In Ukraine-Russia War, Israel's balancing act always comes up short

When it comes to providing military support for Ukraine, Israel is as reticent now as it was at the beginning of the war. 

 UKRAINE’S PRESIDENT Volodymyr Zelensky takes part in a commemoration ceremony for the victims of Babyn Yar, one of the biggest single massacres of Jews during the Nazi Holocaust, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Kyiv, yesterday.  (photo credit: UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE/REUTERS)
UKRAINE’S PRESIDENT Volodymyr Zelensky takes part in a commemoration ceremony for the victims of Babyn Yar, one of the biggest single massacres of Jews during the Nazi Holocaust, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Kyiv, yesterday.
(photo credit: UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE/REUTERS)

On February 25, the day after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the US brought a resolution to the UN Security Council deploring “in the strongest terms” Russia’s military action. Israel, at the time, denied a US request to co-sponsor the bill, much to Washington’s chagrin. 

On Tuesday, after Moscow claimed victory in what the world roundly condemned as sham referendums in four regions in Ukraine in favor of joining Russia – an apparent prelude to Russia’s annexation of those areas – the Foreign Ministry issued a terse but strong statement condemning the move. 

“Israel recognizes the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and will not recognize the results of the referendums in its eastern districts,” the statement read. 

“Israel recognizes the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and will not recognize the results of the referendums in its eastern districts.”

Israeli Foreign Ministry

The difference between Jerusalem’s refusal to co-sponsor a condemnation of Russia’s invasion at the very start of the war, and issuing a strong statement in support of Ukraine this week, shows the distance Israel has traveled diplomatically regarding the crisis. It has gone from not wanting to antagonize Moscow – fearful of how that would play out in terms of Russia’s presence in Syria and its policy toward Russian Jews – to publicly being willing to oppose Moscow. 

When it comes to providing military support for Ukraine, however, Israel is as reticent now as it was at the beginning of the war. 

The national flags of Israel and Ukraine (credit: OFFICE OF THE PRESIDENT OF UKRAINE)The national flags of Israel and Ukraine (credit: OFFICE OF THE PRESIDENT OF UKRAINE)

How has Israel supported Ukraine?

Israel will, as it showed Tuesday, provide diplomatic support. 

It will provide – as it has done throughout the war – humanitarian support in terms of tons of medical equipment, and even a field hospital. 

It will, as it began doing this week, take in wounded Ukrainian soldiers to be treated in Israeli hospitals. 

It will take in Jewish immigrants and refugees. As of August 1, it has absorbed 12,175 new immigrants from Ukraine and taken in 33,500 refugees for a total of 45,675 people fleeing the war. If the US had taken in an equivalent amount to its population, that would have meant taking in 1.6 million Ukrainians. President Joe Biden has pledged that the US will take in 100,000 Ukrainians.

Why won't Israel provide Ukraine with military aid?

But Jerusalem has not been willing to provide the Ukrainians with weapons with which to fight the Russians, obviously worried about how the Russians might respond.

And the Russians could respond in the same currency. For instance, the Russians have installed advanced S-300 air defense missiles in Syria. But there’s a stipulation. The missile batteries are reportedly under Russian military oversight, with Russian authorization needed before they can be used. If the Russians removed that stipulation and just handed them over to the Syrian military, that could cause nightmares for IAF actions in Syria against Iranian assets. 

FOR THE UKRAINIANS, however, as nice as diplomatic support feels, as helpful as humanitarian aid may be, what they really want from Israel – and from all other countries, for that matter – is weaponry. That Israel refuses to provide weaponry infuriates them.

Last Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky gave voice to that fury when he told French journalists that he was “in shock” that Israel did not provide Ukraine with anti-missile systems. “I don’t know what happened to Israel. I’m honestly, frankly – I am in shock, because I don’t understand why they couldn’t give us air defenses,” he said.

“Israel did not provide us with anything. Nothing. Zero! I am not accusing the leaders. I note the facts: there were discussions with the leaders of Israel, and it did not help Ukraine,” he continued.

“We can notice the influence of Russia on Israel,” he said, though he added that the Israeli public was relatively supportive of Ukraine.

This was not the first time the Ukrainian president complained that Israel was not sufficiently coming to his country’s aid with missile defense systems.

In his Zoom talk to the Knesset in March, Zelensky said: “Everyone in Israel knows that your missile defense is the best. It is powerful. Everyone knows that your weapon is strong. Everyone knows you’re doing great. You know how to defend your state’s interests, and the interests of your people. And you can definitely help us protect our lives, the lives of Ukrainians, the lives of Ukrainian Jews.

