Translated by Farah El Desouky
Since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Israel has taken a somewhat neutral stance toward both sides of the crisis, in order to maintain good relations with both Russia, which brings together very sensitive relations and files, and Ukraine, which has more cultural ties and interests than is said to be important. What factors and reasons prompted Israel to take such a stance, despite the Ukrainian war’s sharp polarization? Could it change as the conflict in Ukraine progresses?
Attempting to strike a balance:
Although Israel has accounted for the western camp since its establishment in 1948, its perspective on the Ukrainian crisis differs from that of Ukraine’s supporters and opponents of Moscow, where Tel Aviv tried to avoid taking sides in the crisis; To avoid any reversals that could negatively affect its strategic interests, both with Russia, which Tel Aviv considers to be a northern neighbor, and with Ukraine, with which Tel Aviv has close relations, as well as a strategic partner.
A number of indicators, the most important of which are: Israel’s balanced position, which prompts it to openly refrain from taking sides in the Ukrainian crisis, can be inferred.
(*) Since the beginning of the crisis, Israel’s official statements have been free of bias, avoiding total identification with the West and being wary of provoking Moscow. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett used more measured language, avoiding direct condemnation of Moscow and instead urging a peaceful resolution to the crisis. “Every Jew knows we are waiting for him here,” he said to Israelis and Jews in Ukraine, adding that “the door of the State of Israel is always open.”
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Knesset President Mickey Levy both called the Russian attack a “serious violation of international order,” adding that “everything must be done to achieve a cease-fire and end the war as soon as possible.” But Lapid justified Israel’s neutral stance by saying, “Israel has a security border with Russia, the most powerful military force in Syria, and our cooperation mechanism aids in our firm fight against Iranian entrenchment on our northern border.” Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Israeli President Yitzhak Rabin took both positions.
(*) Israel’s refusal to provide Ukraine with defense systems, anti-tank rockets, and aircraft, despite Kiev’s efforts following the 2021 Gaza War to persuade Washington to facilitate access to the Iron Dome system, which is a joint venture between Israel and the US and thus cannot be sold to one State without the consent of both; however, Israel has refused to transport Iron Dome batteries to Ukraine, and Israel has refused Ukraine’s request to purchase the Israel.
In response, Israel increased humanitarian and medical aid to Ukraine, announcing the arrival of 200,000 Ukrainian Jews. Israeli Interior Minister Ayelet Shakid stated that 200,000 Ukrainians are eligible to immigrate to Israel under Israel’s “law of return” for Jews worldwide, but added, “Israel does not want to receive Ukrainian citizens because Europe is open to them and Israel will have difficulty receiving millions.”
To avoid voting on a resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine during the emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Friday, 25 February 2000, it voted in favor of a non-binding resolution condemning Russia to the invasion at the United Nations General Assembly meeting on March 2, 2022, in an effort to maintain a balance of its attitude toward the parties to the crisis and not to infuriate the United States.
(*) Israel has launched mediation efforts between Russia and Ukraine, and it has not only presented itself as a neutral party to the parties to the crisis; rather, it has attempted to mediate between Moscow and Kiev to find a solution to the war, where Israeli Prime Minister Bennett made phone calls to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and even travelled to Moscow, on 5 March 2022, to meet President Putin, on a covert visit, an Israeli official said.
On March 16, 2022, Israeli Prime Minister Bennett proposed a “peace plan” in which Ukraine would abandon NATO membership, with no NATO bases on its territory, in exchange for protection from allies such as the United States, Britain, or Turkey.
(*) Israel’s noncompliance with the United Nations General Assembly resolution and Western resolutions regarding sanctions imposed on Russia, which Washington viewed as inconsistent with Western trends, while understanding Israel’s reluctance to “take sides in the Ukrainian crisis.”
Motives for Israeli neutrality: There may be several overlapping reasons for Israel’s stance on the Ukrainian crisis, which is based on a number of geopolitical considerations and motives, as follows:
The desire to trade with Russia, particularly in the Syrian case, where Israel is conducting attacks and rocket strikes on positions inside Syrian territory, against Iranian targets and their backed militias, including Lebanese Hezbollah, and without coordination under a “cooperation mechanism,” especially given that Russia controls Syrian airspace. It also forbade the Syrian army from using S-300 missiles against Israel.
(w) Israel’s attempt to play an impartial mediator in international crises; Tel Aviv wants to leave enough room for itself to act as a mediator in that conflict by leaving open the lines to Moscow and Kiev. At the same time, Israeli Prime Minister Bennett has personal motives for promoting his popularity at home, through mediating such a Ukrainian crisis as a major international crisis, despite the uncertainty that prevails towards Israeli mediation.
The attempt to preserve the integrity of Jewish communities, both in Russia and in Ukraine, where Israel is concerned about what could put Jews there at risk, especially since there are at least a quarter of a million Jews in Ukraine, as well as about one hundred and seventy-five thousand Jews remaining in Russia as well, stated the Minister for Diaspora Affairs of “Nahman Chai” to Radio 103 FM; “Israeli citizens who remain on Ukrainian territory, as well as on Jewish coexistence territory.”
In an effort to promote the concept of a “national homeland,” an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson told Newsweek, “We’d be happy to receive any Jew who wants to emigrate from Ukraine,” and receiving hundreds of thousands of Jews from Ukraine could give Jews a demographic advantage over Palestinians, as well as seeking to attract more Jewish businessmen and fortunes, including billionaires.
To try to maintain internal stability, especially since there are Israelis of Russian and Ukrainian origin, there are approximately 2.1 million Russian speakers, representing 12 percent of Israelis who came from the former Soviet Union, and nearly the same number from Ukraine, making any bias towards one side or the other a moot point threat to internal security, with the possibility that the crowd and counter-crowd will resort.
Based on the foregoing, Israel is found to have limited room for maneuver in this crisis, leading it not to risk bias with any of its parties, which threatens its security and strategic interests to a large extent, despite Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s demand. (Mainly Jewish), during his address to the Knesset via Fido Converse technology on Sunday, March 20, 2022, that Israel makes its choice and support Ukraine against Russia; however, Israeli leaders have maintained their unbiased position on either side, and even some Israeli officials have criticized President Zelensky, after he likened the war in Ukraine to the Holocaust.
While Israel’s refusal to relocate the Iron Dome system to Ukraine is unlikely to harm relations with Russia, it is likely to render the system ineffective for use in Ukraine, given the country’s large geographical area, which necessitates more radars and interceptors, and Russia’s use of faster-than-sound ballistic missiles, which may be unable to intercept the Dome’s reputation.
In conclusion, it appears clear that the war in Ukraine has led Israel to assert neutrality and attempt to strike a delicate balance between the parties to the crisis in order to preserve its strategic interests, especially given that the war does not allow them to lose structures and is likely to have far-reaching international ramifications. As a result, Israel holds Israel accountable for its positions in relation to the parties to the crisis.
There is no doubt that the Ukrainian conflict will not force Israel to redraw its alliance map. Tel Aviv cannot contemplate sacrificing close ties with the West, particularly with the United States, its largest and most important supporter.