fbpx

Israel’s Balancing Act with the Russian Bear

Peter Speetjens
Dutch Journalist
Published on 28.03.2022
Reading time: 6 minutes

Traditionally a close ally of the US, Israel also enjoys good ties with both Russia and Ukraine. And, although under pressure to join the western anti-war camp, the Jewish state has so far been very mild in criticizing Moscow, while it has declined to implement international sanctions targeting Russia.

Seeing Israel perform on the world stage in regards to the war in Ukraine, is like watching an acrobat walking a tight rope while juggling three footballs and an umbrella at the Cirque du Soleil. As you look on in awe, you wonder: will it last?


Traditionally a close ally of the US, Israel also enjoys good ties with both Russia and Ukraine. And, although under pressure to join the western anti-war camp, the Jewish state has so far been very mild in criticizing Moscow, while it has declined to implement international sanctions targeting Russia.

“For Israel the war in Ukraine starts in Syria,” said Yossi Alpher, a former Mossad agent and the retired director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, who these days spends his days mainly writing books. About the Middle East.

“Russia has been present in Syria since 2015 and we need Russia to help us blunt the Iranian advance through Iraq and Syria and prevent Tehran from upgrading Hezbollah’s military capabilities,” Alpher said.

The strategy is known as the “Campaign Between Wars,” which according to the Israeli Defense Forces, aims to preserve “the balance of regional trends” in Israel’s favor by taking preventive action in the form of “covert and clandestine operations” to weaken enemy capabilities and prevent the acquisition of advanced capabilities. 

Hence, the Israeli air force regularly targets alleged weapon transports meant for Iranian troops and its allies in Syria. The latest attack took place on March 7 when two Israeli fighter jets bombed what Israel claimed was a weapons depot near the Damascus airport. 

Daily contact with Russia’s military command in Syria is needed to avoid any kind of collusion or “misunderstanding,” as happened in 2017 when Syria’s air defenses shot down an Israeli F16. 

The last thing Israel wants is to upset the Russian bear sitting across the border, which is the main reason it has so far not jumped aboard the pro-Ukraine coalition and refused to supply Kiev with the drones and weapons it requested.  

Internal Matter 

But Israel’s issue with Russia goes beyond having good neighborly relations. It is also an internal matter. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, over a million Russian Jews have settled in Israel. 

“They speak Russian, their kids speak Russian, they follow Russian media, and the vast majority is pro-Putin,” said Alpher. “And they vote.”

It is not for nothing that, in the run-up to the 2019 general elections, the 15-story Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv was adorned with a massive poster of Netanyahu shaking hands with Putin. Five days before the elections “Bibi” even took the time to fly to Sochi to meet with the Russian President. 

Among the Russians in Israel are several oligarchs who have been targeted by international sanctions, including Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich. As most of them also hold Israeli citizenship, they can do as they please, while their billions in Israeli banks remain untouched. 

Abramovich recently announced to donate millions to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Center, which in turn lobbied US ambassador to Israel Tom Nides to exclude him from sanctions. In vain, as we now know. 

The last thing Israel wants is to upset the Russian bear sitting across the border, which is the main reason it has so far not jumped aboard the pro-Ukraine coalition and refused to supply Kiev with the drones and weapons it requested.  

As Tel Aviv has not (yet) implemented sanctions, Israeli companies can continue doing business with Russia, as long as they do not violate international sanctions. Flights between Israel and Russia continue too. Aeroflot has stopped flying, yet several other companies, including Israel’s national airline El Al, still operate.

Bring ‘m “Home”

To complicate matters further, many Israelis perceive the war in Ukraine as an opportunity. There are an estimated 130,000 Jews living in the Ukraine and, as the Russian Jews who arrived in Israel from 1989 onward, they have a legal right to emigrate to Israel and obtain the nationality.

“To make Aliyah,” as it is called, is a key notion in Zionist ideology: Jews in the diaspora have a right to return to “historic Israel” and turn the dream of a “Jewish homeland” into reality.  

As the Zionist experiment needed people to populate the newborn nation, Israel’s 1950 Law of Return considers anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent a Jew. This in contrast with Jewish religious law which defines a Jew as someone born to a Jewish mother.

With an eye on Ukraine, the Jewish Agency, which implements the immigration of Jews and oversees their integration in Israeli society, has introduced the “Aliyah Express” program, which allows Ukrainian refugees to board planes to Israel without the definite proof they are Jewish enough.

By March 23, an estimated 15,000 Ukrainian Jews had entered Israel, of whom some 4,400 met the criteria needed for a permanent stay. Those who do not meet criteria only get a temporary visa and will be sent back, as soon as the situation in Ukraine allows.

Israel’s “homecoming” scheme leads to rather ironic situation that Ukrainian Jews are fleeing Russian invasion and occupation only to find themselves a safe haven in a country that itself occupies the Palestinian West Bank and, indirectly, the Gaza Strip. 

Diplomacy

Seeing the above, it should come as no surprise that Israel has engaged in a flurry of diplomatic activity. On the one hand, it needed to convince western capitals of its “exceptional” status due to its dealings with Russia in Syria. On the other, it is trying to position itself as a mediator between the warring parties in Ukraine.

On March 5, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett flew to Moscow to meet with Putin, before speaking on the phone with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. 

Nothing concrete came out of it. But as Shakespeare famously said: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Israel seems keen on carving out a role as messenger and hold on to its unique position: not on this side, not on that, not in, not out.  

“Bennett is totally untested as a diplomat or mediator,” said Alpher. “But he seems to manage to sell himself as someone who can be useful, someone who can deliver messages. So far, it is working. The US have gone easy on us.”

Israel is not the only country in the region sitting on the fence. The Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have not jumped aboard the pro-Ukraine anti-Russia wagon either. Yet, the question is, as the war goes on, and it seems likely it will, how long can Israel keep up its juggling act?”

“Look, Russia in Syria is a legitimate issue,’ Alpher said. “But if the US changes its tune, and says: ‘we would like to remind you of our strategic relations, the money we send you and the weapons we give you,’ well, then we have no choice.”

Read Also:

Trump and the Dictator Toolkit

Posted on
Trump’s actions throughout his time in power resembled in many ways those of an Arab dictator; the past four years under his reign sort of exposed the United States to…
Peter Speetjens
Dutch Journalist
Published on 28.03.2022
Reading time: 6 minutes

Subscribe to our newsletter