With fighting raging in Ukraine, Israel finds itself torn between supporting independent Ukrainian sovereignty and not wishing to anger a newly belligerent world power in Russia.
Should the Jewish state support a diminishing world order led by the United States and Western European powers, or an emerging order in which a China- and Russia-led axis now seeks to dominate international affairs? Must Israel choose?
For Israel, the stakes are high.
“The world order as we know it is changing,” Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett told an IDF officers’ graduation ceremony on Feb. 25. “The world is much less stable, and our region too is changing every day. These are difficult, tragic times. Our hearts are with the civilians of eastern Ukraine who are caught up in this situation,” he added.
Bennett’s statement was carefully crafted.
Support for Ukraine
Sympathizing with the citizens of Ukraine, who have come under attack, is the correct moral position, regardless of politics.
Jerusalem also has strong ties with Kyiv. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish. Over 40,000 Jews live in the country and approximately 200,000 Ukrainians have direct Jewish lineage and qualify for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. In addition, Israel and Ukraine have robust economic ties. In just one example, Ukraine is a primary supplier of wheat to Israel, accounting for nearly half of the Jewish state’s wheat consumption.
Since the outbreak of hostilities, Jewish organizations have rushed to offer humanitarian aid to the Ukrainian Jewish community. The State of Israel is working to facilitate the absorption of Ukrainian refugees.
But coming out in support of Ukraine is a risky strategy.
The larger conflict being waged by Russia is against Europe, the United States and a NATO alliance the worth of which will now be put to the test.
Just a day prior to Bennett’s statement, Israel’s Foreign Ministry was less careful in its wording than the prime minister.
On Thursday, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (who is also Israel’s prime minister-in-waiting) said, “The Russian attack on Ukraine is a serious violation of the international order. Israel condemns the attack.” He added that Israel “is ready and prepared to provide humanitarian assistance to the citizens of Ukraine.”
On Wednesday, Lior Haiat, a spokesman for Lapid’s ministry, tweeted: “Israel supports the territorial integrity and the sovereignty of Ukraine.” Haiat added that “Israel is continuing to engage in dialogue with its partners on ways to get the diplomatic efforts back on track.”
Israel’s backing for Ukrainian sovereignty was made at the request of the United States, Israel’s closest ally.
From Russia with love
Russia was not pleased with Israel’s position, and quickly let the Jewish state know.
Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Dmitry Polyanskiy said in a statement that “We are concerned over Tel Aviv’s announced plans for expanding settlement activity in the occupied Golan Heights, which directly contradicts the provisions of the 1949 Geneva Convention. Russia doesn’t recognize Israel’s sovereignty over [the] Golan Heights that are part of Syria.”
In referring to “Tel Aviv,” Russia was indicating that it does not view Jerusalem, the seat of Israel’s parliament, Supreme Court and prime minister’s official residence, as the recognized capital of the Jewish state.
More importantly, for the last several years, Russia has been a dominant force in a war-torn Syria. Russian forces are a heartbeat away from Israel’s northern border. Just two weeks ago, Russian planes were seen flying together with Syrian planes. Russian air defenses systems are stationed in the country.
Russia suddenly refusing to acknowledge Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan, and considering the strategic hills overlooking Israel’s primary water supply—the Kinneret—as “part of Syria,” would be a message anything but subtle. If disagreements continue, Israel and Russia could find themselves entangled in a complicated and dangerous diplomatic row.
Good relations with Russia are a major strategic imperative.
‘Don’t have 100 rubles, have 100 friends’
Diplomatic relations between Israel and Russia have grown warmer over the past decade, to the point that the two nations are considered allies. Mutual respect was developed between Russian President Vladimir Putin and former Israel premier Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu has visited Moscow, and Putin has visited Israel. Bennett met Putin in Sochi this past October.
Putin has been very friendly to the Jews of Russia, compared to Russian leaders of the past. Historically, the words “czar” and “pogrom” have been synonymous. Not so under Putin. Russia’s Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar is known to be a confidante and advisor to the Russian leader. Putin himself donated to Russia’s Jewish museum.
Then there is the issue of Israel’s military campaign in Syria, where Iranian fighters have been active in recent years, and to which the Islamic Republic has been importing arms. Weapons traveling into Syria often make it to Lebanon, where Iranian proxy Hezbollah has over 150,000 rockets and missiles, many precision-guided, pointed at the Jewish state.
To limit Iran’s hegemonic aspirations and to protect its own security interests, Israel has conducted numerous military actions against Iranian fighters and weapons convoys in Syria, mostly by air, and even some on the ground. Sophisticated de-escalation measures with Russia are in place to ensure that Russian military adventures don’t instigate any retaliation from Israel, and vice versa. It is imperative that these understandings between Israel and Russia remain in place.
Recognizing that it may have erred in openly siding with Ukraine, Israel refused to back a U.N. Security Council resolution on Friday night condemning Russia’s invasion. While it is true that resolution had no chance to succeed due to Russia’s own permanent Security Council veto, it is similarly unlikely that Israel will support a U.N. General Assembly resolution, which Russia cannot veto, due to the sensitivities involved.
Poking the Chinese bear
Back in June, Lapid and the Foreign Ministry made a similar diplomatic error.
Then, Israel voted at the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to condemn China for its treatment of the Uyghurs.
At the time, I wrote that “Jews should undoubtedly be the first to express deep concern over grave human rights abuses. Yet, the Israeli government should know better than to give any credence to a forum that unfairly singles out Israel for censure more than all the world’s countries put together. Secondly, Israel should think twice about angering an ascending global superpower.”
Why did Israel vote against China, in a vote that passed by large margin—meaning that Israel’s own vote was of no consequence to the outcome? Because the United States asked Israel to do it.
