Russia has stepped up its criticism of Israel of late, with the Russian embassy in Cairo and Russia’s Foreign Ministry having issued hypocritical critiques of Israel in the past week.
Most recently, Russia’s embassy in Cairo posted a screenshot of a tweet Yair Lapid, the Israeli prime minister and foreign minister, posted in April bemoaning the deaths of civilians in the Ukrainian town of Bucha, which was briefly occupied by Russian forces following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
Lapid, who was not yet prime minister when he published this post, accused Russia of targeting non-combatants. “Intentionally harming a civilian population is a war crime, and I strongly condemn it,” he tweeted.
The Russians, having denied responsibility for the atrocities in Bucha, were upset by the accusation and implausibly claimed this incident had been staged by Ukraine. But according to the best available evidence, Russian troops perpetrated the Bucha massacre.
Rankled by Lapid’s tweet, the Russian embassy in the Egyptian capital attempted to contrast it with his recent decision to launch Operation Breaking Dawn, Israel’s three-day military offensive against Islamic Jihad which ended on August 7.
“Is that not a double standard and disregard and contempt for Palestinian lives?” the Russian statement said. As if to soften the blow, it was not posted by Russia’s embassy in Israel.
Contrary to Russia’s claim, Lapid was not guilty of a “double standard.” Nor did he exhibit “contempt” for the lives of Palestinians.
Israel launched Operation Breaking Dawn in self-defence after Islamic Jihad threatened to kill Israeli civilians living near Gaza. As the Russians well know, Islamic Jihad, an Iranian proxy, rejects Israel’s very existence and a two-state solution. Its objective is to establish an Islamic state on the ruins of Israel. Lapid was therefore obliged to attack Islamic Jihad operatives and its military infrastructure in Gaza.
By contrast, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an unjustified invasion of a neighboring sovereign state that has no malevolent designs on Russia. This was clearly a case of naked aggression by Russia against Ukraine. As Putin himself has written, Russia regards Ukraine as an artificial entity with no right to exist as an independent nation.
As the latest round of fighting between Israel and Islamic Jihad raged, Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, called for “maximum restraint” in Gaza. It was the sort of advice Russia itself has repeatedly ignored since it invaded Ukraine. She appeared to blame Israel for the outbreak of violence, ignoring the events that led to the flare-up.
It’s no secret why the Russian government has lambasted Israel. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Israel has tried to be neutral, but Israeli neutrality has not satisfied Russia. The strained state of relations between Russia and Israel is such that Moscow has ordered the closure of Jewish Agency offices in Russia, a serious blow to Israeli efforts to encourage aliyah.
Ukraine, too, has criticized Israel, claiming it has not been sufficiently pro-Ukrainian. While Russia has chided Israel, it has refrained from criticizing Turkey, which has been far less “neutral” than Israel. Turkey condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has sold weapons to the Ukrainian government, including highly effective drones, and has blocked the entry of Russian warships into the Black Sea.
In the meantime, Russia has upgraded its relationship with Iran, Israel’s greatest enemy, since the start of the war. A few days ago, for example, Russia launched an Iranian satellite on Iran’s behalf. Its imaging capabilities could well present a significant challenge to Israel, according to experts in the field. Russia has also purchases drones from Iran.
Israel should do everything in its power to maintain cordial ties with Russia, particularly since Israel requires Moscow’s tacit cooperation in its ongoing air campaign to degrade Iran’s military infrastructure in Syria, a Russian client state.
Israel should be under no illusions regarding its relationship with Russia. While Israel’s leadership should try to be on good terms with Putin and his team, Russia is not and has not been Israel’s ally in the Middle East. Russia’s regional allies — Syria and Iran — are Israel’s staunchest foes.
Israel’s superpower ally remains the United States, which is vehemently opposed to the Russian invasion. For obvious reasons, Israel cannot be pro-Russian, now or in the foreseeable future.
Russia should understand the strategic constraints that shape Israel’s position with respect to Ukraine.