“One can keep asking why we can’t get weapons from you,” he continued. “But it is up to you, dear brothers and sisters, to choose the answer. And you will have to live with this answer, people of Israel. Ukrainians have made their choice. Eighty years ago. They rescued Jews. That is why the Righteous Among the Nations are among us.”

HIS MARCH speech left a sour taste in the mouths of many in Israel, even among those fully supportive of Ukraine in its defensive war against the Russians. Zelensky implied that because of the Holocaust, Israel has a moral obligation to help the Ukrainians against the Russians, whom he said want to do to Ukraine what the Nazis did to the Jews. Also, Zelensky’s memory of the Ukrainian record during the Holocaust is vastly at odds with the Jewish memory from that period.

Zelensky would be better off not evoking historical parallels in trying to win Israeli support because once he does so, he opens himself up to this counterargument: Why should Israel help Ukraine given the Jewish people’s tragic history with Ukraine, a bloody history that stretches back to the notorious Cossack antisemite and mass murderer Bohdan Chmielnicki, who was responsible for the massacres that bear his name that killed an estimated 100,000 Jews in the 17th century.

Then there were the pogroms in the 19th century that started in 1821 in Odesa, and the pogroms in 1918-1919 under Ukrainian nationalist leader Symon Petliura when – 20 years before the Holocaust – 50,000 Jews were killed. Then there was Stephan Bandera, a Ukrainian nationalist who collaborated with the Nazis and whose forces killed thousands of Jews; and there was Babyn Yar, where Ukrainian guards stood watch as the Nazis gunned down 33,771 Jews in two days.

No, if Zelensky, who is Jewish, is looking for Israeli support, he would best not invoke history.

Nevertheless, as much as historical memory is a part of the Jewish experience, it can’t be the determining factor in formulating Israel’s diplomatic policy. Or as Ukrainian-born, Russian imprisoned Natan Sharansky said at the beginning of the conflict: “If we say we are not going to send our hospitals [to help the Ukrainians] because their great-grandfathers raped our great-grandmothers, then we will have to stop our diplomatic relations with most of the world and think about how to build our past, not how to build our future.”

LOOKING AT that future, Israel’s policy toward the conflict has evolved, going from initially wanting to stay neutral because of a fear of how antagonizing Russian President Vladimir Putin could harm Jewish and Israeli interests, to a realization that considering the horrors being inflicted by the Russians on Ukraine, Israeli interests could also be harmed by not standing firmly with the West in its support of Kyiv.

So Israel went from former prime minister Naftali Bennett trying initially to “mediate” between Putin and Zelensky; to Israel summoning the Russian ambassador to protest Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s comments that Hitler had Jewish blood”; to Yair Lapid, in his role as foreign minister, calling the April discovery of a mass grave in Bucha after the Russian pullback from Kyiv “war crimes”; to Israel voting to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Committee; to Israel saying it won’t accept Russia’s sham referendums.

The Russians have taken note of this change of policy, and have not remained silent. They began once again blasting Israel for its policies toward the Palestinians, they shot down a precision-guided missile over Syria fired from Israel, they demanded that Israel hand over control of the Alexander Courtyard church compound in the Old City, and – most significantly – they moved to shutter the Jewish Agency’s activity in Russia, with a twice postponed trial on the matter now rescheduled for mid-October. 

All of this is proof that Israel’s concern about a deterioration of ties with Russia was not unfounded. What Moscow has stopped short of doing, however, is scrapping the deconfliction mechanism it set up with Jerusalem to prevent any accidental military engagement between Israeli and Russian forces in Syria. 

With Russian forces now faring poorly in Ukraine, and with Russia’s military and technological limitations on full display before the world in Ukraine, the preservation of this mechanism designed to prevent an unwanted clash with Israel is very much a Russian interest, as well as an Israeli one.

In seven months, Israel’s policy toward the war in Ukraine has gone from efforts to remain neutral, to attempts to mediate, to providing humanitarian and some diplomatic assistance to the Ukrainians, to now treating a few Ukrainian soldiers in Israeli hospitals. It’s a policy that has strained ties with Russia across the board, even as it has not pleased the Ukrainians – as evident by Zelensky’s scolding of Israel last week for giving his country “nothing.”

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, Israel tried to dance between the raindrops, weighing its steps carefully so as to neither antagonize the Russians nor alienate the Ukrainians. It’s a dance – perhaps impossible – that Israel is finding increasingly difficult to master.