When responding to global crises, states must balance the tensions that arise between their moral values and strategic interests. The recent conflict between Russia and the West has seemingly cornered Israel into a thorny dilemma between protecting its immediate interests vis-à-vis Moscow and its moral obligation to align with other democratic states that have united against President Vladimir Putin’s demolition of international norms.
From a moral and values perspective, there is no doubt which side Israel must be on. Ukrainian society, cities, schools and hospitals are under brutal attack, in plain view. The heart-rending scenes of a million and more refugees cannot but evoke shock, tears and solidarity among Israelis, as much as in the United States, Europe and many more countries around the world.
Israel’s natural place is among Western countries and with the U.S., especially as a country that prides itself on being a vibrant democracy based on the rule of law, human rights, freedom of speech and a free press. Even while protecting its national-security interests, as it must, Israel cannot but stand by its most important—sometimes only—ally, America.
Friends of Israel must wonder why the Jewish state has not, from the moment that the first Russian crossed into Ukraine, taken a clear and firm stance against an invader that skews Holocaust history to claim it is de-Nazifying the only other democratic state in the world headed by a Jew. Israel eventually joined in co-sponsoring the United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning Russia, but it took a week of vacillation to reach this position.
So why the hesitancy from Israel? The answer is owed to strategic national-security considerations, the primary one being the need to ensure freedom of action in Syria.
Israel must stop Iran from building a war machine in Syrian territory, as it did in Lebanon, or use Syria as a route for transferring weapons systems and equipment to Hezbollah, in particular precision-strike capabilities. This is a critical strategic objective for Israel’s national security. However, an in-depth look at the overall balance of interests reveals that the matter of freedom of action in Syria pales in comparison to much greater strategic interests.
At the forefront stand the “special relations” with the U.S. As President Joe Biden faces the greatest challenge that the West has dealt with in recent decades, and attempts to restrain a global escalation of nuclear dimensions that could potentially spiral into a world war, Israel must prioritize what is most important and align itself with the United States.
It is important to bear in mind that Israel has for decades received political, economic and technological support for crucial aspects of its national security: political support, without which Israel could find itself facing international isolation; guarantees and support in building defense capabilities against grave threats; preserving Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME); and more.
America safeguards Israel’s military superiority, a strategic asset of the first degree, which, in fact, supports regional stability. Israel’s strength and qualitative advantage in the region, alongside its strong alliance with the United States, reinforces deterrence in a hostile environment, leading Arab countries to slowly come to the realization that Israel is “here to stay.” This acknowledgment played a central role in their decision to seek peace and establish relations with Israel.
A current example of potential harm to this important relationship, as well as to Israel’s military strength, is the additional military “package” to Israel, valued at $1 billion, for replenishing Iron Dome anti-missile-interceptor stores, after heavy use in the last Gaza conflict. Approval of the package, which in any event is delayed, is on the agenda in the U.S. Senate, but could possibly be removed if Israel’s policy on the Ukraine crisis is criticized on Capitol Hill.
Another vital strategic interest of Israel’s is its positive international image. One of Israel’s greatest assets in Washington and in major European capitals is that it remains the “only democracy in the Middle East.” A wavering policy with respect to the Ukraine crisis could possibly damage this image and cast a negative light on Israel’s foreign relations.
Against these grave considerations stands Russia’s ability to impact Israel’s freedom of action in Syria. The mere concern that Russia could challenge Israel in this regard only proves that Russia is no ally of Israel. On the contrary, Russia is more a rival than a friend, though thankfully not a foe. It pursues its own interests that, in many cases, are far from Israel’s.
On the strategic level, Russia seeks to restore its past glory and re-establish itself in the Middle East, after having been displaced from the region in the mid-1970s. This could potentially be coupled with an offsetting of the U.S.’s strong position in the region, which is a vital interest for Israel. Against this backdrop, it is possible to understand Russia’s relationship and support in principle for Iran, including during the numerous rounds of negotiations on the nuclear issue over the last few decades.
Russia sells very advanced weapons systems to Israel’s enemies in the region, including Kornet anti-tank guided missiles, strategic coast-to-ship missiles, advanced fighter jets and sophisticated air-defense systems, such as SAM-17, SAM-22 and S-300. This, together with loose Russian supervision over end-users, as well as purposely turning a blind eye, has allowed for some of these systems to find their way into the hands of terrorist organizations, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, which then use them against Israel.
In the international arena, Russia’s vote at the U.N. Security Council has always been in support of anti-Israel resolutions submitted by Israel’s enemies.
As to the threat to Israel’s freedom of action in Syria, Russia indeed does not obstruct Israeli activity against Iran’s military presence there, even if its own presence does create certain constraints. At the same time, Russia allows Iran and its proxies to bring voluminous military capabilities into Syria and to establish themselves there, including in areas adjacent to Israel’s border.
This is a well-known modus operandi of Russia: cooperate with opposing sides in order to be able to apply pressure on each, leveraging it to establish its great power status.
Resolutely standing with the West in this ongoing crisis in Ukraine may not necessarily cause immediate detriment to Israel’s freedom of action in Syria. First, the Russians are preoccupied with the war in Ukraine and a global conflict. Second, as it competes with Iran for resources and influence in Syria, Russia has a keen interest in keeping Iran from gaining too much power there.
Lastly, the Russians will think twice before threatening Israeli aircraft and risking a defensive response from the Israeli Air Force, which would likely knock out the threatening Russian systems.
In sum, there is no real contradiction between Israel’s values and interests vis-à-vis Russia’s belligerence in Ukraine. The conditions surrounding the freedom of action in Syria allow Israel to manage calculated risks.
Even so, Israel’s concerns in Syria are in no way comparable to the Jewish state’s critical obligation to remain a loyal ally to the U.S. and preserve its international standing in the Western-democratic camp. Under these circumstances, I hope that our American and European friends soon see Israel stand alongside the U.S. and the West, steadfastly raising its voice to condemn Russia in accordance with its core values, and deploring this unprovoked aggression while expressing hope for a diplomatic resolution of the conflict.
Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin is the former Head of the Israeli Defense Intelligence, former Director of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), and senior security and foreign policy expert. Maj. Gen. (res.) Yadlin is a senior advisor to ELNET and chair of ELNET’s Forum of Strategic Dialogue.