In between dodging assassination attempts, inspiring his people to fight back against invading Russian forces, and conversing with world leaders, Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky took time out to address the Knesset on March 20. Zelensky, a Jew, likened the plight of his people to the Holocaust. He chided the Israelis for not doing enough to help his country. “One can ask for a long time why we can’t accept weapons from you or why Israel didn’t impose sanctions against Russia, why you are not putting pressure on Russian business,” Zelensky said.
Some of Israel’s staunchest supporters in America also questioned Israel’s policy as Russia devastated Ukraine. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) proclaimed he was “very disappointed” that Israel was not arming Ukraine. He later reversed his position, but others have not. Representative Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) went so far as to say that the United States should effectively end its alliance with the Jewish state “unless Israel supplies arms to Ukraine in the fight against the Russian invasion.”
Prominent Israeli figures piled on as well. Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai stated that the Russian attacks on Ukraine “clearly demonstrate an ongoing atrocity. In the face of such injustice, we cannot simply choose not to listen. There are moments when one cannot stay quiet, and today, now, is exactly one of these moments.” Former prime minister Ehud Olmert slammed the government for failing to oppose Russia meaningfully.
It is true that Israel balked at sanctions targeting oligarchs and select elements of Russia’s financial sector. It also declined to send weapons to Ukraine. But it’s not as if Israel has done nothing. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett volunteered to mediate between Vladimir Putin and Zelensky—and he was the first world leader to sit with Putin face-to-face, in an effort to convince the Russian strongman to end his war of aggression. Israel also voted on March 2 at the United Nations to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Jewish state actually co-sponsored the resolution, firmly placing the country among other democracies and liberal societies, where it belongs. And this was no easy decision.
The Israeli Air Force (IAF) needs Russian cooperation to operate in the skies over Syria, which Putin’s Russia patrols with advanced anti-aircraft systems. For nearly a decade, Israel has operated in Syria to prevent Iran from installing Shiite militias and military hardware within firing range of Israel’s borders. More urgently, Israel has hunted the lethal weapons systems that the Islamic Republic of Iran is smuggling to Hezbollah, its most powerful terrorist proxy in Lebanon. Their goal is to lay waste to Israel in a forthcoming clash. Israel must therefore constantly interdict these weapons. In a cruel twist of fate, Putin holds the key to those sorties.
Israel’s critics have conveniently forgotten that America placed the Jewish state in a terrible security conundrum nearly a decade ago. President Barack Obama’s red-line debacle of 2013—the failure to remove Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad from power after he used chemical weapons against his own people—enabled Putin to control the Syrian skies. Washington has yet to offer Israel a way out. If anything, America’s attempted pivot out of the Middle East has complicated Israel’s situation. And a possible new iteration of the Iran nuclear deal would only make things worse.
On September 30, 2015, Russia sent its first squadron of fighter jets to Syria to support the embattled Assad regime. The country was writhing in a civil war that had erupted during the 2011 Arab Spring. The war attracted Sunni extremists worldwide. Assad attempted to repel them with Shiite militias supplied by Iran. But he was still losing. With the regime nearing collapse, Obama warned Assad not to cross America’s “red line” of using chemical weapons.
Then Assad crossed it. In 2013, the Syrian strongman dropped sarin gas on East Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, killing more than 1,400. Obama sought international support to attack Syria, but he found little. With wars still raging in Iraq and Afghanistan, some of America’s partners feared another intervention. The same could be said for American elites, as neo-isolationism crept steadily into the foreign-policy debates on both left and right. The compromise that emerged was a mechanism to remove chemical weapons from Syria, and it was celebrated by the Obama administration and other governments worldwide. But in 2017, Assad gassed his own people again, prompting an air strike by the Trump administration.
