup”, illegal settlements and the danger of an explosion with the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem. There is also concern that it might be seen as being afraid of Russia, which would harm Brand Israel around the world.
Cohen’s visit to Ukraine angered Moscow. This was obvious when the latter refused to postpone legal action to close down the Jewish Agency in Russia. Israel fears that this marks a shift in the Russian position in response to the warming of relations between Tel Aviv and Kyiv.
The Jewish Agency has been working in Russia for many years, encouraging migration to the occupation state and running summer camps and educational institutions. Before the calls to close its office down, the Russian government demanded that it should provide special information about Jews who wished to migrate to Israel. The agency refused, out of fear for their safety. Moscow’s anger over Israeli support for Ukraine may prompt even more Russian alignment with Iran.
During Cohen’s 12-hour visit to Kyiv he met President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, arguably the most famous Jew in the world at the moment. The visit had three objectives: to show that Israel supports Ukraine just like European countries and the US do; to put the Iranian issue at the forefront; and to increase Israeli humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
Israel’s assessment is that Ukraine has become influential internationally, and the Israelis want it on their side against Iran, which represents a common enemy. Cohen and Zelenskyy discussed ways to deal with the threat of Iranian drones being used in Ukraine by Russia, and they agreed to deepen cooperation in the fight against Iran in the international arena.
Although Israel promised to supply Ukraine with the Iron Dome missile defence system six months ago, it has not yet done so. Ukraine also asked Israel for a loan, a request to which Tel Aviv has not yet responded either way. This is rather humiliating, especially for a country at war. With this in mind, and given the near-neutral policies of the Israeli governments led by Bennett, Lapid and Netanyahu, goodwill in Ukraine towards Israel is at an all-time low.
We can, therefore, only expect to see a gradual change in Israel regarding the supply of weapons to Kyiv. Nevertheless, the details of Cohen’s visit to Ukraine revealed the change in Israeli policy towards the war, and its difference to the policy of the two previous governments. Netanyahu’s current coalition government is leaning towards a position closer to one of the warring parties, without fully siding with it, which may lead to disagreement between Tel Aviv and the other party. This visit a full year after the Russian invasion of Ukraine reveals new Israeli trends towards this important international issue.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.