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Ukraine-Russia War: Is it Time for Israel to Pick a Side?

“Israel must decide which side it’s on: Is it on the side of the democratic world? Or on the side of those who turn a blind eye to Russian terror?”

– Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, October 24, 2022

I. The Israeli Dilemma: Support Ukraine? Russia? Or Duck for Cover?

In mid-October, as the Jewish High Holiday season came to a close almost eight months into the war in Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky appealed to Israel, yet again, for weapons. In particular, he requested the Iron Dome and other air defense systems to help Ukraine defend itself against Russian attacks.

This was not Kyiv’s first request for direct military support from Israel. President Zelensky has spoken about the matter privately with Israeli Prime Ministers Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid. And he also raised it in his very public address to the Israeli Knesset last April. In a recent interview with an Israeli reporter, a senior Ukrainian official disclosed that Ukraine had asked to purchase weapons from Israel as early as December 2021 – two months before the Russian invasion – but to no avail.

Since 2014 – the year Russia invaded the Crimean Peninsula, held a referendum there that was not recognized by most of the world and eventually annexed the area formally – Israel has refused to sell weapons to Ukraine or to provide it with military assistance to address Russian hostilities.

Until the outbreak of the war in February 2022, Ukraine demonstrated an understanding of Israel’s complex position, which requires it to coordinate operations with Russia in order to continue to take action against Iranian targets in Syria. Even after the first bombs fell on residential buildings in Kyiv, Dnipro, Lviv and Odessa, Israel’s policy regarding the supply of weapons to Ukraine did not change. In Ukraine, however, expectations changed and became more urgent once civilians were attacked indiscriminately across the country.

The issues for Israel are several and complicated. Is the country obliged, morally, to supply weapons to Ukraine, even if doing so endangers its own national interests? What might the immediate security consequences be for Israel if it does equip Ukraine with air defense systems?

And, perhaps the overarching issue: Does Israel risk isolation from the West due to its attempt to maintain “neutrality?”

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II. The Syrian Complication

When Ukraine's former Ambassador to Israel, Hennadii Nadolenko, was asked in an August 2016 interview about the reasons Israel does not supply weapons to Ukraine, he replied very matter-of-factly: “It's very simple: Russia is the most powerful player in the Middle East. When Russian planes and military aircraft are in Syria, when Russian planes occasionally fly over Israel's territory, they [Israel] are very careful about this... Therefore, they simply try not to provoke Russia.”

Nadolenko further articulated Ukrainian understanding of Israel’s precarious predicament at the time: “There was no military-technical assistance [during and after the Crimean invasion by Russia]. And it was a serious problem for us... But unfortunately, Israel itself is in a difficult situation that does not allow for certain military dealings.”

There is no doubt that in 2016, just as in 2022, the situation in Syria and Russian control of its skies were Israel's most significant consideration and the most logical explanation for its refusal to supply weapons to Ukraine; this, in spite of its vocal support for the country and backing of its position in the UN. Beginning in 2015, when Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his forces into Syria, Israel has been forced to take the massive Russian presence in Syria into account and to keep the Russian military informed of developments, in accordance with the deconfliction mechanism established between the parties shortly after Russia’s intervention in Syria.

When Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, it was not yet involved in Syria. But even then, Israel avoided supplying weapons to Ukraine, nor did it support a March 2014 UN vote on the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Its representatives were conveniently not present for the vote.

The Israeli concern regarding possible retaliatory action by Russia in Syria – such as the restriction of Israeli freedom of action in the skies – is key. But Israel’s reluctance to sell arms to Ukraine reflects a general reluctance to harm its strategic relations with Russia, in any context.

Like other countries in the Middle East, Israel worries that the US is becoming increasingly detached from the region. Washington is currently focused on China and Russia, and the Middle East is becoming less and less important in the eyes of Americans. When the US and Europe disconnected from Syria – which was an inferno in the wake of the Arab Spring – Vladimir Putin filled the vacuum. In recent years, he has transformed Russia from a bit player to power broker in countries such as Egypt. Russia has increased arms sales to Arab countries, intervened in Sudan (and tried to establish a Russian seaport there) and engaged in military operations in Libya and several other Arab states.

When Israel refers to the Russian presence in Syria, it also invokes the Russian presence and influence in Egypt, its ties with Iran and the Palestinians, and its intention to continue to be an active and forceful player in the Middle East.

It must be said that eight months into the war in Ukraine, Russia's position does not look promising. It is also experiencing difficulties in the Syrian arena. According to the latest reports, Russia has been forced to transfer its S-300 air defense systems from the Syrian port of Tartus to the battlefield in Ukraine and has withdrawn skilled military forces from Syria.

Some Israeli experts believe that Russia will not be able to threaten Israel should it agree to supply Ukraine with defensive weapons. But the official line, recently voiced by outgoing Minister of Defense Benny Gantz, remains the same: Israel has red lines that it does not intend to cross at this time, not even for Ukraine.

