Why Israel is walking a tightrope on the Ukraine crisis

6 min read
15 February, 2022

“We have a duty to act with caution about the Russia-Ukraine crisis that no other country has.”

This was the statement of Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in an interview with Axios, conveying the extent of Israel's dilemma in approaching the Ukraine crisis.

From Tel Aviv's point of view, the crisis represents an ominous triangle of ties between Israel, the West, and Russia. Israeli politicians are approaching the growing tensions with extreme caution, hesitant to make any hasty movements as they walk the diplomatic tightrope.

A complex balance

Israel has diplomatic relations and common interests with all three players in this crisis: Western powers (namely the US), Ukraine, and Russia. So far, Tel Aviv has been reluctant to take sides, choosing to instead behave in a way that does not lend explicit support to either side and pursuing a policy of "silence and surveillance".

Ukraine and Israel have been engaged in diplomatic relations for 31 years, and there is a strong affinity between the Jewish communities in both countries, particularly at present given that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is himself Jewish.

In addition, Ukraine is one of the nine countries that signed a Free Trade Agreement with Israel in 2019, and in December 2021, the Ukrainian defence minister visited the country.

"Israeli politicians are approaching the growing tensions with extreme caution, hesitant to make any hasty movements as they walk the diplomatic tightrope"

After the visit, Ukrainian officials discussed the possibility of purchasing the Iron Dome system and other missile defence and cyber defence systems from Israel. Despite American support, the deal never went through.

Indeed, Israel and Russia have an understanding that Tel Aviv will not upgrade its defence links with Ukraine. In return, Russia will limit its arms sales to Iran.

In late 2019, an advisor to former PM Benjamin Netanyahu asserted that Russia had cancelled a proposed missile sale to Iran and that Israel had reciprocated by twice promising not to sell weapons to Ukraine, even banning Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania from transferring Israeli weapons to Ukraine.

Today, as Russia amasses troops at the Ukrainian border, Israel is treading lightly, trying to determine the right course of action. Tel Aviv recognises that any possible Russian invasion of Ukraine could potentially create a new non-Western order.

“Israel and Ukraine have a mutual interest in Russia’s de-escalation in as much as Israel presumably has the same hopes for a global geopolitical order in which national territorial sovereignty is protected,” said Emily Channell-Justice, Director of the Temerty Contemporary Ukraine Program at Harvard University’s Ukrainian Research Institute, in an interview with The New Arab.

Forner Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy shake hands during their meeting in Jerusalem on January 24, 2020. [Getty]
Forner Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy during their meeting in Jerusalem on 24 January 2020. Despite diplomatic relations, Israel has been hesitant to voice support for Ukraine's position. [Getty]

On the other hand, Israel is careful not to provoke Russia. Israel remained silent during the 2014 occupation of Crimea and was absent from the UN General Assembly during the voting session on a resolution examining the Crimean occupation.

“What Putin wants, presumably, from Israel in this situation is a degree of neutrality and silence,” Hussein Ibish, Senior Resident Scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told The New Arab. “What Russia wants, and what would be in Israel's best interest, is approximately the same thing, which is doing nothing and saying as little as possible,” he added.

But Tel Aviv's silence has angered Kyiv officials in the past. Despite the fact that Ukraine was one of only 18 countries that voted against endorsing the Goldstone report that investigated Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2009, Israel failed to mediate the resolution of the Ukraine-Russia conflict of 2014 and did not use its influence in Washington to intervene on behalf of Ukraine.

The most significant issue holding Israel back revolved around Iran’s regional power. For over five years, Israel has been targeting Iranian forces in Syria with the coordination and permission of Russia, which controls much of the airspace. Israel fears that Putin will end this cooperation if it favours Ukraine.

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In addition, Iran, Israel's most prominent enemy, is engaged in Vienna's nuclear talks with world powers with the participation of Russia. The Russians share a common position with the Israelis on Iran's possible non-peaceful use of nuclear energy and have not allowed Tehran to acquire strategic weapons, such as refusing to sell them the S-400 missile system.

Israel worries that if it backs Ukraine, Moscow will not be as willing to put pressure on Iran as it once was and that Iran's nuclear equation would run counter to Israel's interests.

Another concern of Tel Aviv is that if it protests or even voices disapproval for Russia’s aggression and possible invasion, it invites accusations of hypocrisy. Israel is one of the few countries that occupies land beyond its borders - East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights - and therefore cannot condemn similar occupations.

Doing so may even lead to Russian criticism of the Israeli blockade of Gaza, which would certainly upset the Israelis.

“Israel, given its decades-long occupation of Palestinian territories conquered in 1967, is not in much of a strong position to criticise Russia's irredentist claims on territory in Ukraine,” said Ibish.

To add another dimension, Israel could well be expected to support the US, its greatest ally, in the Ukraine crisis. But from Tel Aviv’s viewpoint, the matter of Europe’s borders is best left for the powers to decide. “The West would want and expect Israel to wholeheartedly support a Western position in support of Ukraine. However, this will not be high on the list of Western priorities,” said Ibish.

"Israel, given its decades-long occupation of Palestinian territories conquered in 1967, is not in much of a strong position to criticise Russia's irredentist claims on territory in Ukraine"

Regional impact

The Ukrainian crisis, and any impending war between Russia and the West, is a no-win situation for Israel. Embracing a policy of positive neutrality, it is trying to avoid a confrontation altogether.

In the event of a clash between Washington and Moscow, US hegemony will weaken in the Middle East, affecting Israel's security. With Washington more focused than ever on controlling Russia and China, Israel could be more isolated in the region.

This weakening and potential reshuffling of the existing world order is to the detriment of Israel. A possible US-Russian war would divert focus from Iran's nuclear program and could embolden Tehran to pursue more aggressive expansionism. 

“The benefits for the countries that Russia is attempting to ally with - in particular, China - is that if there is not a strong response to its incursions on Ukraine’s sovereignty, then China will feel emboldened to make its own claims on the South China Sea or in Taiwan,” Channell-Justice told TNA.

Meanwhile, Germany and other European countries do not necessarily agree with Washington's approach, helping Israel maintain its ambiguity and allowing it to take a softer line against Russia.

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Beyond geopolitics, the Ukraine crisis also resonates domestically in Israel, which is home to over 500,000 Ukrainian Jewish immigrants and over 400,000 Russian Jewish immigrants. Over one million Jews from the former Soviet Union have moved to Israel since the 1990s, and by some estimates form 12% of voters.

During Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, disputes arose between the two groups, as Ukrainian immigrants staged an anti-Russian demonstration in front of the Russian embassy in Tel Aviv.

In the 2020 election, Netanyahu played up his relationship with Putin to capture the "Russian vote", but it ultimately had little impact.

If the conflict escalates, these two groups could become more hostile towards each other, causing national divisions. Taking sides between Russia and Ukraine could cost Israeli politicians valuable votes, with each community seeing support for the other as a deal-breaker. 

Given these pulls in different directions, it is likely that Israel will try to avoid being pulled into the dispute at all costs.

Dr Mohammad Salami holds a PhD in International Relations. He is a specialist in Middle Eastern policy, particularly in Syria, Iran, Yemen, and the Persian Gulf region. His areas of expertise include politics and governance, security, and counterterrorism.

Follow him on Twitter: @moh_salami