Ukraine-Russia war: Israel's delicate balancing act - analysis

DIPLOMATIC AFFAIRS: Jerusalem wants to focus on low-profile humanitarian aid, but that position seems to be getting increasingly untenable.

 WORKERS LOAD packages of Israeli humanitarian aid destined for Ukraine, at Ben-Gurion Airport this week. (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
WORKERS LOAD packages of Israeli humanitarian aid destined for Ukraine, at Ben-Gurion Airport this week.
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)

A strange thing happened while Ukraine fought to defend itself from a Russian invasion: American and international media started asking about Israel.

Why hasn’t Israel “gone to read Putin the riot act,” CNN’s Christiane Amanpour asked this week, “after all the times the US has bent over backwards to help Israel at the UN and at all global forums?”

What does Israel have to do with a war between Ukraine and Russia? It’s a good question, and one that television hosts like Amanpour and Joe Scarborough should have considered before angrily accusing Israel of not being a good enough ally to the US.

And the answer is very little, really. There is no good reason for news outlets outside the Jewish or Israeli media to fixate on Israel in this war.

That being said, Israel has found itself in a very awkward position between its security interests with Russia and its shared interests and values with the US, which makes an interesting story – one that, unfortunately, has repeatedly been told without the nuance it requires.

SYRIAN PRESIDENT Bashar Assad addresses members of his country’s parliament in Damascus in August.  (credit: SANA/REUTERS)SYRIAN PRESIDENT Bashar Assad addresses members of his country’s parliament in Damascus in August. (credit: SANA/REUTERS)

IT’S A STORY that started in 2013, when Syrian President Bashar Assad began using chemical weapons against his own citizens, crossing the “redline” that then-president Barack Obama set for US intervention. The US decided not to get involved militarily, despite the president’s statement.

That left a vacuum in the Syrian civil war, which continued to rage in the coming years.

All the while, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was in Syria, as well, training and fighting with the Syrian military and with Hezbollah, its proxy in Lebanon. Israel began carrying out airstrikes on Iranian targets, like weapons convoys to Hezbollah, as early as 2013; there have been hundreds since then in what is known as the “war between the wars” campaign.

In 2015, Russia intervened to prop up Assad. The Russian army has become the dominant military force in Syria, with thousands of troops.

Israel, not wanting to end up in a confrontation with Russia, reached an agreement by which Jerusalem would warn Moscow before striking in Syria. Russia allowed the Israel Air Force freedom of action in Syria, as long as Russian troops are not hit. That deconfliction mechanism has worked out very well over the past seven years, despite occasional bumps in the road.

Beyond military ties, the diplomatic ties between Russia and Israel have deepened and grown in recent decades. Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu even boasted about his good relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin in a Likud election campaign. Plus, there are major cultural ties between Russia and over a million Israelis from the former Soviet Union.

Of course, not much ink needs to be spilled here on the US and Israel. There simply is no comparison with any other relationship Israel has. The US ensures Israel’s qualitative military edge, gives Israel billions of dollars in military aid each year and blocks most UN Security Council resolutions against Israel. Washington and Jerusalem engage in joint military training, intelligence-sharing, cultural exchanges, and more. And that continued throughout the aforementioned period, even when there were strong disagreements with the Obama administration about Syria, Iran and the Palestinians.

FAST-FORWARD to February 2022. Israeli intelligence assessments were less certain than American ones that Putin would decide to invade Ukraine; Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said as much, publicly estimating that Russia would not make the move. Israel is proceeding cautiously because of Russia’s presence in Syria and the large Jewish communities in Ukraine and Russia, Lapid said.

But when an invasion of some kind looked imminent, Israel called on its citizens to leave and began preparing to evacuate its embassy from Kyiv.

Condemnations of Russia starting pouring in from the West after Putin declared Donetsk and Luhansk to be independent republics and gave a long speech denying Ukraine’s right to exist as an independent country.

Israel waited until the next day, and then declared that it supports “the territorial integrity and the sovereignty of Ukraine” and “hopes for a diplomatic solution.

“Israel is continuing to engage in dialogue with its partners on ways to get the diplomatic efforts back on track,” the Foreign Ministry statement read.

What the statement did not mention is Russia.

A day later, when the scale of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine became apparent, Lapid unequivocally came out against Russia.

“The Russian attack on Ukraine is a serious violation of the international order,” Lapid said. “Israel condemns the attack, and is ready and prepared to provide humanitarian assistance to the citizens of Ukraine.”

That seemed to settle it, but hours later, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett reverted to not mentioning Russia: “Like everyone else, we pray for peace and calm in Ukraine. These are difficult and tragic moments, and our hearts are with the civilians that through no fault of their own have been thrust into this situation.”

Then, on Friday, Israel did not join the US-led UN Security Council resolution condemning Russia. Israel is not a member of the UNSC, which has only 15 members, but the Americans gathered about 80 signatures as a show of force against Russia – which had veto power and wouldn’t let the resolution pass, anyway.

