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Why is Israel struggling to maintain a coherent position in Russia, Ukraine?

Feb 15,2023 - Last updated at Feb 15,2023

For a whole year, Israel has struggled in its attempts 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?

Israel is home to a population of almost 1 million Russian-speaking citizens, one-third of them arriving 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 political scene. After years of marginalisation following their initial arrival in Israel, mostly in the 1990s, they managed to formulate their own parties and, eventually, exert direct influence on Israeli politics. Russian-speaking ultranationalist leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu, Avigdor Lieberman, is a direct outcome of the growing 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 itself. Soon after the start of the war, 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. Israel condemns this attack,” Lapid said.

The irony in Lapid’s words is too palpable for much elaboration, except that Israel has violated more United Nations resolutions 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 consisted of 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 are unacceptable. 

US Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland warned Israel plainly in  March that it must have a clear position on the issue, and “join the financial sanctions” against Russia if “you [meaning 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 in Tel Aviv, which has been worried about the alarming phenomenon of Yordim, or reverse immigration out of the country. Since many of the Ukrainian refugees were not Jews, this created a dilemma for the Israeli government. The Times of Israel reported on March 10 that “footage aired by Channel 12 news showed large numbers of people inside one of the 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, then-prime minister Naftali Bennett maintained a more conciliatory tone, flying to Moscow on March 5 to consult with Russian President Vladimir Putin, purportedly at the request of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Later on, Bennet alleged that Zelensky had asked him to obtain a promise from Putin not to assassinate him. Though the claim, made several months after the meeting, was vehemently rejected by Kyiv, it illustrates the incoherence of Israel’s foreign policy throughout the conflict.

During the early phase of the war, Israel wanted to participate as the mediator, repeatedly offering to host talks between Russia and Ukraine in Jerusalem. Hence, 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.

The Israeli gambit failed, and it was Türkiye, not Israel, that was chosen by both parties for this role. 

In April, videos began emerging on social media of Israelis fighting alongside Ukrainian forces. Though no official confirmation from Tel Aviv followed, the recurring event signaled that a shift was under way in the Israeli position. This position evolved over the course of months to finally lead to a major shift when, in November, Israel reportedly granted NATO members permission to supply Ukraine with weapons that contained Israeli technology.

Moreover, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Israel has agreed to purchase millions of dollars’ worth of “strategic materials” for Ukrainian military operations. Therefore, Israel had practically ended its neutrality in the war.

Moscow, ever vigilant of Israel’s precarious position, 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 immigration to Israel and Occupied Palestine.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to the office of 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 French LCI channel on February 1 and 5 respectively, that he would be “studying this question [of supplying Ukraine with the Iron Dome Defence System] according to our national interest.” Again, the Russians warned that Russia “will consider [Israeli weapons] to be legitimate targets for Russia’s armed forces”.

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 weapon suppliers to Ukraine. The following month, the French Le Monde reported that “Israel is cautiously opening its arsenal in response to Kyiv's pressing demands”.

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

 

Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and the editor of The Palestine Chronicle. He is the author of six books. His latest book, co-edited with Ilan Pappé, is “Our Vision for Liberation: Engaged Palestinian Leaders and Intellectuals Speak Out”. His other books include “My Father was a Freedom Fighter” and “The Last Earth”. Baroud is a non-resident senior research fellow at the Centre for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA). His website is www.ramzybaroud.net

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