By that point, however, the war’s tide had turned. The Russian fighter jets that first arrived in 2015 served to stabilize Assad’s rule. Putin also dispatched forces to Syria in the largest combat mission undertaken since Russia’s ignominious departure from Afghanistan in 1989. The mission, launched in the name of counterterrorism and Middle Eastern stability, enabled Putin to demonstrate Russia’s resurgence as a world power, challenging the notion that the country was “a gas station with an army.”
To the chagrin of surrounding neighbors, Putin’s forces began to work closely with Iranian forces, such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, as well as Hezbollah and other Shiite militias. More worrying to Israel, in particular, was the Russian deployment of the formidable S-400 air-defense system.
While Putin’s military battled Sunni insurgents, the Israelis geared up for a different battle. In response to mounting threats, then–prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu launched the “War Between Wars” (WBW).
After watching for years as the Islamic Republic of Iran armed and trained terrorist proxies to launch an assault on the Jewish state, the Israelis determined that intervention was urgently needed. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Syria, where the regime was smuggling weapons to Hezbollah under the fog of war. But these were not just any weapons. They were precision-guided munitions (or PGMs).1 This advanced missile project could put nearly every strategic Israeli asset under a direct threat, including the nuclear facility in Dimona, a chemical plant in Haifa, and countless military bases. PGMs are fatally precise and could possibly evade Israel’s vaunted Iron Dome missile-defense system.
The WBW has escalated in recent years. In 2019, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot announced that Israel had bombed “thousands” of military targets in Syria. In 2020, his successor, Aviv Kochavi, claimed that the IAF had hammered another 500 Iranian military assets in Syria that year. The WBW continued apace in 2021.
Israeli leaders, in prosecuting the WBW, have had no choice but to call on the Kremlin. During these meetings, they don’t ask for Russian permission to operate in Syria. Rather, they inform their counterparts what is coming. It’s a professional and frank exchange, according to Israelis who have been in the room. But it’s not without tension. Israeli pilots who fly missions into Syria are candid about the S-400 threat. Risk has been mitigated through a process known as deconfliction, but it could unravel if a diplomatic spat were to erupt.
During a recent visit to Israel, which coincided with the war’s first week, I saw only widespread excoriation of Putin’s invasion. Anti-war sentiment was particularly high among the estimated 900,000 Israeli Russians emigrés who harbor fresh memories of the suffering they endured under Soviet rule. Still, there was a wariness of Russian retribution.
Israel took some heat for failing to send Iron Dome batteries to Ukraine. This was a red herring. Israel doesn’t have any to spare, with the many threats it faces on its borders. Nor would there be enough time to train Ukrainian forces to use them. Interestingly, the United States has one Iron Dome battery, currently deployed in Guam, where it will see no action. Should the United States seek to send its battery to Ukraine (with an adjusted end-user agreement), it would come at little cost to America’s military posture in Asia.
For Israel, joining the March 2 UN resolution to condemn Russia was an easy call. It was a nonbinding General Assembly resolution that was not likely to invoke Putin’s ire—and it joined some three-quarters of the world in condemnation of Russia. But for some Israeli diplomats, the vote was unfinished business. After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Israel was absent for the UN vote condemning it, owing to a general strike of Israeli Foreign Ministry employees. The March 2 vote helped Israel set the record straight. “We belong on that list of countries,” one Israeli politician told me. “Israel is a democracy. Israel should be standing with the West.”
And yet, Israel was still ambivalent about joining Western sanctions regimes targeting Russia’s oil, oligarchs, and financial lifelines. Some of this stems from surprising lacunae in Israeli law. The Israelis have the legal authority to sanction terrorist groups and governments with whom they are at war. But they lack the ability to impose financial penalties on nonbelligerent states without a UN resolution.
Legalities notwithstanding, a healthy fear of Russian retribution undeniably explains Israel’s ambivalence. On March 5, Putin declared that sanctions against his country were tantamount to an act of war. From that point on, the Israelis were “walking between the raindrops,” a Hebrew expression akin to “walking a tightrope.” Bennett’s national-security team convened a task force on the American and Western sanctions, first to learn what they entailed, but then how Israel might enforce them. The goal, as one official told me, was to safeguard Israeli interests while also ensuring that “Israel does not become a platform for illicit Russian financial activities.”