The Americans were irked at Israel’s position, with US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield expressing disappointment to her Israeli counterpart, Gilad Erdan. Jerusalem promised behind closed doors that it would support the UN General Assembly resolution against Russia the next week, which it did on Wednesday, even cosponsoring it and, according to US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides, helping bring more countries on board.

But in the meantime, Lapid and Bennett continued playing their double game. Lapid announced that Israel would be condemning Russia at the UN and would be “on the right side of history,” while Bennett continued to talk about helping the people of Ukraine.

Over the past week, Bennett spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky twice, and then Putin soon after.

Zelensky continued to seek Israeli mediation in the situation, as he had several times in 2021, and Netanyahu and Bennett passed the message on to Putin, who rejected it. But on Sunday and on Wednesday, the Russian president did not give a definite no.

Also this week, Israel sent 100 tons of humanitarian aid to Ukraine, in the form of medicines, medical equipment, water purifying kits, blankets, tents and more. Additional aid is being prepared, including a field hospital.

But none of it is military aid; Israel has been very careful on that front. The field hospital is from the Health Ministry, not the IDF Medical Corps. Israel has not sent helmets and ceramic vests that Ukraine has requested, even though they could go to firefighters, paramedics and other civilians.

IT’S CLEAR that Israel is carefully trying to balance between its concern about being able to freely counter Iran beyond its Russia-controlled northern border while being on the US and the West’s side against the brutal invasion of a sovereign state.

What’s less clear is whether Israel is succeeding; it certainly is not balancing gracefully.

Yes, Israel’s signature at the UNSC would not have tipped the balance. It’s symbolic. But the entire resolution was symbolic, since Russia vetoed it. And the Americans took it badly.

When it comes to other matters, like sending more aid to Ukraine or more military or military-adjacent aid, there is no diplomatic pressure on Israel as of Thursday – though, as multiple diplomatic sources in Jerusalem emphasized, things can change from one day to the next.

In the meantime, the sense in Jerusalem is that Kyiv understands its tricky position and appreciates the humanitarian aid.

Yet the public narrative has seems to have slipped out of Israel’s control – a frequent problem for Israel – with prominent figures like those mentioned in the media or even pro-Israel US Senator Lindsey Graham expressing disappointment at Israeli inaction. Calls for Israel to send an Iron Dome battery have grown – even though Ukraine hasn’t asked for one, since it was developed for the cruder rockets used in Gaza and not Russian missiles.

A senior diplomatic source in Jerusalem took umbrage with the calls for Israel “to take a very extreme one-sided position,” but also with those who want “complete neutrality and to say nothing,” because Israel is “balancing pretty complicated things.”

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz also took issue with that narrative.

“We are not sitting on the fence; we are clearly on the side of the West.... That is an incorrect description. We are doing a lot, more than most countries,” Horowitz told KAN on Thursday. “Western allies are sending a lot of weapons; we are sending humanitarian aid, and we declared that we are unequivocally with Ukraine and against the Russian invasion.”

Bennett also said the media are telling the story wrong, but continued to avoid mentioning Russia and referred only to the “Ukrainian people.”

“Not everyone is mad at us – the opposite is true,” he told Channel 13 News on Wednesday. “We are helping the Ukrainian people. We sent three planes full of medicines and aid, and my instructions were very clear – to be as generous as possible with what the Ukrainian people need.”

Bennett added that “what is described in the media is wrong,” because “the different players want us in a place in which we can hold dialogue with everyone.”

In other words, the prime minister said, Israel needs to be in a position in which it can talk to Russia and Ukraine. Other very senior figures in Israel have expressed doubts that the proposal that Israel serve as mediator could come to fruition and whether Israel should do it even if Russia agrees. But Bennett is taking Zelensky’s request that he serve as an intermediary with Putin seriously – much more seriously than he took it in October when he first brought it up with the Russian president.

And if Bennett openly condemns Putin, then Putin won’t trust him as a possible mediator.

And in recent days, diplomacy seems to be where all his remarks are focused.

“In Israel, we have experienced quite a few wars, and I can share my main insight: wars are easy to start but very hard to end,” Bennett said at the Cybertech Global TLV 2022 Conference on Thursday. “Things look bad at the moment on the ground, but it is important to understand that if leaders of the world do not act fast, it can be much worse.

“I am talking about the loss of many human lives, total destruction of Ukraine and millions of refugees, but it is not too late,” Bennett added. “It is the responsibility of the big players in the world to act fast to take both sides off the battlefield and to the negotiating table.”

This message works for Bennett in two ways. First, he can keep up the option of serving as the mediator and peacemaker, but at the same time, by citing “big players,” he is saying that Israel does not need to be the one responsible.

Because, as Horowitz said on Thursday, “Israel is not the leading factor in this conflict and isn’t a side to it.”

Jerusalem wants to send humanitarian aid and keep a low profile in the Ukraine war, even as that position seems to be getting increasingly untenable.