How far can Israel pivot towards Ukraine without losing Moscow? - analysis

Israel's policy had at first been one of neutrality, as former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett attempted to mediate between Russia and Ukraine.

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen attends a meeting with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine February 16, 2023.  (photo credit: Ukrainian Defence Ministry/Handout via REUTERS)
Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen attends a meeting with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine February 16, 2023.
(photo credit: Ukrainian Defence Ministry/Handout via REUTERS)

The US Patriot anti-missile batteries that protected the small airport in Rzeszów–Jasionka Airport where Foreign Affairs Minister Eli Cohen flew in and out of, on his way to Kyiv, seemed to underscore the irony of his trip late last week.

Cohen was protected by defensive weapons, but represented a country that has yet to provide Ukraine with the long-requested anti-missile systems to help safeguard its citizenry, nor has it made a public pledge to do so.

Israeli has refrained from doing so for fear of angering Russia whose military sits on its border in neighboring Syria.

The question of whether Israel would cross what has been a red line of its Ukrainian policy was one of the central questions undermining Cohen’s trip.

Ukraine has been critical of Israel, particularly on this issue, with its ambassador in Tel Aviv Yevgen Korniychuk repeatedly saying that his country needs more than bandages from Israel.

Israel's policy had at first been one of neutrality, as former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett attempted to mediate between Russia and Ukraine. When talks did not seem like they had any chance of success, Israel lost some of its neutral veneer but lagged behind its Western allies. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been expected to turn the diplomatic wheel slightly back in the direction of Russia, but instead has been pivoting toward Ukraine, a move he is under pressure from the United States to make.

On Friday, as Cohen was landing in Tel Aviv, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was telling the Munich Security Conference he was hopeful that Israel would eventually send his country defensive military equipment against drones and missiles, specifically the advanced David Sling system.

No such promise, however, was evident in the public dialogue around the trip, in which the tall Likud politician offers a sympathetic nod and a head bowed in respect for the suffering the country had endured since the Russian invasion began on February 24 of last year.

Even there he faltered. 

That Ukraine was a country at war was evident in every moment of the trip. The country’s airspace is closed to civilian flights, so Cohen landed in nearby Poland. Then he rode into Kyiv on a special all night-train, designated just for the Foreign Ministry delegation. 

The old fashion looking cars with wheels that went clickety-clack in the darkness, had something of the look of the Hogwarts express train, except that the small double-seat compartments with bench-size blue seats were turned into beds.

When he disembarked in a cold Kyiv morning as the first high-level Israeli official to visit Ukraine since the start of the war, he was already eleven or ten months late in arriving.

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)

Eastern European leaders made solidarity trips in March, and the United Kingdom and the United States came in April. 

Cohen’s first stop from the Kyiv translation was Bucha, a nearby city that Russian forces had conquered in the first weeks of the war but then withdrew from by the end of March. The Ukrainians have estimated that over 1,300 people were killed in that period, including civilians. Bodies were found shot, with their hands tied behind their backs and a civilian mass grave was uncovered by Saint Andrew’s church.

Cohen laid flowers at the small memorial to those victims by Saint Andrew and visited a photographic exhibit about the victims inside the white cathedral building with its golden onion domes. 

“It is impossible to remain indifferent in the face of the harsh sights and horror stories that I have heard and been exposed to,” Cohen said after he was briefed at the site by the city’s Mayor Anatoli Fedoruk. 

But he was careful not to denounce Russia, not there nor at any other public moment during his one-day visit that included stops to visit an elderly Jewish woman in Bucha, a memorial to the massacre of Ukrainian Jews during World War II at Babi Yar and the St. Sophia Cathedral, as well as conversations with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kubela and Zelensky.

It was a strange omission on a trip that had many other highlights. The most critical of them was that Cohen came and he did so, within six weeks of taking office, on what was only his third trip abroad. 

It was his way of emphasizing the importance he places on solidarity with Ukraine and with Israel's standing among the Western bloc of nations that back it. When US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Israel late last month, Cohen could not bond with Blinken over a trip to Kyiv, but when British Foreign Minister James Cleverly arrives next week, he can now say he too, has been to Ukraine.

Cohen also hoisted the Israeli flag in front of the country’s embassy in Kyiv, a move that marked its return to full service, after it had closed due to the security situation in the early part of the war.

The Foreign Minister promised to back Zelensky’s peace plan when it comes to a vote at the United Nations General Assembly this week, it's a text that will likely include a condemnation of Russia. It's a significant gesture, but Israel has had a strong record of backing Ukraine at the United Nations, a gesture which Kyiv has not returned in kind. Russia, of course, rarely backs Israel at the United Nations.

Israeli assistance to Ukraine

Israeli has been strong in providing humanitarian assistance to Ukraine and it promised to act as a guarantor to help it secure $200 million in loans for medical center and civilian infrastructure projects, a move that fell short of the half-a-billion Ukraine had wanted. Lastly, Cohen promised to speed up the delivery of an early alert system to warn its civilian against incoming missiles, so that it would arrive within the next three months.

Israel in turn said it had secured a promise from Ukraine to jointly work with it against Iran on the international sphere and on all fronts. 

If Russia is the reason that Israel is hesitant to more firmly back Ukraine, then Iran, of course, is one of the critical reasons why it should. 

It’s a point that Ukraine has already made. Tehran poses an existential threat to Israel and has threatened to annihilate it. It also has a growing military alliance with Russia in which it is selling its armed drones and other missiles to be used by Moscow against Ukraine.

Iran is not a theoretical problem for Ukraine, it is a pragmatic one, as its civilians are already under fire from Iranian-made weapons Russia has launched against them.

Neither Kubela nor Zelensky mentioned Iran in any of their public comments about the visit, but the Ukrainian president reference Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons when he spoke a the Munich conference. 

While Zelensky was laudatory about the visit, Kubela was more critical, stating that it wanted Israel to help protect its skies and that it expected a response to this request.

Still, it's clear that Cohen’s visit did generate a new warmth in Ukraine toward Israel and that it lessened some of the frustration.

One has to imagine of course, that there are behind-the-scenes efforts that are going on to help Ukraine, that involve security and intelligence-sharing issues that can not be made public, or it would be difficult to imagine that Cohen’s visit could have generated such public goodwill, including the meetings with its top leaders.

Netanyahu hinted at some of that activity in an interview aired by CNN at the start of February in which he said that Israel was hitting Iranian weapons targets, thereby preventing the flow of military equipment to other countries such as Russia.

Cohen’s visit, therefore, gives Israel some breathing room on the Western stage, allowing it to retain its place in that Western bloc of Ukraine supporters without breaking ties with Russia.

But it is likely to be a brief respite. 

On Friday, Cohen could tell those on his flight that the Ukraine trip was a success.

As the conflict drags on and the involvement of Western countries grows and the possibility of war beyond Ukraine’s borders increase, Israel will likely have to choose whether to risk hostilities with Moscow by backing Kyiv with defensive weapons. 

Or it will have to cut itself off from the Western bloc so it can retain its ties with Moscow.

That day was not Friday or even this weekend, but with Zelensky speaking of his trust that Israel will eventually give it defensive weapons, that day will come soon.