Zsolt Csepregi
International Relations and Security Policy Expert

Israel can deter Russia and Iran simultaneously

Nahal Brigade Snipers with M24
Gadi Yampel / IDF Spokesperson's Unit
Israeli Defense Forces Nahal Brigade Sniperson military excercise. (Gadi Yampel / IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

The war which was started by Russia on 24th of February has initiated a new era in the post-Cold War world order. Its eventual outcome presents a real danger: the end of the rules based world order and a return to an era in which only raw military power can be relied upon by states. The aggression against Ukraine has put Israel in a very difficult position, as its leadership and its society are torn between aiding the Ukrainian defense efforts and trying to maintain working relations with Russia. Israelis are well aware that Russia has an important role in enabling Israeli airstrikes against hostile military forces and their assets in Syria and Russia puts pressure on Iran both in terms of the Middle Eastern regional balance of power and in the ongoing nuclear deal negotiations. Up until now, the Bennett government has chosen a careful approach of rejecting military aid to Ukraine but assisting in humanitarian terms and by serving as a potential conduit of ceasefire/peace negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow in the (hopefully near) future. Yet, more and more voices are calling for greater Israeli support of the Ukrainian efforts, including Bennett’s own political allies, members of the Israeli society, global Jewry and, naturally, the Ukrainians themselves.

One particular argument made for rejecting military aid to Ukraine and other kinds of stout help, while providing humanitarian aid and diplomatic support, is that Israel needs Moscow’s support in countering Iranian regional and nuclear ambitions. This assumption, in my view, has to be revised, as it assumes that Russia is chiefly balancing Iran not primarily out of its own national security interest, but for Israel’s. I argue that Russia is actually using Israel both in Syria and in the nuclear deal negotiations to put pressure on Iran and achieve its own strategic aims as well. In Syria, Israel is the perfect regional actor to counter Iran and its clients locally with precise selective strikes, not permitting Iran to achieve regional hegemony. Israel is the perfect balancing partner not only for Russia, but also for the West to oppose and balance all other Middle Eastern regional military powers which are, unlike Israel, also potential regional hegemons. Israel, due to its nature as the Jewish state, cannot aspire to become a hegemon, unlike Iran, Turkey or one of the large Arab states, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Russia is cleverly using Israel to balance and deter Iran by “permitting” it access to the Syrian skies. This logic also works in the nuclear deal negotiations. While there are many disagreements between Russia and the West, neither side is interested in Iran joining the club of nuclear armed countries. Iran will always be a potential regional hegemon not only in the Middle East, but in the Caucasus and Central Asia as well. Russia, as a declining but aggressive power, is not interested in a more assertive Iran on its Southern front, especially when it focuses on fighting the West. Israel serves, again, in this case, as a perfect balancer. The P5+1 powers do not have to openly threaten Iran with military strikes if it does not comply, Israel does that for them. This keeps negotiating channels and economic cooperation between Russia and Iran open, with maintaining the benefit of having military pressure on the Iranian leadership. The amazing achievement of Russian diplomacy is that, after a few years, Israel acts like Russia is doing a favour for it against Iran, when the case is just the opposite.

Israel does not have to choose between supporting Ukraine and maintaining its cooperation with Russia on the Iranian issue. Israel has to increasingly think about itself as what it is: not as the weaker party, but as a regional military power, which is used by other powers as an active and dynamic balancing agent in the Middle East against potential regional hegemons. Israel fulfils this role naturally and willingly in order to serve its own security interests, therefore the benefits are mutual. However, Israel does not have the luxury to focus only on the Iran issue and not support the defensive efforts of Ukraine, as Russian victory would mean an end to the rules based international system and a return to a raw military power based, paranoid world order.

Israel is familiar with the existential threat such an order would mean, as it has been experiencing a close approximation of such a system on a regional level since its independence. Israel can take a number of steps to contribute to a peaceful solution of the current crisis. Firstly, it can rally Middle Eastern partners to support Western efforts to counter Russia with sanctions and diplomatic pressure. The major goal of the Abraham Accords and the peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan is the development of a cooperative Middle Eastern order, which is now under threat by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the eventual fallout from the war.

When this war is over, even if Russia achieved its goals, it will be too isolated and too weakened to contribute to the Middle Eastern states’ progress so there is nothing to lose by acting swiftly and strongly. Secondly, Israel can itself provide defensive military aid to Ukraine. This does not have to be direct weapons transfers but engaging with likeminded European states and the US to channel military aid to Ukraine’s forces. The least Israel can do is permit Western partners to provide Ukraine with weapons developed with Israeli technology, where Jerusalem’s agreement is needed before transferring the equipment.

While it is sure to rouse some backlash from Russia, Israel will not be the first partner country of Russia that realised the grave danger its current invasion presents to the international order. Countries like Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, both much closer and much vulnerable to Russia than Israel, have defied Moscow’s will, and, with the recent termination of AIIB’s lending to Russia, even China is tightening the financial lifeline of the aggressor. Putin will have to eventually back down from this military campaign, but the “when” and “how” are going to be critical in order to maintain and potentially even strengthen the framework of the rules based world order. Russia will continue to rely on Israel in the Middle East to contribute to the regional balance of power by serving as a balancing and deterring actor, regardless of their clash over Ukraine. Israel has become a regional great power, therefore, it has the capability, and it is in its interest, to deter all revisionist powers like Putin’s Russia and Khamenei’s Iran, which have to be done simultaneously. This is not only the moral choice, but also what Israeli security interests dictate.

About the Author
Zsolt Csepregi is a Non-resident Research Fellow at the Antall József Knowledge Centre, foreign policy think tank based in Budapest, Hungary. He previously held the position of Deputy Director for International Affairs at the Centre. He is an expert on Security Policy and the Eastern Mediterranean region, specialised in Israeli foreign policy. He is a former employee of the Israeli Cultural Institute in Budapest.
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