Despite risks, Israel can do more to help Ukraine - opinion

Our ties with Moscow are based on cold facts and mainly on the knowledge that we can inflict pains to the Russians in the same way that they can.

 RUSSIAN FOREIGN Minister Sergei Lavrov and UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen meet in Moscow in February. Since 2015, Israel has shared a de facto border with Russia. (photo credit: RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTRY/REUTERS)
RUSSIAN FOREIGN Minister Sergei Lavrov and UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen meet in Moscow in February. Since 2015, Israel has shared a de facto border with Russia.
(photo credit: RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTRY/REUTERS)

Knesset members looked quietly shocked recently when they heard the implicit criticism President Volodymyr Zelensky waved at Israel in his speech to the Israeli parliament. The narrative, until then, had been that Israel was helping Ukraine, in coordination with a number of Western countries including the United States, and even at the request of Kyiv. Most of them likely weren’t aware of the subtle signs that showed that behind the facade, Kyiv was growing frustrated with Israel. But, they were there and Zelensky put them in the open in an honest, if not at times unceremonious and historically questionable manner. He is right to call us out.

To be sure, the question of whether or not Israel should support Ukraine and to what extent is not an easy one. Those who callously brush aside Israel’s concerns or worse don’t even seem to understand that there may be consequences to Israel siding with Ukraine, are either showing their disregard for Israel’s security or their own ignorance.

Since 2015, Israel has shared a de facto border with Russia. Its operations against the transfer of precision-guided missiles and kits through Syria and to Lebanon are liable to be impacted by a possible Russian response. If Russia decides to try and stop the Israeli “campaign between the war” against Iran, Israelis may eventually die. These Israeli strikes aim to limit Hezbollah’s ability to carry out pinpointed strikes against critical infrastructure.

They are also meant to prevent the establishment of a replica of Hezbollah’s “South Lebanon” in southern Syria. Each day the Israeli military is unable or limited in its ability to operate in Syria, is a day used by Iran and Hezbollah to accumulate missiles that may one day be fired at Israel. Principles should drive policy, but geopolitical facts cannot be ignored.

Still, the idea that Israel has no space to maneuver and that the minute it criticizes Russia, planes will start falling out of the sky is wrong. There is a reason why, early on, Russia engaged with Israel and sought to create a deconfliction line with Jerusalem. The Israeli military is a power that counts and the deconfliction line is just as useful to Moscow as it is to Israel.

 Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses the members of Norwegian parliament via video link, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, in Kyiv, Ukraine March 30, 2022. (credit: Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS) Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses the members of Norwegian parliament via video link, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, in Kyiv, Ukraine March 30, 2022. (credit: Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS)

At times, Israel has been able to indirectly pressure Russia by carrying out airstrikes against Syrian bases used by both Russia and Assad. More recently, it struck the port of Latakia – just a few kilometers away from the main Russian air base in Syria – multiple times. Let’s not kid ourselves that we’re suddenly defenseless and baffled by the Russian military might, particularly as the myth of Russian power is crumbling before our eyes in Ukraine.

There is also little or no reason to believe that Moscow will truly help when it comes to Iran’s entrenchment in Syria. A 2018 deal that was supposed to lead to the removal of Iranian proxies from southern Syria has had zero impact on the situation. Russia deployed several military police units opposite the Israeli Golan and it did little to curtail Iran and Hezbollah’s ability to operate from there. Even if Moscow wanted to remove Iran from our border, which is far from certain, can a few hundred soldiers really prevent the Iranian entrenchment?

Considering the very limited impact thousands of soldiers deployed as part of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in southern Lebanon have had on Hezbollah’s own entrenchment, it’s difficult to imagine that a few hundred Russian soldiers will do more in southern Syria. No, this was a flag-planting operation that did little to serve Israel’s interest. What little Russia has done to try and curtail Iran’s influence in Syria, mainly by trying to prop up regular Syrian forces, it has done for the sake of its own interests. Russia is not doing us any favors.

ON THE other side of the balance is our strategic partnership with the US. Here again, things are not as clear cut as some of Israel’s critics in DC may think. Some serious strategic rethinking ought to be done in Washington. There is a reason why traditional US allies, including in the Gulf, aren’t toeing the American line. Washington’s appeasement towards Iran and pivot to Asia has had a cost and some of it may be paid by Israel.

But, Israel’s balancing act on Ukraine isn’t helping. This is no small crisis or mere border conflict, nor is it just about Ukraine or the Ukrainians, whose bravery we should rightfully admire. This is a defining moment.

In this historic moment, there should be no doubt that Israel is on Washington’s side. Let’s not set a precedent that would have aspiring great powers think they can deploy a couple dozen planes in a nearby failed state and have us question our partnership with our historic ally.

The choice should be made even easier by the fact that the Ukrainians have defied expectations and that they are forcing Russia into a deadly stalemate. Hesitation is understandable at the beginning of a conflict. But a month on, the picture is becoming clearer and the reasons behind Israel’s muted support for Ukraine less relevant. The West is slowly waking up to a tough world, one Israel has always lived in. It’s been slow at catching up with history – that thing some claimed ended long ago – but it is warming up to it. Let’s not meet rising Western determination with hesitation.

There is space for more clear-cut Israeli support for Ukraine. As a starting point, our statements should not shy away from stating who is responsible for this crisis. We should keep a line open with Putin, but not let ourselves be played into looking like we’re cozying up to him.

There is even space for Israeli defensive systems to be transferred to Ukraine. In 2020, Israeli weapons were used against a Russian ally in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Israel cannot expect the same muted response from Russia if it delivers lethal aid to Ukraine, which may end up killing Russian soldiers. But, it has enough space and leverage to send defensive weapons, while reserving the right to send more if Moscow feels the need to respond, which it likely won’t. Ukraine is just as much a pressure point for Russia as Syria is for Israel.

Our ties with Moscow are not based on the exchange of pleasantries and some sort of tough guy bromance on the coast of the Black Sea. It is based on cold facts and mainly on the knowledge that we can inflict pains to the Russians in the same way that they can. This leaves plenty of space for us to help Ukraine and side with our historic partner.

The writer is a geopolitical and security analyst and the head of intelligence at the Middle-East-based Le Beck International Consultancy.