It has been a year since Russia geopolitically upended almost everything when it invaded Ukraine. From Israel’s perspective, it made life even more complex than it already was. Being in a strategic quagmire is nothing new for Israel, however given the players involved on this occasion the stakes seem to be so much greater.
Officially, the Israeli position vis-à-vis Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is one of (eventual) condemnation with the provision of significant humanitarian aid – but not weapons. This continues to be the case today. Given the current state of play, at what point (if one exists) does it become in Israel’s national interest to provide lethal weapons to Ukraine, upsetting the apple cart with Russia?
A keen observer of Israel and her politics, this is my attempt to parse through the myriad of think-tank analyses, opinion pieces and news stories from both sides of the political spectrum to elucidate on what the major Israeli talking points have been since the war began, and what the potential next steps might be.
Iron Dome (ID)
Ukraine’s plea to Israel from the outset of the invasion for the ID system was understandable, with Israel’s prompt refusal predictable. Let us be honest – there was never any chance that Israel would export what is one of its greatest militarily technologically advanced systems to a country involved in a hot war (especially one involving the Russians). The thought of Russia getting its hands on the technologies that make up the missile defence shield is unthinkable within the corridors of the IDF, not to mention the Pentagon.
Yes, it has been widely reported (with Zelenskyy himself making the claims on a few occasion) that ID technology has been exported to certain countries in the past. However, there is context to this – parts of the ID systems have been sold to countries like Canada, Britain, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. A quite different scenario than asking for the entire system made up of all its component parts, to be deployed near Russian borders swarming with Russian troops.
Of course this is assuming that Israel even has the excess capacity to be able to provide the system to Ukraine. Given the increased domestic security environment Israel is currently facing (one that has become more unstable over the last 12 months), ID is first and foremost there to protect Israeli skies. When factoring in the costs – consider that a single Tamir interceptor missile is around USD$50,000 – it doesn’t take long for the bill to rack up when Hamas or Hezbollah get trigger happy (as has been the case recently).
When all is considered, the early noise surrounding ID was logical from the Ukrainian side, with never any real chance of its procurement occurring (notwithstanding Netanyahu’s recent comments regarding Israel’s consideration of the possibility of supplying Ukraine with defensive weapons, including the ID system. Arguably, this is typical Bibi showcasing his political posturing techniques to appease a few annoying European leaders).
Former Soviet Citizens
The protestations by Israeli leaders regarding the potential issues with the Russian Jewish population living in Israel have been widely reported. Understandable, given the current demographic data which suggests that approximately fifteen to twenty percent of Israel’s population are either immigrants from the former Soviet Union (of whom mostly are from Russia and Ukraine) or their descendants.
By any measure, this is an incredibly large block of relatively homogenous potential voters. However, does Russia really have the ability and means to ‘pressure’ its Jewish diaspora living in Israel? A simple look at Israel’s election results over the last fifteen years would suggest this not to be the case.
A good proxy measure for this position is the very clear waning of support for Avigbor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, a secular nationalist party whose electoral base overwhelmingly consists of Russian-speaking immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Its decreasing number of seats in the Knesset since its zenith in 2009 suggests that fewer of this cohort hold the deep association to Russia that is typically connected with the party. This loss of support arguably points to the fact that they are increasingly integrating themselves within the traditional Israeli political parties instead.
Additionally, demographic surveys of ex-Soviet Union born Jews in Israel overwhelmingly show that they are secular, believe in democracy and generally leave the notions of ‘mother-Russia’ behind. All of which indicates it to be a much harder ask for Russia to wield any sort of real influence on its diaspora, now more than any other time.
Naturally, the Russians have made threats to shut down the Jewish Agency, putting pressure on its ability to remain a safe haven for Jewish immigrants. Up to this point this has yet to materialise – immigrants from ex-Soviet republics have accounted for up to 84% of all new arrivals into the Jewish state over the first 8 months of 2022. According to the Jewish Agency for Israel, over this same period almost 24,000 Russians settled in Israel, a 420% increase over the same period for the previous year. Whilst closing the doors might morally be a poor act by the Russians, it hardly damages Israel in any material sense.
