Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, Israel has tried desperately to maintain a delicate balancing act, expressing sympathy for Ukraine while avoiding offending Russia. As such, Israel has condemned the Russian invasion but has avoided sending Ukraine military equipment such as the Iron Dome anti-rocket system and the Spike NLOS, anti-tank guided missile.
This policy stems from the fact that Russia sits right on Israel’s doorstep, maintaining vast air and naval facilities in Syria. These facilities are protected by Russia’s most advanced air-defense platforms. Russia’s military presence in Syria was no accident but was facilitated by the leadership void created by Barack Obama following Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people. America stepped aside allowing Russia, as well as Iran and its proxies to move in.
Israel could not permit Iran to open a second front opposite the Israeli-held Golan Heights. Moreover, Israel wished to prevent Iranian arms smuggling efforts transiting through Syria into Lebanon. To that end, Israel embarked on a relentless military effort to blunt Iranian expansionist designs. But Israel needed Russian cooperation since Russia was recognized as the main powerbroker in Syria.
Israel already maintained good ties with Russia, and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his successor, Naftali Bennett, worked with Putin to ensure that Israel had freedom of action in Syria. Israel and Russia worked out a deconfliction mechanism to avoid clashes and the system worked rather well.
But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine threw a giant wrench into the vast gears of geo-political, backchannel dealing. America pressured Israel to take a firmer line against Moscow. Russia pressured Israel to maintain neutrality. Kyiv asked Jerusalem for military assistance, including Iron Dome batteries. Aside from Russia’s presence in Syria, Israel had to concern itself with the safety of the Jewish populations of both countries. In addition, Israeli neutrality served a useful purpose in that it enabled the Jewish State to be an impartial interlocutor, trusted by both parties to facilitate negotiations in a neutral venue.
Up until recently, Israel limited its assistance to Ukraine to humanitarian needs, including the setting up of a first-class field hospital in western Ukraine, the first nation to do so. But revelations of Russian atrocities and war crimes in areas previously occupied by Russian forces and recently liberated the Ukrainian Army changed the political dynamic in Israel. The policy of neutrality was fast fading in favor of a stronger anti-Russian approach. Indeed, it was recently announced by Israel’s defense minister, Benny Gantz, that Israel is currently supplying Ukraine with ballistic helmets and flak jackets, and that jerusalem was open to the idea of sending Ukraine defensive armaments, though specifically excluding Iron Dome.
But this past Sunday, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, while interviewed on Italian media expressed the long debunked, anti-Semitic view that Hitler had “Jewish blood.” Lavrov was attempting to make the point that although Ukraine’s president Zelensky was Jewish, it did not negate the fact that he was aiding and abetting Nazis.
Anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers have long asserted that Hitler had Jewish origins in an effort to exonerate the Nazis for committing mass murder. In its basest form, their augment is that it was the Jews who perpetrated genocide on themselves. In his interview, Lavrov was attempting to revive a debunked conspiracy theory and his statements provoked instant Israeli and international condemnation. Israel’s foreign ministry, headed by Yair Lapid, has generally adopted a much tougher approach toward Russia, employing harsher rhetoric than the prime minister’s office. However, on this occasion, Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid spoke with one voice and demanded an immediate Russian apology and retraction.
Clearly, Lavrov had crossed all red lines of decency. But rather than apologizing, the Russians doubled down on their claim, asserting that Jews cooperated with Nazis during WWII and that Israel was currently assisting neo-Nazis in Ukraine. On Wednesday, a spokesperson for Russia’s foreign ministry claimed that “Israeli mercenaries are practically shoulder to shoulder with Azov militants in Ukraine.” The Azov Battalion was a far-right battalion formed in 2014 to battle Russian separatists in Donbas. They were incorporated into the Ukrainian Army.
True, there are ex-Israeli soldiers who are fighting alongside Ukrainian forces, but their numbers are small, perhaps several dozen, hardly enough to make any meaningful impact on the battlefield. It appears that the Russian claim was designed to further inflame tensions with Jerusalem, and it’s succeeding.
In late April, Israel, along with other major U.S. allies, was invited by U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to partake in an extraordinary conference in Ramstein Germany. Dubbed “The Ukraine Defense Consultative Group,” the Ramstein Conference’s goal was to enhance Ukraine’s military defenses while further isolating Russia. The group will continue convening once a month. Israel’s participation did not go unnoticed by the Russians.
Despite Russia’s presence on Israel’s borders and its ability to hamper Israeli freedom of action, Israel should consider that its long-term strategic interests lie with the United States. Moreover, Russia’s callous revival of debunked, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories clearly demonstrate the presence of an unhinged regime. Finally, Russia has never offered Israel any political support in international forums, always siding with despots against Israel. As such, Israel should consider loosening its policy regarding weapons for Ukraine.
Russia has already warned Israel that it would respond “accordingly” if Israel shipped weapons. Israeli and Soviet military forces have tangled in the past. In July 1970, Israeli fighter jets – F-4 Phantom and Mirage III fighters – downed five Soviet-piloted MiG-21s over Egypt. If Israel and Russia clashed today, it is a virtual certainty that Russia would draw the short end of the stick. Nevertheless, Russia’s enigmatic threats should not be taken lightly. Russia has other options at its disposal short of direct military confrontation with Israel, and consequently, Israel still needs to proceed with caution. But on balance, when weighing the geo-political and moral equation, supplying defensive weaponry and other military expertise to Ukraine is the right play.