Lapid, who was all-too eager to please the Biden administration, allowed his foreign policy establishment to make a rookie mistake.
The United States has been repeatedly pushing Israel to temper its relations with China, and the suggestions indeed have merit.
China is a nation on the offensive, and their business practices are often less than scrupulous. They regularly steal technology and data, and undercut national and company interests by offering low-interest financing that ultimately ends up weakening the nations and companies they do business with. China is also a surveillance state that commits numerous human rights violations.
Yet China is a nation that has no history of anti-Semitism, and has something of an affinity with the Jewish state. They value Israel’s status as the “startup nation” and an incubator of the technology they crave. As China becomes the dominant world superpower, it behooves Israel to remain on China’s good side.
With friends like these…
At the same time, it is worth reevaluating Israel’s alliance with the United States and Europe.
Though Israel, as a liberal democracy, sees its values as being closely aligned with the West, there are two major challenges. The first is that the United States and Europe are diminishing world powers.
The economic and moral foundations of the United States are cracking. Lengthy campaigns to undercut American values are proving effective, while the economic might of the United States is dwindling. The United States no longer acts like a moral superpower.
One of the messages being heard through Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is that the United States has dropped the banner it has carried since World War II as foremost leader of the free world.
The United States may have the world’s largest and most powerful army, but in recent campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even in Vietnam, it did not prove victorious. America’s recent hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan demonstrated tremendous weakness. Firepower is well and good, but if one does not have the will to fire, let alone the will to win, might is lacking.
Europe is in a similar position. The withdrawal of Great Britain from the European Union was a serious blow to Europe’s dominant position.
Secondly, as allies both the United States and Europe are double-edged swords.
The international community frequently condemns the Jewish state for applying sovereignty in lands it controls between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, despite strong legal, moral and historical claims to that land.
Empowering and enriching Israel’s enemies
Western powers are heedlessly and senselessly rushing towards a renewed pact with Iran, that would lift sanctions on the Islamic Republic and infuse the world’s largest state sponsor of terror with billions in capital to fund its hegemonic aspirations.
This despite the fact that Iran violated the terms of the first nuclear agreement, the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and has been enriching uranium to levels that are only necessary for developing nuclear weapons. At best, even if Iran signs a new deal, the deal’s terms would be set to expire in barely two and a half years, at which point Iran will legally be able to become a nuclear power.
It is unclear what the West is getting in return for its negotiating position.
The United States and Europe are also the primary sponsors of the Palestinian Authority, despite the P.A.’s constant incitement to violence and convoluted multimillion dollar terror financing schemes.
Similarly, the United States, Europe and United Nations constantly censure Israel over its settlement policies, and even its military responses to terror flareups.
A window of friendship
The Trump administration, by contrast, was a brief window of true friendship. Trump recognized Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, and insisted that settlements were not inherently illegal. Trump pulled out of the JCPOA and installed crippling sanctions on the Iranian regime. He similarly defunded the P.A. and expelled the PLO mission to Washington.
Furthermore, the Trump administration protected Israel at the United Nations, after the Obama administration secretly brokered and then allowed U.N. Resolution 2334 to pass, censuring Israel and calling settlements a “flagrant violation of international law.”
More importantly, the Trump administration helped Israel broker the Abraham Accords normalization agreements with Arab-majority nations, including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan and Kosovo.
Among the strongest lessons of the accords should be that Israel has no choice but to align its interests with nations in its own neighborhood.
The Biden administration is back to the behavior of the Obama administration, in which the United States continuously undercut the positions of several allies, including those in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, Democrats continue to blame Israel for working well with a president—Trump—who arguably did more to advance Jewish interests than any other American leader.
Now, while American and European leaders consistently pledge their support for the Jewish state, many of their actions prove otherwise. Israel finds itself forced over and over again to beg for friendship. Such behavior is not what Israel should expect from countries it calls allies.
Israel must defend itself by itself
Israel should take several lessons from the early days of fighting in Ukraine. The first is that Western allies cannot be counted on to defend its sovereignty.
To survive and thrive in a dangerous region and a dangerous world, Israel must maintain its military doctrine of being able to defend itself, by itself. Relying on the guarantees of others for security is foolish.
Yet the doctrine must not apply only to troops and technology. Israel must strive to be self-sufficient with regards to weapons and munitions. A primary example is the replenishment of its Iron Dome missile interceptor system.
The system was used to shoot down a significant portion of the 4,000 rockets fired at Israeli population centers from Gaza during the May flare-up, as a result of which Israel launched “Operation Guardian of the Walls.”
The U.S. administration had promised Israel in June to provide the funds necessary to replenish the Iron Dome, just weeks after fighting concluded. Yet the funding has been delayed for months in Congress, leaving Israel’s missile defense system dangerously undersupplied.
A nation that stands alone
The second lesson is that the world order is indeed changing. Rapidly. Military power, economic power and diplomatic power are shifting.
Israel has always been, both historically and prophetically, a nation that stands alone. Israel must be on good terms with the West, but it is not a Western country—despite its democratic and liberal values. Israel may not approve of Russia or China’s behaviors, but it must remain on good terms with them as well.
The third is that the United Nations cannot be counted on to bring peace to the world. Proof of this is the world body’s frequent condemnation of Israel, and its newly minted open-ended international investigation into Israeli treatment of Palestinians.
Israel is a nation that craves peace and stability more than any other. To achieve that peace, Israel must be dependent on no foreign power, must use savvy to navigate between world powers with their own sordid interests, and be both willing and able to use force when necessary to protect its sovereignty.
As world powers sort out their positions in a changing world order, ultimately Israel must stand alone.
Alex Traiman is CEO and Jerusalem bureau chief of Jewish News Syndicate.