When Russia invaded Ukraine five months ago, triggering the largest armed conflict in Europe since World War II, Israel was torn between clear principles and basic interests.
Its principles dictated that it stand with democratic Ukraine against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s naked aggression. Israel, like the West, found the unprovoked invasion and the resulting death and destruction unleashed by Russia on its neighbor to be absolutely abhorrent, and sympathized deeply with the Ukrainians.
Israel’s interests, however, counseled treading a careful path, not siding too publicly with Ukraine or giving it military assistance, for fear this would infuriate the Russians, who would then respond by harming Israel and Jewish interests.
And Russia was in a position to harm both. As the effective master of Syria, it could prevent Jerusalem from acting against Iranian efforts to set up a beachhead against Israel in Syria, just as the Iranians did through Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. And it could also take its displeasure with Israel out by taking action against the remaining Jews in Russia.
Israel and the Russian Jews
According to the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research, the core Jewish population in Russia – meaning those with two Jewish parents, those who self-identify as Jews, or those who have undergone any conversion – stands at 150,000. There are some 320,000 Russians with one Jewish parent, and some 600,000 more eligible for immigration under the Law of Return, meaning they have at least one Jewish grandparent.
At first, Israel sat on the fence, condemning the war in Ukraine, but taking pains not to mention the Russians by name. Then Jerusalem started to speak with two voices, with then-prime minister Naftali Bennett trying to mediate between the warring sides and being careful not to take sides publicly, while then-foreign minister Yair Lapid took a more forceful rhetorical stance against the Russians.
As the war raged; as Russian atrocities emerged; as resolutions were brought to the UN that forced Israel to take a stand; as criticism mounted both internationally and in Israel about what was viewed as Jerusalem’s waffling on a clear moral issue; Israel began siding more and more with Ukraine, supplementing humanitarian aid such as a field hospital, with sending some protective equipment to Ukrainian rescue workers.
THE RUSSIANS, predictably, were not pleased.
Israel’s vote on April 7 in the UN to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Committee was followed almost immediately by a markedly different Russian tone towards the Jewish state, with Moscow blaming Israel for tension at the time on the Temple Mount and saying that it was taking advantage “of the situation around Ukraine to distract the international community from one of the longest unresolved conflicts – the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”
That same day, one of Russia’s top generals in Syria said that the Syrians, using Russian weapons, had shot down a precision-guided missile fired from Israel.
A few days later, Moscow demanded that Israel hand over control to Russia of the Alexander Courtyard church compound in Jerusalem which former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to give to the Russians as a goodwill gesture following the release of Naama Issachar from a Russian jail in 2020, but which the Jerusalem District Court blocked.
And on and on.
Now, as The Jerusalem Post first reported, the Russians are intent on closing down the Jewish Agency’s activities inside Russia, activities that have been ongoing for years and have facilitated the immigration of hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews to Israel since 1990.
Though expected, the move is a serious blow, one that Lapid, now the prime minister, said will – if it goes through – have repercussions on Israeli-Russian relations.
Closing down the Jewish Agency will adversely affect the Jews remaining in Russia – which shows that Jerusalem was not merely making excuses in the early days of the war when it said that one of the reasons for its tentative stance was out of concern for the Jewish community in Russia.
Interestingly, even as Moscow is closing down Jewish Agency Operations in Moscow, Israel, according to foreign sources, is continuing to act inside Syria, with an alleged Israeli airstrike near Damascus Friday morning that killed five Syrian soldiers and seven Shi’ite militia members, including three from Hezbollah.
In other words, Moscow is taking out its displeasure on Jerusalem for its stance on Ukraine not by shutting down Israel’s actions inside Syria, but rather by going after the Jewish Agency in Russia.
Why? Because that’s low-hanging fruit; because the Russians can take that step without any risk to its prestige or honor.
THE SAME cannot necessarily be said if it takes action to curb Israeli activities in Syria. Because what happens if Russia does deploy its technology or forces against Israeli missiles or jets there, but fails? What if its technology to protect Syrian skies proves no match for Israeli technology used to attack Iranian and Hezbollah assets inside Syria?
Israel is obviously loath to get into any military confrontation with Russia and is thankful that the deconfliction mechanism, put into place by Netanyahu and Putin when the Russians moved into Syria in 2015, remains in place and is working.
But Russia also has an interest in this deconfliction mechanism continuing to work.
The state of Russia's military
The Ukrainian war has exposed the poor state of the Russian military, including its technology. The vaunted Russian military has not proven nearly as powerful and advanced as feared. This will have long-ranging ramifications on how other countries around the world view Russia, and with whom they would rather align themselves: Russia, China or the US.
One of the last things Moscow needs at this time, as it continues to be bogged down in Ukraine with its army underperforming in a manner evident to the whole world, would be for its technology or military to be bested by Israel in Syria.
There are precedents. Forty years ago, on the third day of the first Lebanon War, the Israel Air Force destroyed Syria’s Soviet-built surface-to-air (SAM) missile system that so bedeviled it during the Yom Kippur War. In the biggest air battle the world had witnessed since the Korean War, Israel took out 29 of 30 SAM batteries, and knocked out some 85 enemy airplanes in the span of about two hours.
That battle, known as Operation Mole Cricket 19, demonstrated without a doubt the superiority not only of Israel’s air force, but also of Western technology over the best that the Soviets could muster at the time. Some have argued that this clear demonstration of Western technological superiority played a role in the unraveling of the Soviet Union some seven years later.
Israel most definitely does not want to engage the Russian military in any manner in Syria. But that Moscow is retaliating for Israel’s support of Ukraine by lashing out at the Jewish Agency in Russia – rather than by trying to stop alleged Israeli activity in Syria – is an indication that it also isn’t in any hurry to test Israel’s military and its technology in the skies over Damascus.