The Israelis with whom I spoke would not issue direct guidance on their process. If anything, their approach resembled structures established in recent years to monitor Chinese investment. In response to American pressure to prohibit Beijing from acquiring Israel’s top tech, the Israelis quietly and selectively blocked access to the most problematic actors. This no-drama approach was certainly preferable to a direct confrontation with a rising military and economic power. Israel appears to be doing the same with Russia.
But even informal processes may be painful to enforce. As it happens, several Russian oligarchs have established outsize roles in Israel over the years. There may be more than 30 tycoons with Israeli citizenship or residency. Among them is Roman Abramovich, who until recently owned the Chelsea soccer club, and who has donated millions of dollars to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust-memorial museum. Another, Leonid Nevzlin, owns 25 percent of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, and his daughter is married to Yuli Edelstein, a prominent Likud politician. The tycoon Len Blavatnik owns Israel’s Channel 13. Others are campaign financiers and even business partners of Israeli politicians.
Untangling all of this will take time. Until then, Israel is trying to be proactive. Bennett took the initiative and began mediating, with America’s blessing. He flew to Moscow on March 5 to meet Putin—and he did so on the Jewish Sabbath, surprising many of his own countrymen, given that Bennett is an Orthodox Jew. Bennett cited the biblical exception of pikuakh nefesh, or preservation of life—which is what makes it possible for observant doctors to do work on Shabbat if necessary—as justification.
In addition, Israel sent its largest-ever humanitarian airlift to Ukraine. Three airplanes carried 100 tons of food, medicine, and other items. Israel established a field hospital near the Polish border. And it continues to arrange for Ukrainian and even Russian Jews to emigrate during a global refugee crisis. Israel’s deep sense of responsibility for these endangered Jews also accounts for some of its political caution.
Still, by mid-March, frustration was building in Israel. U.S. officials would not acknowledge Israel’s Russia conundrum. “Between a hammer and an anvil” was the Hebrew term I heard repeatedly. It soon became even more of a Gordian knot.
For one thing, a looming nuclear deal between Iran and the United States had a distinctly Russian flavor. Russian negotiator Mikhail Ulyanov was the primary mediator between Iran’s negotiators and Rob Malley, President Biden’s envoy to the nuclear negotiations in Vienna. After Russia invaded Ukraine, Putin demanded a sanctions “white channel” to enable Russia and Iran to engage in commerce. The Biden White House refused, and negotiators returned home for con-
sultations. Days later, however, the White House agreed to allow Russia to engage in lucrative and sensitive nuclear work with Iran, including uranium swaps, work at the Fordow nuclear facility, and the provision of nuclear fuel to Iran’s reactors. While the white channel was technically jettisoned, it remained unlikely that the United States would sanction any Iranian company for commerce with Russia, for fear of jeopardizing its diplomatic agreement.
In other words, the Biden White House was pressuring Israel to isolate Russia just as Biden signaled a willingness to gift Putin a lucrative means to evade that pressure—while simultaneously enriching Israel’s existential enemy with roughly $131 billion in sanctions relief. As a result, Putin might be set to gain even more leverage over the Israelis. Israel could ill afford to provoke the Russians, the players closest to Iran and with the best access to Iranian nuclear facilities. Russia could one day be the only international actor standing between the Islamic Republic and a nuclear bomb.
Despite it all, Israel has declared its allegiance to the United States in the rising conflict with revisionist powers. “There is no question that this our moral identity,” one Israeli official told me. Washington’s expectation is that Israel and other allies will project power regionally and fight for American interests. But it is difficult for Israel to do that so long as Russia remains in Syria. It is even harder with Iran on the nuclear precipice. Israel can thank the Obama and Biden administrations for both circumstances.
Photo: Oren Rozen
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