Israel must adjust its Ukraine policy

The Jewish state is paying a long-term reputational price for its indecisive stance on the Russia-Ukraine war.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, left, meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia, Oct. 22, 2021.  Photo by Koby Gideon/GPO.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, left, meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia, Oct. 22, 2021. Photo by Koby Gideon/GPO.
Daniel Rakov
Daniel Rakov

The Russian military’s battlefield difficulties in Ukraine have increased the possibility that Moscow is about to expand the fighting in preparation for a long-term military campaign. This is expected to increase the scope of destruction and raise casualties on both sides, as well as push Ukraine to launch more attacks on Russian territory. This could raise the risk of strategic miscalculation and lead to a direct clash between Russia and NATO, a scenario the two have thus far tried to avoid.

Meanwhile, Western leaders see the war as an opportunity to weaken Russia and do not want to be appeasers who allow Russia to take sovereign Ukrainian territory. U.S. President Joe Biden hopes to bolster his low popularity by demonstrating strength against Putin ahead of the November midterm elections. However, the weapons supplied to Ukraine, the campaign to shame Putin and the increased likelihood that Finland and Sweden will join NATO could push Putin to take more aggressive actions.

The war in Ukraine thus accelerates global trends towards more profound polarization, increased economic self-sufficiency and fierce technological competition between world powers. As a result, Israel faces several dilemmas regarding its long-term relations with Russia:

  • As the Western camp moves to contain Russia, it will run out of patience with Israel’s ambiguous policy on Ukraine. For the West, Russia ceased to be a legitimate partner after the invasion of Ukraine, and it expects Israel to limit its ties with Moscow—or at least draw them down—as Germany did when it cut back on its acquisition of Russian energy sources despite the high economic cost. While other countries also straddle the line between Russia and the West, Israel considers itself part of the Western camp and the West expects it to toe the line.
  • The war has reduced the potential for the expansion of bilateral Israel-Russia relations. Israel’s usefulness for Russia as a gateway to Washington will continue to diminish. Israeli firms consider business ties with Russia a risk because of Western sanctions. The rapid mobilization of Russian society in a nationalistic and authoritarian direction and the claim that the Ukrainians are Nazis will make it difficult for Israel to cooperate with Moscow on World War II and Holocaust historical projects, which Moscow highly values.
  • Russia will continue to be an important player in the international arena and the Middle East in a way that will affect Israeli interests, particularly in Syria and Iran. Despite the negative signals Russia has been sending Israel in recent weeks, it still values Israel as a partner in the Western camp and supports Israel’s campaign to weaken Iran’s position in Syria.

Events in recent weeks have underscored these dilemmas. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s antisemitic remark that Adolf Hitler had Jewish origins triggered harsh condemnation in Israel. The Israeli criticism unleashed a wave of anti-Israel propaganda in the Russian media. However, Putin then called Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to calm the crisis, greet him on Israel’s Independence Day and reportedly apologize for Lavrov’s remark.

The profound differences between the readouts of the phone call in Jerusalem and Moscow underscore the persistence of tensions. The Kremlin version didn’t mention the apology but emphasized the common ground between Russia and Israel on the issues of World War II and the Holocaust. The Israeli version did not mention the Holocaust issue.

The context of the call, however, shows that Russia is eager to maintain friendly relations with Israel. It was unusual for Putin to initiate the call. The Kremlin announcement was polite and a change of course after three days of bashing Israel by the Russian media and Foreign Ministry. Lavrov himself was more restrained during a public appearance that followed. The chairwoman of the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, Valentina Matviyenko, wrote a letter to Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy that stressed reconciliation.

Nonetheless, Israel’s indecisive position on the war in Ukraine does not help Israel to maximize its interests. It forces Israel to pay a high long-term reputational price in the eyes of its Western allies. This raises a question: What is the right point of equilibrium in Jerusalem’s relations with Moscow?

Putin’s call to Bennett proves that he deeply cherishes relations with Israel and is content with its neutral position. Israel is one of the few countries in the world that Moscow respects. Accordingly, Israel should leave communication channels with the Kremlin open in order to promote its interests and help deescalate the Ukraine crisis.

Yet Putin’s call also shows that Israel has more room to distance itself from Russia and realign its position with the West. Since Israel seeks to limit its actions against Russia and refrain from sending lethal weapons to Kyiv, it is advisable for it to continue to give maximum humanitarian aid and accelerate the supply of non-lethal equipment to Ukraine. The recent closure of the Israeli field hospital, in particular when Moscow could be about to escalate the fighting, didn’t send the proper signal to the world.

We cannot know the details of the Israeli mediation between Russia and Ukraine, but the optics are that it has faded away. This is especially the case in comparison to, for example, the proactive efforts undertaken by Turkey. Putin and Bennett didn’t talk for more than six weeks before Putin’s conciliatory phone call.

The Israeli position is not to condemn Russia, but to be taken seriously. It must increase the visibility and scope of its go-between activities.

Lt. Colonel (res.) Daniel Rakov is an expert on Russian policy in the Middle East and great-power competition in the region. He had served in the IDF for more than 20 years, mainly in the Israeli Defense Intelligence (Aman). From 2019-21, he was a research fellow at the Russian Studies Program in the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).

This article was originally published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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