By Robert O. Freedman, Johns Hopkins University
With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine now in its third month, with more and more reports of Russian atrocities, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s clearly anti-Semitic comments resonating negatively in Israel, pressure has been growing on the Israeli Government led by Naftali Bennett to jettison its position of neutrality in the war and take a more pro-Ukrainian position. While Israel has moved somewhat toward the Ukrainian side by providing 100 tons of humanitarian aid, a field hospital and helmets and flack jackets for Ukrainian rescue workers, as well as voting to condemn Russia in the UN General Assembly, it has yet to end air flights to Moscow, terminate trade with Russia or sanction Russian Oligarchs close to Russian leader Vladimir Putin as the US has urged it to do.
What explains this policy of Israeli neutrality in the war, which has been characterized by Israeli efforts to mediate the conflict, so far unsuccessfully. To understand Israeli policy it is necessary to examine the four major interests Israel has in maintaining a good working relationship with Moscow. First and foremost is the question of Syria. Iran, a sworn enemy of Israel, has been seeking to build bases in Syria close to the Israeli border from which it could more easily attack Israel than from Iranian territory which is almost 1500 miles away. To prevent such a development, as well as to interdict military shipments to Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy which controls Lebanon on Israel’s northern border, Israel has been regularly bombing Iranian and Hezbollah positions in Syria with the acquiescence of Russia, which controls much of Syria’s airspace with SAM-300 and SAM-400 anti-aircraft missiles. So far Russia has tolerated the Israeli attacks because it has been seeking to limit Iranian influence in Syria. Bennett fears that should Israel take a more outwardly pro-Ukrainian position, Russia’s acquiescence in the Israeli air attacks would end, creating a major security problem for Israel.
A second motivating factor for Israel’s neutrality in the war is Russian Jewish emigration to Israel. Hundreds of thousands of Jews live in Russia and Putin’s government has permitted their free emigration to Israel and also treated the Russian Jewish community with respect. This is important because anti-Semitism, as reflected in Lavrov’s recent remarks where he claimed Hitler was a Jew and that Jews cooperated with the Nazis, is never far from the surface in Russia. Bennett fears that that emigration could be curtailed, and Russian anti-Semitism reinforced if Israel were to take a more pro-Ukrainian position in the war. In this context is should not be forgotten that, following the Holocaust, Israel considers itself the protector of Jews around the world and the ethos of Israel is the immigration of Jews to Israel.
Two other, less important, factors affect Israeli decision making on the war. The first is trade, currently about 3 ½ billion dollars a year where Israel imports Russian oil, metals and diamonds and exports high-tech and agricultural products. Finally, there has been a close cultural tie between Israel and Russia. With more than one million Jews from the Former Soviet Union living in Israel, there is a strong linguistic and cultural link, with Russian artists performing in Israel and vice-versa, and, before Covid, extensive tourism in both directions.
In Israel there have been two schools of thought on the Israeli government’s position on the war. The first, emphasizing Israel’ security requirements, advocates maintaining Israel’s neutral position (much as India, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates have done) so Israel can be free to continue to attack Iranian and Hezbollah positions in Syria. The opposing school of thought, represented by former defense minister Moshe Yaalon and former foreign minister Tsippy Livni, argues that in what has become a US-Russia proxy war in Ukraine, Israel must stand on the side of its primary ally, the United States or possibly lose US support in the future, something Israel can ill afford to do.
It will be interesting to see which position the Israeli government ultimately takes, given growing evidence of Russian atrocities in Ukraine and growing pressure on Israel from both the US Congress and the Biden Administration.