Can Israel Thread the Needle Between Russia and Ukraine?

Can Israel Thread the Needle Between Russia and Ukraine?

As it strives to maintain its neutrality, Israel must navigate a diplomatic minefield to preserve its operational ties with Russian forces in Syria, meet Western expectations, and heed the calls from its own society that is closely watching the unfolding situation.

On February 4, 2022, Israeli outlets reported that Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba expressed his country’s interest in deepening defensive cooperation with Israel and acquiring sophisticated air defense and cyber technologies. The minister also hoped that the Israeli government would play a more active diplomatic role in Ukraine’s conflict with Russia. These statements came in the wake of a conversation between Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid and U.S. secretary of state Antony Blinken, where they discussed the situation in Ukraine, among other topics. It was also one of the subjects of a February 6 phone conversation between President Joe Biden and Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett. Some Israeli observers speculated that the United States might have suggested that Israel should become more involved in mediating between Russia and Ukraine, given its well-developed relations with both. Moreover, in mid-January, news leaked that Bennett allegedly offered President Vladimir Putin to host the two countries at a summit in Jerusalem. However, a spokesman for Russia’s president stated that his government never received an official invitation.

Indeed, Israel’s position is unique. The country has a deep and complex relationship with both Russia and Ukraine. In particular, its ties with Russia had considerably evolved over the last several years. For instance, under then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, there was noticeable development in bilateral ties. Between 2009 and 2020, Netanyahu visited Moscow seventeen times. Likewise, in 2005, Putin had become the first Russian leader to visit Israel, and he did so again in 2012. More importantly, in 2017, Putin’s government recognized West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Then in May 2018, Netanyahu was a guest at the parade during the “Victory Day” celebrations. This was indeed a very conspicuous presence given that during the same period, Russia found itself progressively more isolated and at odds with the United States and many of its Western European partners following the 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. Significantly, Israel did not condemn this act and its diplomats were visibly absent during the 2014 UN General Assembly vote that condemned Russia’s actions. While this was formally explained by a coincidental strike at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, scholar Alexei Vasiliev observed that Tel Aviv’s message was unmistakable. Also, Israel neither sanctioned nor expelled any Russian diplomats, despite pressure from the West to do so. This underscores that the relations between Russia and Israel are indeed special, constructive, and transparent.

Given the present crisis over Ukraine, it is improbable that Israel will undertake any swift actions, let alone dramatic ones. What is more likely is that Israelis will observe developments and wait. Even other U.S. allies—especially those in Western Europe—are not united on how to resolve the situation. In early February, French president Emmanuel Macron became the latest Western leader to undertake personal diplomacy in the hope of deescalating tensions by promising to build concrete security guarantees for all involved parties. This situation creates some breathing room for states like Israel that are not directly affected by the crisis and wish to remain neutral. In an interview with an Israeli newspaper, Russia’s envoy to Israel claimed that the Ukrainian crisis is not a topic of his discussions with Israeli colleagues and that the two states had many other more relevant subjects to work on.

Israeli observers point out how their country has little to gain from being involved. As one prominent journalist put it: “[from] Israel’s viewpoint, the borders of Europe are matters for the big powers to decide.” This is due to the issue’s complexity, the broader rivalry between the United States and Russia, and the importance of maintaining good relations with Russia given its involvement in various crises in the Middle East. Although Israel is a close ally of the United States and has friendly ties with Ukraine, Israelis also emphasize that they respect Russia’s views. Indeed, what drives this point home is that the Russian military is present on Israel’s border (in Syria), has developed a system for professional communication and coordination with the Israelis, and even tolerates Israeli sporadic attacks against perceived threats on Syrian soil. Indeed, Russia is a de facto ally of Israel’s northern adversarial neighbor Syria. It deployed advanced air defense systems in Syria and could limit some of Israel’s operations over the country. This had made it a priority for Israel to maintain “open lines of communication” with Moscow. As the former minister of defense, Avigdor Lieberman stated—the two established a crisis “hotline” to manage tensions.

