Ukraine-Russia War: Misconceptions about Israel's neutrality - opinion

Jerusalem stands accused of breaking with its Western partners and not living up to the democratic values it espouses.Since Russia’s invasion, Israel’s position has been far from even-handed.

 AN IRON DOME missile battery set up in the South fires an intercepting missile during an attack from Gaza, 2018. Israel’s refusal to provide Ukraine with the defense system has been an issue in contention. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
AN IRON DOME missile battery set up in the South fires an intercepting missile during an attack from Gaza, 2018. Israel’s refusal to provide Ukraine with the defense system has been an issue in contention.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Over the past 10 months, voices across the international community have expressed reservations about Israel’s position regarding the ongoing Ukraine war. Even some of Israel’s closest friends have felt uncomfortable with the Jewish state’s perceived impartiality between brutal aggressor and democratic defender. Jerusalem stands accused of breaking with its Western partners and not living up to the democratic values it espouses.  

A December 4 interview on American television with the prime minister-elect was emblematic of the critique. Chuck Todd, anchor of NBC’s long-running political talk show Meet the Press, pointedly asked Benjamin Netanyahu: “Is it fair to say that Israel is going to continue to remain neutral in this war?”

“Is it fair to say that Israel is going to continue to remain neutral in this war?”

Chuck Todd

Todd’s presumption, though widespread, is nonetheless erroneous. 

Since Russia’s February 2022 invasion, Israel’s position has been far from even-handed. At the outbreak of the conflict, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid stated: “The Russian attack on Ukraine is a serious violation of the international order. Israel condemns this attack and is ready and willing to offer humanitarian aid to Ukrainian citizens.”

“The Russian attack on Ukraine is a serious violation of the international order. Israel condemns this attack and is ready and willing to offer humanitarian aid to Ukrainian citizens.”

Yair Lapid

That early denunciation was rearticulated by the Israeli leadership on repeated occasions and found expression in multiple votes by Israel’s representatives at the UN. From the outset, Jerusalem emphasized its support for Ukraine’s “territorial integrity and sovereignty.” 

In parallel, as Lapid outlined in his initial statement, Israel has given tangible humanitarian assistance to the Ukrainian people: establishing a field hospital in the western Ukrainian city of Mostyska; shipping 100 tons of relief materials to Ukraine, including medical supplies, water purification equipment, tents and blankets; welcoming some 15,000 refugees from the conflict; sending 25,000 ration packs to the city of Kharkiv; and accepting Ukrainian war wounded, military and non-military alike, in Israeli hospitals for specialist medical treatment. 

 Sheba Medical Center prepares a field hospital to be sent to Ukraine (credit: SHEBA MEDICAL CENTER) Sheba Medical Center prepares a field hospital to be sent to Ukraine (credit: SHEBA MEDICAL CENTER)

Just this week, Jerusalem announced that it would be sending some 20 generators to help Ukraine cope with the Russian strikes on its energy grid. 

Much of the international reproof of Israel’s behavior has centered around Jerusalem’s refusal to supply Ukraine with weapons. But while refraining from shipping lethal capabilities to the Ukrainian military, Jerusalem has provided Kyiv with protective equipment such as helmets, body armor, gas masks and mine protection suits. 

There have also been reports, not necessarily officially confirmed, that Israel is supplying Ukraine with intelligence about the Iranian drones used by the Russian forces and with defensive anti-drone technology.

ONE ISSUE in contention is Israel’s refusal to provide Kyiv with the Iron Dome missile defense system. Jerusalem’s reluctance stems from two fundamental security considerations: first, with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas on Israel’s borders, the current inventory of batteries and interceptors are required at home to meet the existing threats; second, there are concerns that by supplying the Iron Dome to Ukraine, the system’s cutting-edge classified technologies could be compromised. 

Until now, Iron Dome has only been shared with one other country, the US, which is Israel’s partner in the system’s development. 

Other countries are also placing limitations on equipment supplied to Ukraine. Although the US, UK and the EU have given Kyiv generous military support, they have not provided specific state-of-the-art weapons – NATO-standard tanks and fighter jets, and advanced missile defense systems. NATO countries are likewise increasingly concerned about the depletion of their own defense stockpiles.  

Russia and Israel's strikes against Iran, Hezbollah in Syria

Moreover, Jerusalem’s assessment is that the supply of offensive Israeli capabilities to Ukraine, among the array of Western equipment already being provided, would not be a battlefield game-changer. However, such a step, it fears, could have dramatic repercussions on Russia’s current non-interference with Israeli strikes in Syria against Iranian and Hezbollah targets – which are often located in proximity to their Russian ally’s military positions. 

Jerusalem is concerned that a deterioration of Jerusalem-Moscow ties could erode the hard-won deconfliction understandings reached with the Kremlin, and even expedite a direct clash between Israeli and Russian air forces – as occurred half a century ago over the Suez Canal. 

Famously, on July 30, 1970, during the War of Attrition between Israel and Egypt, IAF Phantom and Mirage aircraft engaged in a close-quarters dogfight with Soviet-piloted MiG fighters. By the end of the aerial battle, five Russian jets had been downed with no Israeli losses. Israel celebrated its pilots’ successes but was anxious about an escalation into a full-scale conflict with the Soviet Union. 

Given Soviet hostility, for decades such fears were recurrent. In the Sinai Campaign (1956), the Six Day War (1967), and the Yom Kippur War (1973), Israel’s leadership had to seriously consider the contingency of a Russian attack against the Jewish state on behalf of the Arabs. 

SINCE THE breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, successive Israeli governments have tried to build a less combative relationship with the post-communist Russian Federation. While Israel remained unequivocally bonded to the US and the West, its relationship with Russia improved remarkably. 

So much so that, when on March 5, then-prime minister Naftali Bennett flew to Moscow for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he did so at the request of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, the latter eager to utilize Israel’s good offices with the Kremlin to mediate a ceasefire and a Russian withdrawal. Bennett’s three-hour meeting at the Kremlin did not produce a breakthrough, but the Jerusalem-Moscow channel remains open.

In his Meet the Press interview, Netanyahu referred to Bennett’s unsuccessful peacemaking and volunteered “to the extent that there’s anything that I personally can do to help... end this horror, then I will do so.” Netanyahu, who built a rapport with Putin over their multiple meetings, is seemingly uniquely positioned among Western leaders to promote a solution.  

Israel’s policy is nuanced, but it cannot be labeled as neutral. Jerusalem aims to support Kyiv within parameters that avert shattering avenues of communication with the Kremlin. This strategy seeks to protect Israel’s national security interests, but it also serves the larger global good.  

The ongoing Ukrainian bloodshed has the potential to continue for years without either side being able to impose its will upon the other – the assumption being that ending the conflict will necessitate some form of summit diplomacy.

While an Israeli decision to supply offensive capabilities to Kyiv would likely have a marginal impact on the Ukrainian battlefield, it could simultaneously undermine Jerusalem’s ability to help advance a negotiated agreement when the time is right. Is there not a Western and Ukrainian interest in keeping a Netanyahu mediation option alive?

The writer, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is chair of the Abba Eban Institute for Diplomacy at Reichman University. Connect with him on LinkedIn, @Ambassador Mark Regev.