As Russia continues to pound Ukrainian population centers with “kamikaze” drones manufactured in Iran, the time has surely come for Israel to arm the democratic government in Kyiv.
The debate about whether Israel should do so has certainly been reignited, but the Jewish state’s defense minister, Benny Gantz, continues to resist appeals from both Ukrainians and a number of prominent Israelis. Last week, Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai took to Twitter to urge his government colleagues to supply Ukraine with weapons “just as the USA and the NATO countries provide.” Separately, Natan Sharansky—probably the most well-known refusenik of the Soviet era and the former chair of The Jewish Agency for Israel—virtually taunted the government, opining that Israel was “the last free country in the world which is still afraid to irritate [Russian President Vladimir] Putin.”
Sharansky has been urging intensified Israeli support for Ukraine since the Russian invasion at the end of February. Back in April, he asked aloud whether then-Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was “afraid” of the “criminal” Putin after Jerusalem turned down Ukrainian pleas for weaponry and anti-missile systems. Although Sharansky is venerated in Israel for standing up to the Soviet Union’s rulers during the 1970s in his bid to both practice his Judaism and emigrate to Israel, one gets the distinct impression that Israel’s current government wishes he would shut his mouth on this particular subject, and stop confronting Israeli leaders with moral and strategic dilemmas they’d rather not face.
Still, I’m not convinced that “afraid” is the right word in this context. When I interviewed the French Jewish intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy last week about his new documentary film, “Pourquoi l’Ukraine,” he told me that he was not aware of a single person in the Israeli government “who has any sort of sympathy with Putin.” At the same time, Lévy wants Israel and other democratic countries to step up their efforts to secure a Ukrainian victory, and in that sense, Sharansky’s comment cannot be flawed. Whether it is fear or prudence or something else governing Israeli policy towards Russia, the fact remains that it could still do more. Much more.
There is another fact—basically, that this debate is taking place at all—which speaks volumes about Israel’s changing status in world politics over a very short space of time. In the last decades of the twentieth century, foreign ministries, particularly in Europe, routinely disdained diplomatic contact with, and official visits to, Israel for fear of offending the powerful Arab oil lobby. But the 2020s are very different, with several Arab states now having full diplomatic relations with Israel and most of the world engaged in a vibrant commercial relationship. Amazingly, for anyone who remembers the 1973 oil crisis, 50 years later Israel is not just an energy supplier, it is a crucial partner in times of crisis. As the international community faced up to the invasion’s impact on energy supplies in the first weeks of the war, Israel inked an agreement in June with the EU to supply the bloc with natural gas via Egypt. “This is a historical moment in which the small country of Israel becomes a significant player in the global energy market,” Israeli Energy Minister Karine Elharrar said at the time.
With that enhanced status comes responsibility. As a growing power in the world, Israel needs to adjust its foreign policy accordingly, looking beyond its own corner of the world and paying greater attention to the balance of power between the Western democracies and authoritarian states like Russia and China. Over the last 20 years, Israel has enjoyed improved diplomatic and commercial ties with both, yet the present situation faces the country’s leaders with a stark choice. Israel has always seen itself as part of the democratic world, but it is no longer confined to the chorus line, where its opinions on an issue outside of its region don’t matter. It has become a player—and Ukraine is the place where that can be proven beyond doubt.
Gantz’s offer last week to provide Ukraine with an early warning system to defend against Russian missile attacks was given short shrift by Kyiv’s envoy in Tel Aviv, Yevhen Kornichuk, who dismissed as “not relevant anymore” and repeated his country’s request for Iron Beam, Barak-8, Patriot, Iron Dome, David’s Sling and Arrow interceptors. Ukrainian leaders have also flocked to social media to tell Israelis that they will be the main beneficiaries of any military assistance, since the enemy there, as in the Middle East, is the Iranian regime and its drones. Finally, the Ukrainians are pointing out that the U.S. and its NATO allies have already provided air defense systems and are providing more, meaning that Israel would be in good company if it was to change its policy.
How would Russia respond if Israel was to arm Ukraine? Former president and Putin lackey Dimitri Medvedev has warned that such a move “would be a very reckless step” that would “destroy” relations between Moscow and Jerusalem. Practically, that would mean increased Israeli anxiety over Russian activity in neighboring Syria, where Iran would likely be given a freer rein, and very real concerns that the approximately 100,000 Jews who remain in Russia would face a renewed bout of state-sponsored persecution after three decades of relative relief.
Make no mistake: The Russians are brutal enough to make Israel’s hypothetical distress a searing reality. However, that doesn’t mean that Israeli leaders should bury their heads in the sand. The future for everyone in Russia is bleak: conscription, economic decay and a steady diet of state propaganda is the order of the day there. Israel should be clear, as Sharansky has been, that there is no future for Jews in Russia and that the goal is to bring the remainder of the community to Israel as quickly as possible. Israel should also recognize that the historic protests currently raging in Iran have exposed the fundamental weakness of the ruling mullahs, who now have to rely on sheer force to impose their will. Ordinary Iranians have made it clear they don’t want their government meddling in Lebanon, Kurdistan, Syria, Yemen and Gaza, especially when the situation at home is so dire. That reality presents Israel with a significant advantage.
None of this is risk free; few strategies are. What matters, though, is the moment. Israel has an opportunity to prove itself as a defender of democracy and steadfast opponent of the crimes against humanity being inflicted by Russian forces. It is a moment that must be seized.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.