Moreover, Israel has an interest in keeping Moscow close due to its ties to Iran, another regional enemy of the Israeli government. Russia and Iran have developed a cooperative relationship, and Moscow is a significant party to the complicated multistate negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program—which Israel views as a dire security threat. Needless to add, Russia and Israel also share a common cause in fighting terrorism—something that brought them together in the early 2000s when Israel was one of the few countries that did not criticize Russia for its human rights record during the Chechen War. At the time, then-Prime Minister Sharon praised Russia and saw a commonality between Russia’s struggle in Caucasus and Israel’s fight against Palestinian terrorist groups. However, it should be noted that Russia—as the prominent Russian Middle East expert Vitaly Naumkin pointed out—was not always rushing to add certain groups to the terrorist list, given that it believed this would complicate future dealings with them. Indeed, the 2006 visit to Moscow by leaders of Hamas—who had won the Palestinian elections a few months earlier—angered Israel and was seen as contrary to the existing principles in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations (namely, that Hamas had to renounce violence against Israel, recognize it, and accept the existing agreements). However, the Russians insisted that Hamas ought to be given time to “change,” recognize Israel, and model itself on the Irish Republic Army.

More broadly speaking, Russia’s actions have to do with Moscow’s general diplomatic posture in the Middle East. Since its “return” to the Middle East, Moscow has embraced a flexible approach to dealing with different Middle Eastern actors. It showed a willingness to talk to all the essential regional stakeholders—including the so-called “rogues”—which opened the door to communication and elevated Russia’s role. In fact, according to Russian scholar Andrey Kortunov, Russia apparently transformed itself into “an honest broker,” which succeeded in maintaining constructive relations with all the interlocutors: Sunnis and Shiites, Iran and the Gulf monarchies, Turks and Kurds, and also Israelis and Palestinians.

But there are also those who are more skeptical about Russia’s regional strategy. Some scholars view it primarily as an extension of Russia’s obsessive need to compete with the United States and hinder Washington’s activities in the region, even at the cost of becoming a spoiler. Others question the actual extent of Russia’s ability to influence events, even in places like Syria where Moscow is entrenched. Nonetheless, to Israel, Moscow can still be a valuable partner, given that it has open communication with Iran and perhaps even an ability to influence or restrain some of the latter’s activities.

This cordial relationship with Tel Aviv has been beneficial to Moscow, too. As Russia found itself more isolated from the West following confrontations with Georgia and Ukraine, Israel became a source of Western technology for Russia. In 2010, the two countries signed an important military-technical deal that allowed Russia to produce Israeli drones on Israeli licenses later. Indeed the deal was significant given that Russia was behind in unmanned aerial vehicle technology at the time, and its forces suffered losses to Israeli-made Georgian drones during the 2008 War. Moreover, Israel was willing to decline the sale of its drones to Ukraine back in 2014, reduced certain weapon sales to Georgia, and even reported how it shared “data link codes” on Georgian’s drones to Russia in exchange for intelligence on Iran’s air defenses. Russia had also, allegedly, asked Israel to lobby the United States to lift some of the sanctions on the Syrian government to allow for Russian companies to help rebuild the country.

Israel and Russia share an additional bond in preserving the memory of the sacrifice of their peoples during World War II. Israeli officials point out that half a million Jewish soldiers fought in the Red Army, and a Soviet officer was the first to enter the Auschwitz concentration camp in January 1945. As the Israeli foreign minister Lapid pointed out last October on the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of the restoration of diplomatic ties between the two countries: “The Jewish people and the State of Israel will forever remember the decisive contribution of the Red Army to the victory over Nazi Germany, and to the liberation of the concentration and extermination camps.” Indeed, in 2012 Israel unveiled a statue in memory of the Red Army’s soldiers. Its surviving veterans celebrate Victory Day every year on May 9, donning their uniforms. This is something that Russia values greatly, especially when it is also working to counter what it sees as efforts to rewrite history and glorify Nazism.