Why is Israel neutral amid the Russia-Ukraine war?

Neutrality, an evolving Israeli reflex and policy, reaches new heights in the wake of Russia’s war

 Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman chats with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on March 20. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman chats with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on March 20.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

“When you don’t know who will win, be neutral,” goes a Swiss proverb, echoing the belief that Switzerland’s fabled neutrality was a matter of choice.

It wasn’t. Switzerland became neutral accidentally, after the powers that defeated Napoleon agreed that the Alpine republic should serve as a political buffer between Austria and France. Even so, in the subsequent two centuries, neutrality indeed became Switzerland’s choice, and alongside chocolate, watches, and confidential banking, part of its identity.

Having emerged unscathed from the two world wars that raged at its doorstep, and having played host to multiple peace talks, international institutions, and humanitarian projects, Switzerland struck Israelis as a political utopia, the perfect antithesis of their own situation in the Middle East.

Now the tables seem to be turning.

Faced with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Swiss government abandoned its historic neutrality and took a clear stand, calling the Russian move “a gross violation of international law,” and stating “we are very concerned about the danger to innocent civilians.” The same went for other formerly neutral countries.

 A view shows a residential building destroyed by recent shelling, as Russia's invasion of Ukraine continues, in the city of Irpin in the Kyiv region, Ukraine March 2, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/SERHII NUZHNENKO) A view shows a residential building destroyed by recent shelling, as Russia's invasion of Ukraine continues, in the city of Irpin in the Kyiv region, Ukraine March 2, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/SERHII NUZHNENKO)

Spain and Portugal, which also sat out World War II, have since joined NATO and now condemn Russia harshly, while their fighter pilots patrol the Baltic republics’ borders, almost looking Russian pilots in the eye.

Much less naturally, Sweden, which has not fought a war since invading Norway in 1814, now took sides. Breaking its time-honored avoidance of sending arms to any war’s party, Stockholm now approved the shipment of automatic rifles and anti-tank missiles to Ukraine.

Moreover, polls indicate that more than half of Sweden’s population now wants it to join NATO, a move the Nordic country has avoided even after it joined the European Union in 1995. “The unthinkable might start to become thinkable,” tweeted former Prime Minister Carl Bildt.

The same dynamics are apparent in another paragon of neutrality, Finland, whose formal nonalignment with any superpower was the aftermath of its invasion by the Soviet Union in 1940. Finland fought heroically and dealt the Soviets severe casualties, but ultimately ended up ceding land, paying reparations, and being forced to shun the Western alliance throughout the Cold War.

Now Finland is also sending arms to Ukraine. Like their Swedish neighbors, most Finns now say they want to join NATO, and its politicians are following suit. “Everyone agrees the events of the past week have been a game changer,” said Prime Minister Sanna Marin, as the ruling Social Democratic Party set out to discuss with other parties the idea of joining NATO, while Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine.

Austria, which also emerged from World War II committed to neutrality, is more reluctant to part with this legacy.

“Austria was neutral, Austria is neutral, Austria will remain neutral,” said Chancellor Karl Nehammer, whose country, like Finland and Sweden, remained out of NATO even after joining the European Union.

Still, other Austrian leaders, most notably Othmar Karas, a European Parliament vice president and Chancellor Nehammer’s party colleague, have called for a review of Austria’s neutrality.

In all, yesteryears’ neutral countries are at various stages of retreat from neutrality, as the Russian-Ukrainian War unfolds. Israel, at the same time, is traveling in the opposite direction.

Israel toyed with the idea of neutrality already in its early years.

Recalling that during the War of Independence London sided with the Arabs and Washington imposed an arms embargo while Moscow helped arm the embattled IDF, Jerusalem tried to join the first Afro-Asian conference, held in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955.

The conference inspired the eventual rise of the Nonaligned Bloc, as the colonial era left a shared sense of insult and pain among the conclave’s 29 participating countries. Israel was right to believe it belonged there, both geographically and psychologically, but Arab pressure made the organizers exclude Israel.

As the Cold War unfolded, it became plain that Israel had no maneuvering space because it belonged firmly in the West. An attempt to establish ties with communist China, which Jerusalem recognized in 1950 despite Washington’s objection, fell apart when the Korean War broke out.