Drawing by Ioan Szabo
Drawing by Ioan Szabo

III. The Jewish Issue

A frequently heard Ukrainian claim regarding the State of Israel and its stance on Ukraine derives from the belief that Israel is obligated to support President Zelensky and his policies because he is a Jew. This argument is heard time and time again on current affairs programs on Ukrainian television and in op-eds, blogs and interviews with senior Ukrainian officials. Of course, even if Zelensky was not Jewish, or if there was a different president in office during the Russian invasion of the country, Kyiv still would have asked Israel for advanced weapons. Israel, after all, is a global leader in air defense systems. But Zelensky’s Jewishness makes Ukraine’s relationship with Israel that much more complex.

It would appear that Ukrainians have failed to take into account something that every Jew in Israel (and the US) knows well: the Jewish interest never prevails over the Israeli interest. Israel’s policy towards Hungary has not changed in light of President Viktor Orbán's malicious, overtly antisemitic campaign against Jewish philanthropist George Soros. And the fact that most American Jews support the Democratic Party and despise Donald Trump did not prevent then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from developing a close friendship with the former president, rejecting pleas by Jews in the US who accused him of collaborating with the extreme right and antisemitic elements.

Demonstrators protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, attending a televised video address by Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky in Tel Aviv on March 20, 2022. (Photo by Chen Leopold/Flash90)
Demonstrators protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, attending a televised video address by Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky in Tel Aviv on March 20, 2022. (Photo by Chen Leopold/Flash90)

Israel became enamored with President Zelensky in the first days of the recent war with Russia. But then Zelensky delivered a speech to the Knesset, demanding weapons and military-technical assistance. He further commented that during World War II, the Ukrainians chose a side and saved Jews. This questionable statement infuriated many Israelis, who accused the Ukrainian president of rewriting history.

The love story quickly came to an end.

Demonstrators protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, attending a televised video address by Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky in Tel Aviv on March 20, 2022. (Photo by Chen Leopold/Flash90)
Demonstrators protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, attending a televised video address by Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky in Tel Aviv on March 20, 2022. (Photo by Chen Leopold/Flash90)

According to the Mitvim Institute’s Israeli Foreign Policy Index, about 53 percent of Israelis support the current policy on Russia and Ukraine and believe that Israel should “tread carefully” in order to avoid invoking the wrath of President Putin.

As Zelensky’s public demands grew, Israel reminded Ukraine of its well-established pattern of voting against the Jewish state in the United Nations over the years. The clear implication, of course, is that one has to give to get. Joining the anti-Israel pile-on that passes at the UN General Assembly is not a savvy way to court favor and support.

In fact, very recently, Ukraine’s vote in the UNGA Disarmament and International Security Committee supported the text of a resolution calling for Israel to destroy its nuclear weapons and place its sites under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Jerusalem has never confirmed that it possesses such weapons, and in the eyes of many Israelis, the Ukrainian vote was further proof of Kyiv adopting a distinctly anti-Israel line, even more so than most European countries, who abstained from the vote.

In a lame defense of Ukraine’s conduct, the country’s current Ambassador to Israel, Yevgen Korniychuk, pointed out that the Israeli representative to the UN had not spoken to the Ukrainian delegation to try to explain the nature and significance of the vote. (Meanwhile, the Chief Rabbi of Ukraine Moshe Azman – who is close to Benjamin Netanyahu – strongly condemned the conduct of the Ukrainian diplomats at the UN. This, perhaps, provides a glimpse of Ukraine policy to come under Netanyahu.) For many Israelis, the affair confirmed that there is no justification for changing Israel’s policy regarding Russia and Ukraine. Not from a military perspective. Not from a security perspective. Not from a moral perspective.

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IV. The Iranian Factor

It seems that the breakdown in communication between Ukraine and Israel, which began in the war’s early days, is only getting worse.

The most prominent example of this is the matter of Iran’s involvement in the war in Ukraine. Several months ago, it was announced that Russia intended to purchase Shahed-136 UAVs drones from Iran.

In September, Russia began its extensive use of Iranian UAVs, which caused significant damage to Ukrainian infrastructure. In spite of Ukraine’s interception of about 80 percent of the drones, the need for knowledge and modern air defense systems remains acute.

On October 19, Defense Minister Benny Gantz made it clear to the Ukrainians that Israel was willing to supply it with its “red alert” early-warning systems. The reaction from Kyiv was angry.

Dmytro Kuleba, the Ukrainian foreign minister, stated that “anybody who stays neutral and says ‘it is not our war, we should mind our own business’ is effectively supporting Russia and allowing Moscow to continue to commit crimes.”

Ukrainian commentators and politicians have maintained that Iran’s involvement in the Russian war on Ukraine is a significant development that should have “moved the needle” and caused Israel to revise its position vis a vis Ukraine. During his address to a conference held by Ha’aretz newspaper on October 24, Zelensky warned Israel that Russia would reward Iran for its assistance, with nuclear weapons.

