Analysis: Israel tiptoes around conflict

Israel has a real strategic interest in not infuriating the Russians in their conflict with Georgia.

Georgian soldiers 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Georgian soldiers 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
When looking at the Georgian-Russian flare-up from an Israeli perspective, there are a couple of key things to keep in mind. The first is that this is not about us, and although there is an Israeli angle in that local companies have sold arms to Tbilisi and trained units of the Georgian army, there is not a significant Israeli component to this story. The estimated $300 million to $500m. in weapons and training that Israel has sold to Georgia over the last decade is not what has equipped the Georgians for a war with Russia. Israel knows this, as do both the Georgians and the Russians. Israel sold arms, and allowed ex-officers to help train the military there, as did numerous other countries, including the US, France and Ukraine. This is not about us. The second thing to remember is that, unfortunately, life is not black-or-white. Although for historic, emotional and sentimental reasons, the Israeli tendency is to back the pro-Western, pro-American Georgians in this conflict - the David in this fight - Israel has a real strategic interest in not infuriating the Russians. Israel wants to support Georgia, wants to help Georgia, but also has to maintain a very special relationship with Russia. The reason is simple: Moscow is a major supplier of arms to Syria and Iran, and Israel would like to keep Russia from selling arms to those two countries that could tilt the region's strategic balance. "How dare the Russians tell Israel it can't sell arms to Georgia, when it is selling arms to Damascus and Teheran," is the reflexive Israeli response to reports that Moscow is pressuring Jerusalem to end arms sales to Tbilisi. "If they sell arms to our enemies, we can sell arms to theirs." True, but the Russians could be selling our enemies a lot worse weapons. The Russians maintain that they only sell defensive weapons to Syria and Iran, a point that may be debatable. But what everyone admits is that if Moscow took the gloves off, they could sell much more dangerous weapons systems to our neighbors, such as land-to-land missiles. It should be noted that the much-discussed sale of the S-300 multi-target anti-aircraft-missile systems, one of the most advanced in the world, has not yet gone through. By the same token, Israel can argue that it is only selling defensive weapons to Georgia, and that the unmanned aerial vehicles and rocket systems that have been sold to Georgia do not significantly alter the balance. The Russians also realize that Israel could provide the Georgians with much more significant weaponry (there were reports over the weekend of a billion-dollar tank deal to Georgia that Israel did not sign). "Israel has taken into consideration Russian interests," said Zvi Magen, a former Israeli envoy to Ukraine and Russia who is currently chairman of the Institute for Eurasian Studies at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. "Israel could have sold a lot more, and didn't," he said. "We lowered our profile [in Georgia], and the Russians have also taken us into consideration and did not sell everything they could have to our neighbors." Israel wants to help Georgia - up to a point. And that point is where that help begins to hurt Israel's own strategic interests with the Russians. Israel want to keep the Russians from arming Teheran, and to try to somehow get them on board as far as sanctions are concerned. Israel needs Russia on the Iranian issue, and is not going to get that help by selling too much to Georgia. At the same time, the Russian-Georgian conflict does give Israel some newfound leverage with the Russians. Because if the Russians do show signs of selling offensive arms to our neighbors, Israel could respond in kind by selling offensive arms to Russia's neighbors, such as Georgia. Magen said Israel's arms sales to Georgia have actually improved the Jewish state's strategic situation, not hurt it by weakening its ties with Moscow. "It has improved our position because we have leverage on Russia. We can now tell them if they sell offensive weapons here, we can sell there - we are also a player on this international field." Israel, however, has no interest in pushing the envelope too far and going overboard in support of Georgia. It wants to preserve a balance with Russia, despite a sentimental urge of many here - there are some 80,000 Georgian Jews in the country - who would like to see Israel right now do much more to assist Tbilisi.