Moscow became actively hostile to Israel, first in 1955, when it began arming Egypt; then in 1956, when it stopped oil shipments to Israel in the wake of that year’s war with Egypt; and finally in 1967, when the Kremlin severed diplomatic ties with Israel along with the rest of the Eastern Bloc (except Romania), and unleashed a massive anti-Zionist media campaign, all while blocking Soviet Jewry’s emigration.

Israel was thus not only a party to the Cold War, it was in the trenches on the front lines. This came to an end in 1992, when both the USSR and China exchanged ambassadors with Israel. For the first time in its history, the Jewish state had full diplomatic ties with all of the superpowers.

Israel made good use of the new global spirit of harmony, first by seeing the release of Soviet Jewry, then by absorbing its immigrants, and then by seeing trade flourish with Moscow and Beijing.

This was the context in which Israel was confronted with the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014.

The Western response to the invasion was a broad set of American-led sanctions joined by all Western countries, from Canada and Germany to Australia and Japan. Only one Western country did not join the sanctions: Israel.

It was a new and unexpected policy, led by then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and foreign minister Avigdor Liberman, with the agreement of opposition leader Isaac Herzog, and it was launched despite president Barack Obama’s pressure that Jerusalem join Washington’s sanctions.

Israel’s situation is different, its leaders had insisted, because there were sizable Jewish communities on both sides of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Taking sides would put many of them at risk.

Neutrality paid off quickly, when Russia entered the Syrian civil war the following year, and swiftly decided its result. Israel’s refusal to join the anti-Russian sanctions now resulted in continuous dialogue with the Kremlin and its generals as their warplanes parked a 15-minute sortie from Tel Aviv.

Regardless of Russia, Israeli neutrality was fueled by Middle Eastern events.

In the past, Israel was repeatedly drawn into the Arab world’s internal conflicts. In the 1960s Israel trained anti-government rebels in northern Iraq, in the 1970s it helped Jordan’s King Hussein quell Yasser Arafat’s insurgency, and in the 1980s it took the Christians’ side in Lebanon’s civil war.

That was last century. This century, faced with multiple civil wars from Libya and Yemen to Syria and Iraq, Israel avoided involvement other than offering medical treatment for the Syrian war’s casualties, and firing an occasional artillery salvo in response to a straying Syrian shell.

Israel’s neutrality has been such that it never said anything about the Syrian war’s gruesome dynamics, even when the rest of the West condemned President Bashar Assad’s bombing, gassing, and dispossession of his own citizens.

This, in brief, is the backdrop against which the war in Ukraine befell the Jewish state.

THE ISRAELI quest to remain above the new European war’s fray was evident from its beginning. “The wisest thing we can do is keep a low profile,” said Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman as the Russian invasion began.

Verbally, Israel did condemn Russia’s invasion, with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid calling it “a severe violation of the international order,” and that “war is not the way to solve conflicts.” In practice, however, Israel did not join the American-led sanctions. Trade with Russia continued unabated, and most notably, El Al did not cancel its flights to Russia, unlike all other Western airlines.

The Jewish aspect of Israel’s situation, which in 2014 was not discussed publicly, is now said for the record. “There are hundreds of thousands of Jews in both countries, and looking after their safety and security is at the top of our considerations,” said Lapid. The same goes for Russia’s military presence in Syria, even if Israeli leaders don’t discuss publicly this part of their concerns.

The consequence of all this is a tightrope walk whereby Israel avoids provoking Russia on the one hand, offers Ukraine humanitarian aid on the other, and while at it also tries its hand as a mediator.

Israel therefore did not join the Western effort to arm Ukraine, and refused to send arms to Kyiv, even defensive gear like armored vests and helmets. At the same time, the government decided to set up a field hospital in Ukraine for the war’s casualties and refugees.

Added up, this delicate balancing act positioned Israel as the only Western country that both belligerents could accept as a mediator, an advantage that became apparent when Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin on March 5, and then held a telephone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

As of this writing, while Russia and Ukraine consider a retreat-for-neutrality deal, a Financial Times report claims Bennett was the blueprint’s engineer. The extent to which this is accurate has yet to become clear, but what is clear is that Russia is not interfering while a gathering immigration wave from both Ukraine and Russia makes its way to Israel, and also while Israeli jets attack Iranian targets in Syria.

From Israel’s viewpoint, that is a worthy strategic yield for the moral concessions that neutrality, by definition, entails.  ■