Israel and the Ukraine crisis: A false choice between Russia, the West - opinion

Despite the commentary to the contrary, the Ukraine crisis does not present Israel with a cataclysmic East-West dilemma, the Jewish state unequivocally bound to the United States.

 BENJAMIN NETANYAHU and Vladimir Putin reached understandings that allow Israel freedom to act and Naftali Bennett is eager to retain them. (photo credit: MAXIM SHEMETOV/REUTERS)
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU and Vladimir Putin reached understandings that allow Israel freedom to act and Naftali Bennett is eager to retain them.
(photo credit: MAXIM SHEMETOV/REUTERS)

The international crisis over Ukraine has supposedly placed before Israel an impossible strategic dilemma.

On the one hand, Israel is an integral part of the West that is unified in its condemnation of Russian aggression and standing in solidarity with a fellow democracy courageously fighting for its independence.

On the other hand, Russia’s weighty military presence just across Israel’s northern frontier dictates special prudence toward Moscow. 

Yet in the real world, the choice is non-existent. Israel is securely anchored in the West; its military capabilities, economic vitality and technological prowess are all unquestionably augmented by being a close American ally. 

From support for the Iron Dome missile shield, to being a security cooperative participant in the F-35 project, to the diplomatic protection Israel receives in UN forums, America is Israel’s indispensable ally. 

 The Iron Dome missile defense system in action. (credit: Israel Defense Ministry Spokesperson’s Office) The Iron Dome missile defense system in action. (credit: Israel Defense Ministry Spokesperson’s Office)

It wasn’t always like this. Although the US has consistently been favorably disposed toward Israel – president Harry Truman was the first world leader to recognize the newborn Jewish state – there was a period when many in Washington considered US-Israel friendship a strategic liability. 

Under the Eisenhower presidency, it was widely believed that embracing Israel too closely would push the Arab states over to the Soviet side of the Cold War. 

But since the 1960s, consecutive administrations have worked to buttress the US-Israel relationship. John F. Kennedy agreed to sell Israel defensive Hawk missiles, Lyndon B. Johnson was the first president to invite an Israeli prime minister for an official state visit (then Levi Eshkol) and Richard Nixon presided over the Yom Kippur airlift that delivered desperately needed munitions and equipment to Israel.

Over the years Washington progressively understood that Israel was a good friend to have, and as Israel became stronger it became an increasingly valued partner (no one wants a weak ally).

Importantly, the Jewish state didn’t demand American boots-on-the-ground to fight its battles, only the means to defend itself by itself; and, unlike other US friends in the region, Israel alone shares America’s democratic values. 

Henry Kissinger pointed to the fact that US-Israel relations could at times be prickly, the Israelis excessively demanding. He joked that when Golda Meir was asking Washington for additional American-made Phantom and Skyhawk combat aircraft, had the US offered Israel “the entire United States Strategic Air Command as a free gift” Israel’s ambassador, Yitzhak Rabin, would (a.) claim Israel was only “getting its due,” and (b.) find “some technical shortcomings in the airplanes” accepting them as “a reluctant concession to us.” 

Kissinger’s memoirs describe in detail the enhanced state of US-Israel ties during his period in government (1969-1977), and in the decades since the alliance has gone from strength to strength. 

Two notable high points: In 1987 the Reagan administration formerly designated Israel a Major Non-NATO Ally; and in 2016 Barack Obama finalized a new 10-year defense package providing Israel with $38 billion in US military funding in what the State Department described as the “single largest pledge of bilateral military assistance in US history.”

However, being a close American ally does not necessitate the enforced conformity that characterized the former Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact. On the contrary, membership in the Western camp entails considerable freedom of movement.

Britain’s leading position in the West is unmistakable, as was Margaret Thatcher’s personal commitment to the US-UK “special relationship.”

Yet, in the 1982 Falkland crisis, the UK didn’t coordinate its response to the Argentinian invasion with the Americans. Thatcher set British policy as she understood British interests, and then demanded American support. Despite the renowned Reagan-Thatcher partnership, initially Washington was hesitant to lend full backing – the US had its own interests in Latin America – eventually America followed Britain’s lead. 

France’s Charles de Gaulle was a towering figure in the Western alliance. Yet in 1966 he removed France from NATO’s integrated military structure. And despite American opposition, de Gaulle built France’s independent nuclear deterrent, the Force de frappe. More recently, France famously refused to support the 2003 US-UK attack on Iraq.  

Throughout the Cold War, West Germany was totally dependent on American protection. But this didn’t prevent Bonn’s leaders from pursuing the independent policy of Ostpolitik. Despite Washington’s reservations, chancellor Willy Brandt believed that dialogue with the Soviet bloc could bolster West Germany’s position, especially vis-à-vis Communist East Germany. 

Japan remains a key American ally, but after the 2018 nerve agent attack on Russian defector Sergei Skripal in England, Japan alone in the G7 remained aloof from the Western consensus. Although 28 countries joined the UK in expelling Russian diplomats in retaliation, Tokyo did not, choosing to give precedence to its negotiations with Moscow over the fate of the disputed Kuril Islands.

Like Japan, Israel did not oust Russian diplomats following the Skripal incident, the realities of Syria forcing the prioritization of open channels of communication with Moscow. Those critical of this Israeli stance should recall it was the West that enabled the vacuum in Syria, opening the door to Russia’s 2015 upgraded military intervention. 

For Israel’s national security, developments in Syria are of core interest. The IAF routinely attacks Iranian and Hezbollah targets, and sometimes those of the Assad regime. Although they are all allied to the Russians in the internal Syrian conflict, Moscow has chosen not to intervene. Benjamin Netanyahu and Vladimir Putin reached understandings that maintain Israel’s freedom of action, and Naftali Bennett is eager to retain those arrangements.

Nonetheless Jerusalem’s dialogue with Moscow also contains advantages for the West. On occasion, countries without Kremlin entry have approached Jerusalem to convey a discrete message on their behalf. 

And in times of crisis, like the present situation, Israel’s avenue with Russia has magnified significance. It was reported that during Olaf Scholz’s recent visit to Jerusalem, the German chancellor urged Bennett “to use Israel’s special access to Russia and the Ukraine” to help end the war. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed Israeli mediation, as did Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who mentioned Jerusalem as a possible location for Moscow-Kyiv talks.  

Despite the commentary to the contrary, the Ukraine crisis does not present Israel with a cataclysmic East-West dilemma, the Jewish state unequivocally bound to the United States. But membership in the Western camp does not negate Israel’s ability to conduct a calibrated approach toward Russia, and although the Jerusalem-Moscow channel is first and foremost designed to advance Israeli goals, it undoubtedly serves wider Western interests too. Is there a Hebrew word for Ostpolitik?

The writer, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is a senior visiting fellow at the INSS at Tel Aviv University. Follow him at @AmbassadorMarkRegev on Facebook.