Israel’s delicate navigation in the Russia-Ukraine war - opinion

Israel must prepare to keep adapting its policies as the situation evolves.

 Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid at Ben-Gurion Airport to see off Israel's humanitarian delegation to Ukraine, March 21, 2022.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid at Ben-Gurion Airport to see off Israel's humanitarian delegation to Ukraine, March 21, 2022.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

When considering Israel’s diplomatic maneuvering options in the face of Russia’s war on Ukraine, it is important to first take stock of the fundamental, relevant facts.

The first of these is that Russia shares a common border with Israel. In northwest Syria, Russia is present in large air and naval bases, and maintains a significant military presence. This forms a central consideration for Israel.

Russia has been a strategic pillar for Assad’s political and physical survival. Without Russian-provided military equipment and air power, the Assad regime could not have won its civil war.

Russian surface-to-air missile batteries – the most advanced in the world – are on Syrian soil, including the S-300 battery that Syria received from Russia, and the S-400, the peak of Russian air defense capabilities, operated by Russian forces in the country.

These assets could potentially form a major threat, not only to Israel’s military freedom of action in the crowded Syrian skies, but also to civil aviation in Israeli airspace. As a result, Israel places enormous weight on the dialogue with Russia.

 A MAN places a candle next to a monument in Kyiv commemorating the victims of Babyn Yar.  (credit: VALENTYN OGIRENKO/REUTERS) A MAN places a candle next to a monument in Kyiv commemorating the victims of Babyn Yar. (credit: VALENTYN OGIRENKO/REUTERS)

This dialogue occurs as Israel works to prevent the entrenchment of Iran in Syria. Understandings with Russia play a hugely important role in this context and undermining these understandings could have significant consequences.

In addition, Israel is dealing with a two-dimensional Iranian threat. The first is the Iranian nuclear program. The Russian war on Ukraine has led to a delay of the signature on the revived Iranian nuclear program, despite America’s desire to fast-forward completion of the talks so that it can focus on Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the world has developed a new thirst for oil after disruption to Russia’s exports and a post-nuclear deal Iran can help quench some of that thirst, particularly if the West upgrades the sanctions on Russia to include import of oil.

Surprisingly, while both the Iranians and the West have exhibited willingness to complete the deal, it has been Russia that introduced a new clause demanding exception from sanctions placed on it when it comes to its ties with Iran.

This has led to a return to consultations, which took several days to resolve until Russia said it received the necessary guarantees from Washington.

Whatever happens with the nuclear agreement, from the Israeli perspective, it is vital that it remains free to deal with the second dimension of the Iranian threat, namely its regional military-terrorist entrenchment program, particularly in Syria.

These factors form Israel’s principal considerations, which do not vanish as Russia mercilessly pounds Ukraine. While Israeli public opinion is firmly on the side of the Ukrainian people, Israel’s government does not have the luxury of ignoring key national security calculations.

Thus, Israel has adopted a policy that condemns the aggression by Moscow. It co-sponsored the UN General Assembly condemning the Russian invasion, provides humanitarian and medical aid, and has also made clear that it will not become a route to bypass economic sanctions on Russia. However, Israel has declined Ukraine’s request for Israeli military equipment.

To date, the United States has a full understanding of Israel’s array of considerations and its careful maneuvering.

Furthermore, Washington has found Israel’s role as a mediator between Kyiv and Moscow useful, although, so far, both sides remain too far apart for compromise solutions at this time.

There is no doubt that Israel’s stance and the practical steps are being tested and examined every day by decision-makers in Jerusalem. This is not a fire-and-forget policy and it may not remain static if the war drags on for months longer.

As warnings of chemical attacks by Russia continue to hover in the background, they serve as a reminder of the fact that critical changes in the situation in Europe, such as a WMD attack or continued unrestrained Russian shelling, will obligate Israel to reassess its current position.

This would lead Israel to lose its position of mediator, but this is less important compared to the fact that it could lead to undesired elevated tension between Israel and Russia in the Middle East, should Russia choose to escalate.

In addition, should the situation change, the US could demand more categorical statements and actions from Israel as part of an alignment with Washington.

Israel is, after all, a part of the Western camp and enjoys a special alliance with the US. US support for Israel, past, present, and future, is of strategic vitality that cannot be exaggerated. This is backed by shared Israeli – American values. Hence, if the US demands a stronger Israeli posture on the European war, Israel will not be able to remain aloof.

Lastly, Israel’s handling of the Ukrainian refugee crisis began poorly, but has improved steadily with time. Many of the Ukrainians headed for Israel are eligible for automatic citizenship under the Right of Return.

Should tens of thousands arrive, this will present a considerable event for a state the size of Israel.

At the same time, unforced and morally inappropriate errors were made by Israel in the initial reception of non-Jewish refugees. As Jews, we remember the dark days of the 1930s when the world shut its doors to us and we could not escape the inferno of the Holocaust. As a nation that experienced this, we can’t turn away the small number of Ukrainian refugees who knock on our door. Most of them do not view Israel as their final destination.

Fortunately, on March 13, the Israeli government improved its policy and enabled thousands of additional Ukrainian refugees to claim asylum in Israel.

With no end to the crisis in sight at this time, Israel must prepare to keep adapting its policies as the situation evolves.

The writer is a publishing expert with The MirYam Institute. He is a former deputy director-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.