Even before Russian troops rolled into Ukraine from three directions last week, Israel was in an awkward diplomatic situation.
It is no secret that the United States is far and away Jerusalem’s closest ally. Israel also enjoys deep and varied ties with individual European states, and in many regards with the European Union as an institution.
Israel’s relationship with Ukraine is robust as well. Tens of thousands of Ukrainian IT professionals work for Israeli companies, and Ukraine is one of Israel’s main suppliers of wheat, eggs, and other staples. Ukraine would also like nothing more than for Israel to sell it advanced weapons systems, and has hinted it would recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital if the defense relationship were enhanced.
At the same time, Israeli leaders know they must maintain strategic ties with Russia. Israel is unique among Western countries in that it does not see Moscow as an adversary, and Russia does not feel threatened by Israel. Though Israel proved itself willing to kill Soviet soldiers and pilots during the Cold War, today the situation is quite different.
Since September 2015, Russia has maintained an active military presence over Israel’s northern border in Syria to support the Bashar Assad regime.
With Israel carrying out its multi-year “campaign between the wars” against Iranian entrenchment along its borders, the presence of Russian forces is a significant complication, one that must be taken into consideration every time Israeli jets fly over Syrian airspace.
Israel’s political and military leadership has – rather impressively – managed to walk the tightrope of operating effectively against Iranian, Hezbollah, and Syrian targets while mostly managing to avoid angering Russia. There have been occasional tensions, especially surrounding the September 2018 downing of a Russian reconnaissance plane by Syrian anti-aircraft forces trying to target Israeli F-16s. Moscow blamed Israel publicly, and shortly thereafter announced that the Syrian army would be receiving advanced S-300 air defense systems.
But even that turbulence in the relationship didn’t come close to causing a dangerous fraying of ties. Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Putin regularly, accompanied by Ukraine-born minister Ze’ev Elkin. Bennett, too, had a warm face-to-face meeting in October, with Elkin at his side, finding himself stuck in Sochi for Shabbat when the conversation ran well over time.
Israel’s relationship with Russia is no doubt at the front of Israeli leaders’ minds as they craft their public statements on the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
Though he was silent as Russian forces built up on the Ukraine border, last Thursday Foreign Minister Yair Lapid condemned the “Russian attack on Ukraine,” calling it “a serious violation of the international order.”
Still, there is dissonance in the official Israeli response. On three separate occasions Bennett has avoided any condemnation – or any mention of Russia at all – instead expressing sympathy for Ukrainian civilians and offering humanitarian aid.
“If in two years from now we sit under a barrage of Iranian-supplied high-accuracy rockets killing our citizens because we’ve been denied the capacity to prevent this from happening, that’s also a moral question
Though sources in both the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry assured The Times of Israel that the statements are closely coordinated, Lapid is unhappy with the messaging, according to Israeli media reports on Sunday.
“Israel must be on the right side and condemn dictators who attack democracies,” he said in a private meeting, according to Army Radio.
But not all experts agree.
“If in two years from now we sit under a barrage of Iranian-supplied high-accuracy rockets killing our citizens because we’ve been denied the capacity to prevent this from happening, that’s also a moral question,” said Eran Lerman, vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and past deputy national security adviser.
“Moralism looks very nice when you’re a Western liberal and decide that the consequences of the positions you take are irrelevant. But the question of consequences is also a moral question.”
Meir Ben-Shabbat, visiting senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies and a former national security adviser, said that “Israel does not need to prove what worldview, which ideological outlook, and which values it is close to. This is quite clear to everyone.
“Everyone also is aware that Israel and the US have relations that are called, not by chance, a ‘special relationship.’ Along with this, Israel has additional interests it must take into consideration.”
It might not even be especially advantageous to Ukraine if Israel alienates Russia. If Putin does want a mediator at some point – and it may well be that there is no endgame other than negotiations – Israel is one of the few options that both sides would be comfortable with.
Russia won’t go to a major Western capital, and Ukraine sees Belarus as too pro-Russian to go back to Minsk. Along with Geneva or Vienna, Jerusalem is a leading option. Ben-Shabbat said that it is perfectly conceivable that Israel could mediate talks, but “the question of hosting is secondary.”
“The more important question is assessing the conditions and the chances of producing agreement between the sides,” he said.
“The fact that we have a decent working relationship with Russia could be beneficial to both countries, not least of all to the Ukrainians who have no other wish at this point than to resolve around the table and not in the streets of Kyiv,” said Lerman.
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