Finally, over the course of the war Israeli polls have consistently shown there to be a large majority of support towards Israel’s support of Ukraine, with some large peaceful protests occurring demanding the government take a stronger stand for Ukraine (and yes, there have also been smaller and vocal support against the notion of arming Ukraine). However, fundamentally the political murmurings regarding the safeguarding of relations with the Russians for this reason to not rock the boat are no more than these – murmurings.
Russia – a diplomatic balancing act
It is here where the equation becomes more complex and difficult. Israel’s historic military collaboration between the two countries that stems back from the early 1990s has been widely written about. There have been various military agreements signed between the two, including a three-way deal with India in 2004 (with India’s position vis-à-vis Russia worth an entirely separate review). Interestingly, Israel signed a deal with Russia back in December 2019 to ‘co-ordinate’ arms sales in order to prevent any potential deals with Iran. This co-ordination looks like it will be tested, given the ever-closer ties between the Russians and Iranians.
History aside, Israel argues that it is Russia’s control of the Syrian skies (and to a lesser extent its forces on the ground) that requires its continuing co-operation with them in order to maintain its campaign of air strikes in Syria (to keep hitting Iranian-linked targets). Israeli officials have been stressing both before and during the invasion that Israel’s security depends on the freedom of military action in Syria.
Yet an argument could be made that Israel’s ability to target inside Syria was relatively uninhibited prior to the outbreak of its civil war, certainly before the Russians ever arrived (the Syrian air force never proved to be a major hurdle for Israel, nor its air defence systems). It is unlikely whether the Russian air force would seriously engage Israeli fighter jets over Syrian airspace with or without its co-operation. If Russia holds leverage other than controlling Syria’s skies, it is worth investigating further. For let us call a spade a spade – Russia is a state sponsor of terrorism. That being the case, what else might they be up to there?
Nevertheless, the most recent rhetoric seems to be changing with Netanyahu publicly stating that he is ready to consider the possibility of providing military assistance to Kyiv. According to some mastheads, Israel has been and still is secretly assisting the Ukrainians with intelligence, particularly regarding countering the Iranian made kamikaze drones (something the Israeli’s have deep knowledge about). Which leads to the last point.
There is no doubt that the Russia/Iran relationship is growing. With recent reports suggesting the plan to build a drone factory in Russian territory (developing a faster drone based on Iran’s Shahed-136), and a purported billion-dollar agreement that provides Iran with weapons Russia has seized on the Ukrainian battlefield in order to reverse engineer them, the claim could be made that they are already integral parts of the same strategic set.
Given the ‘competitive relationship’ between the Russians and Iranians in Syria, it is clear that Russia has little choice but to rely more, rather than less, on Iran. This has implications for Israel – consider the ramifications of any potential withdrawal of Russian forces out of Syria (given it was Russia that played the role of limiting Iran’s activities in Syria). This would create a political and military vacuum bound to be filled by the Iranians, a scenario Israel will do everything to avoid. Imagine Iran pulling the strings within a sectarian war involving militias and terrorists, with a Syrian humanitarian crisis to top it off, right on Israel’s doorstep.
Where to from here
There are three questions that stand out given where the Russian invasion of Ukraine is currently placed:
- At what point is Israel backing a ‘dead horse’ if the atrocities in Ukraine mount and the Russian military leadership become more desperate for battlefield successes?
- If the Russians gain the upper hand on the battlefield over the Ukrainians and Israel continues to play the neutrality card, how does it counter the inevitable narrative of Israel’s betrayal of the West?
- How close is too close Russia’s liaison with Iran before it compels Israel to no longer remain sitting on the fence?
Should Russia’s invasion of Ukraine become more brutal, with further war crimes coming to the fore and Putin’s myopic destruction of Ukraine overriding sense and reason, Israel would almost become obligated to side with the West. As a thriving liberal democracy which values freedom and understands more than any the horrors of war, relationships of convenience will eventually be shed.
Should things remain roughly as they are, the interconnected nature of Israel’s relationship with Russia vis-à-vis Iran and Syria will remain the same. Whilst there is still convenience, with each party deriving perceived benefits within strained relations, this will suffice. However, should the rapprochement between Moscow and Tehran turn into something even deeper (and sinister), then all bets between Jerusalem and Moscow will be off.