“Israel has been and will be on the right side of history,” read a February 28 tweet from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Those are our values. Our most important ally has been and will be the United States, but our American partners also understand there are two points that we need to be mindful of and require us to be careful.”
The carefully worded tweetstorm was a largely unsuccessful attempt by Israel to explain its ambiguous position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has condemned the invasion, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has pointedly not done so. Israel also refused a U.S. request to support a proposed U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the Russian invasion.
Israel did agree to support a General Assembly resolution condemning Russia. Bennett also offered to mediate between Ukraine and Russia, reportedly at Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s request. Russia has so far ignored that offer, although Bennett continues to speak with both leaders. Still, Putin’s dismissal of the mediation offer undermines Bennett’s claim that Israel’s reluctance to join the global condemnation of Russia’s actions enables it to “communicate directly with both sides.”
Israel has been on the sidelines of diplomacy from the outset, even while American, French, German, and other leaders communicated directly with their Russian and Ukrainian counterparts. Russia and Ukraine needed no Israeli help to meet directly earlier this week. Indeed, other than embarrassing the United States by refusing to support its, admittedly quixotic, Security Council resolution, Israel has played no role at all. This has not endeared it either to Ukraine or to Russia.
If Israel’s mild response to Russia’s invasion is not serving a diplomatic purpose, we need to examine its contention that it has to be careful not to anger Russia. Former U.S. Middle East Envoy Dennis Ross, who is seemingly always prepared to act as Israel’s spokesman, summed up Israel’s argument at a recent meeting of the Jewish People’s Policy Institute: Russia, he said, “is right next door and they can make it very difficult for Israel to continue to conduct its operations in Syria, which are geared at preventing Hezbollah from putting precision guidance on tens of thousands of rockets.”
Israel routinely bombs or launches missile strikes in Syria, sometimes targeting Syrian forces, but usually aiming at Iranian or Hezbollah positions, claiming it is preventing arms shipments into Lebanon, or acting against a potential military buildup on its borders. Russia’s support for Syrian President Bashar Assad in the civil war in that country — which has led to at least 350,000 deaths and over 13 million people either displaced or turned into refugees — means that Israel needs to coordinate with Russia when it launches those attacks.
Israel is concerned that angering Russia will lead it to start defending Syrian airspace against Israeli incursions, making Israeli attacks much more difficult, or even impossible. The concern itself is horribly fraught, given the massive devastation Russia has wreaked in Syria. But even leaving such ethical concerns aside, Israel’s concerns about Russia don’t explain the non-stance on the invasion of Ukraine that it has presented. They especially fail to explain Israel’s refusal to support its indispensable patron, the United States.
As Alon Pinkas, Israel’s former Consul general in New York, wrote in Haaretz, “Are Israel’s regional interactions with Russia the strategic equivalent of its alliance with the United States? If not – and they are not – stand up and support President Joe Biden.”
It may indeed become more complicated for Israel to continue to bomb targets in Syria. But even that is not a certainty. Russia has, after all, continued to sit in Vienna for talks on reviving the Iran nuclear deal with the United States, Germany, the U.K., and France, with no apparent change in its position in that venue despite the massive outcry and economic response of most of those it is supposed to be working with. It is not in Russia’s interest to confront Israel or to see Hezbollah launch a significant attack on Israel right now. So, there is good reason to believe that Israel could take a stand against the invasion without paying the price they fear.
In fact, in some ways, Israel risks less than other countries. The harsh sanctions the West has imposed on Russia come with significant blowback. Gas prices will continue to rise, despite efforts at mitigation, which could cost American and European leaders dearly at the polls. Europe will lose access to its largest supplier of natural gas. Germany had to suspend the important Nord Stream 2 pipeline project and reversed long-standing policy limiting its military spending. Switzerland broke its long tradition of neutrality to support sanctions on Russia.
But Israel is reluctant to support the United States by merely standing up and condemning Russia’s actions.
The economic costs Europe has shown itself willing to endure may well have surprised Vladimir Putin, who may have thought — not without reason — that the EU would not have the stomach for such a deep hit. Israel, on the other hand, has only a minor economic relationship with Russia.
Israel-Russian imports and exports amount to about $3.5 billion per year. That's not a lot. The EU by contrast accounts for approximately $35 billion of imports and exports with Israel. Trade is going to be disrupted in any case, but Israel is simply not reliant on Russia as a trading partner. Yet it refuses to stand with the United States and Europe, who account for nearly half of Israel’s annual trade.
While the media in the United States has not paid much attention to Israel’s reluctance to take a firm stand against Russia, it has not gone unnoticed in Washington. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield sent a message to her Israeli counterpart, Gilad Erdan, registering the Biden administration’s disappointment in Israel’s behavior.
Former Defense Secretary William Cohen, a strong supporter of Israel, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, “Israel is a close ally of the U.S., yet has not supported the U.S. over Ukraine. I’m deeply disappointed that they have not supported the United States. Now it comes down to: Are you with the Russians or are you with the United States and the West? They do have to make a decision here."
Even Republican Senator Lindsey Graham was miffed at Israel over its stance. Ukraine, Graham said, "asked Israel — no bigger fan of Israel than Lindsey Graham — for Stingers and apparently Israel said no. So ,I'm going to get on the phone with Israel — you know, we stand up for Israel with the Iron Dome." (Note: There have been no other reports of Ukraine asking Israel for Stinger missiles, but they have asked for other defensive missiles, and Israel has refused them).
Israel’s decision to support the General Assembly resolution condemning Russia was a small step forward, one which avoided the embarrassment of standing apart from 140 other countries voting for the resolution. But it has shown ethical and political weakness in the face of a global outrage and have, once again, shown how unreliable a partner it is for the United States.