That same day, Gantz spoke with his Ukrainian counterpart, Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, and confirmed that Israel would not be able to provide weapons systems to Ukraine due to “operational limitations.”

It's clear that the two sides see the matter very differently; the Ukrainians are astounded that Israel is refusing to supply them with weapons even when Iran – its sworn enemy – is working hand in hand with Russia. Israel, on the other hand, believes that the Iranian intervention in the Ukraine war at this stage is not a gamechanger that should cause it to fundamentally change its policy. While the Ukrainians hint that had Israel sold them advanced weapons systems, Iran wouldn’t have entered the arena at all, Israelis point out that if the world – Ukraine included – had been more attentive to Israel’s warnings regarding the Islamic Republic and imposed heavy sanctions on its arms industry, Iran would never have succeeded in producing relatively advanced UAVs and ballistic missiles in the first place.

V. The Putin camp vs. the Ukraine camp; or, Dictatorship vs. Democracy

Another fundamental difference between the two countries is the “camp” with which they are affiliated. Ukraine desperately wants to belong to the Western democratic camp, by which it was shunned for many years. Israel, despite its conflict with the Palestinians and continued control over another people, already belongs to this camp, which, after many years of apathy, has united against Putin's war in Ukraine. It’s difficult for Kyiv to understand why Israel, which has also struggled for its existence and required Western weapons, is not more accommodating. What was accepted with understanding before the outbreak of the war – the explanations about Israel's complex situation in Syria and the operational circumstances involved – now causes infuriation.

President Putin wants Russian citizens to believe that he is fighting not only Ukraine but the entire West (and this is the real reason why the Russian army has not yet achieved the “goals” Putin outlined in his speeches before the invasion of Ukraine). Ukraine, however, truly believes that it, alone, is fighting for the entire West; that what is at stake is not only its own independence, but the question of supremacy and influence on the European continent and a possible change to the world order. In Ukraine’s view, Israel should be no less worried about this than Finland and Sweden, who joined the NATO alliance after many years of neutrality and excellent relations with Moscow.

In the West, too, there is not a great deal of sympathy for Israel’s policy. While it is true that for many years European leaders and even US President Donald Trump befriended Putin and maintained warm relations with him and his regime, as far as they’re concerned a new era began on February 24 in which Russia is a pariah state, and Putin an extremist and a threat to humanity; a more dangerous version of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. Although Israel did condemn the war, and voted against the annexation of the Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia, it has not gone all the way. Israel continues to be wary about undermining Russia’s honor, has not imposed sanctions on Russian officials and their associates, and, of course, has not supplied Ukraine with weapons systems.

Benjamin Netanyahu once again will be the prime minister of Israel. In the past, he has boasted about his friendship with President Putin. In fact, in his new autobiography, Netanyahu writes that he was very impressed by the man and his sharp intellect.

In a conversation with American reporters in January 2017, then-US President Barack Obama expressed concern that “Putinism, which is subscribed to, at some level, by Erdogan or Netanyahu or Duterte and Trump” would prevail over liberal democracy.

How will Netanyahu respond if and when President Putin calls to congratulate him on his victory? Or, should Putin decide to send a top Russian official to Israel, how will Bibi react?

In the past, Netanyahu was part of the conservative axis that stretched from Donald Trump’s America to Victor Orbán’s Hungary and Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. But now the US and Europe are united by their support for Ukraine, and even the new Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni is increasing military aid to Kyiv. Even if he wants to, Netanyahu will not be able to get any closer to Putin and walk with him into the sunset in Red Square. He, too, will likely “tread carefully” like the governments before him, which will satisfy neither Putin, who expects closer cooperation, nor the Ukrainians, Europeans or Americans.

It was recently reported that under US pressure, Israel bought “strategic materials” for Ukraine. While there is still no clarity on what are the “strategic materials,” it is obvious that at this point it is “too little, too late.”

Israel finds itself today at a dangerous crossroads. It has to choose between its operative needs and immediate interests in Syria and Moscow, and its future as a Western country, ally of the US and partner of Europe. Obviously, things look completely different from Jerusalem than they do in Kyiv, Washington or Brussels. But as time goes by, it will be more and more difficult for Israel to explain its position on Russia and Ukraine to the world.  No matter which way Israel turns at the moment, danger lurks, and every decision it makes has the potential to be a fateful one.

For the time being, Israel is for the most part preoccupied with itself and the tremendous change that is taking place in the wake of the Knesset elections. But this grace period shall soon pass, and then Jerusalem will once again be forced to deal with the burning issues: To sell or not to sell weapons; to align itself with the West or “dance at two weddings”; to be mired in the present or invest in its future.

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Author image
Ksenia Svetlova was a Member of the Israeli Knesset from 2015-19. She is an expert on Middle Eastern and Russian affairs, with her book "On High Heels in the Middle East" published in 2021.
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