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Ukraine conflict: How Israel is caught between ties with Moscow and Kyiv

Can Israel continue to support Ukraine without antagonising Russia and expat voters? Israeli diplomats weigh in
Tanks of the 92nd separate mechanised brigade of the Ukrainian Armed Forces parked in their base near Klugino-Bashkirivka village on Monday (AFP)
By Lily Galili in Tel Aviv, Israel

To win Israeli political and diplomatic support in their conflict with Russia, Ukrainian officials often compare the geopolitical situations of the two countries by saying something like: “We both have problems with our neighbours and we both want the world to understand us."

At a conference in December, marking the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Israel and Ukraine, President Vlodomyr Zelensky, who is Jewish, went as far as saying: “We both know what it means to defend one’s own state and land with weapons in hand." The current tension with Russia was not mentioned, but the context was clear.

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When unhappy with Israeli caution over Kyiv’s row with Moscow, Ukraine’s analogy takes another twist, with officials comparing Russian-occupied Crimea to the situation in the West Bank. 

Ukraine’s leader is not the only one drawing parallels between Israel and the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. In his annual televised interview last summer, Vladimir Putin said Ukrainians and Russians are the same people, and should unite just like Jews who come from different continents do in Israel.

These are not just anecdotes. The winds of war on the Russian-Ukrainian border complicate the intricate balance Israel is trying to preserve as a friend of Kyiv and Moscow.

Delicate balance

Israel has tried to tread this line before. In 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, Ukraine’s then-ambassador to Israel lamented Israel’s silence over the conflict as “ungrateful”.

Israel, he said, was reluctant to take sides 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.

'It’s complicated, but Israel manages to manoeuvre in this complexity without harming Russian interest'

- Zvi Magen, former Israeli ambassador to Russia and Ukraine

Over the past seven years, relations between Ukraine and Israel have undergone some changes. In 2019, the two countries signed a major trade agreement and, in December 2021, Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksi Reznikov visited Israel.

Details from the meetings weren't shared or leaked. But the military relations between the two countries have grown over the years, and several Ukrainian and Israeli news reports suggested that Kyiv was looking to buy an Iron Dome missile defence system.

Upgrading Ukraine's defence capabilities could, of course, antagonise Russia. But Zvi Magen, former Israeli ambassador to both Russia and Ukraine, said Israel has continued its talks with Ukraine.

“It’s complicated, but Israel manages to manoeuvre in this complexity without harming Russian interest,” said Magen, who is now head of Russia and the region at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies.

Behind the scenes, Magen has recently held several meetings with Ukrainian officials. He said he explained the sensitivity of the Israeli situation and the need to keep a low profile on the current conflict. “They do understand,” he said.

Mutual benefits

Still “antagonising Russia” is the flickering warning sign hanging over Israel's extra-cautious policy towards this complex situation.

For over six years, Israel has carefully coordinated its air force activity over Syria with Russia. This ongoing understanding with Russia allows Israel to target Iranian forces stationed in Syria while Russia controls the airspace.

This is obviously a strategic asset for Israel, and one which also serves Russian strategic and political interests in a region where Moscow wants influence.

'The best we can do is just to keep quiet'

- Yaakov Kedmi, Russian-Israeli diplomat and former Nativ head

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used to refer to Putin as “my friend”, a choice of words that amused those who better understand Russia and its president. Putin is motivated by interests only, and you better be careful not to undermine them.

From that point of view, Israel walks on a tightrope stretched now between the conflicting loyalties and interests of the White House and the Kremlin concerning Ukraine.

“The best we can do is just to keep quiet,” said Yaakov Kedmi, a Russian-Israeli diplomat and former head of the Nativ, a government liaison organisation that helped Jews get out of the Soviet Union during the Cold War and still exists today.

Having been banned from entering Russia for several years, Kedmi is now a frequent flyer to Moscow and a welcome political commentator on Russian TV channels.

“There is always pressure to take sides but Israel should be careful not to damage itself by doing that,” he said.

Kedmi said the ongoing nuclear talks with Iran are irrelevant to how Israel proceeds with Ukraine. The only thing Russia expects from Israel is to abstain from any activity that undermines the regional balance.

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“They can easily close the Syrian airspace, but have no interest in doing so as long as Israel does not threaten the Syrian regime. They could not care less about what we say, only about what we do,” he said.

“The real problem is that Israeli ignorance in understanding Russia and that region is second to the American ignorance only."

Zvi Magen holds a different opinion. He believes that, while at this point Israel and Russia share the same approach to the Iran issue, that might easily change if the current tension turns into an all-out crisis between Russia and the West.

In that eventuality, Russia will need new allies, like China and Iran, a scenario Israel should beware of. 

Two weeks ago, Putin and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett talked on the phone. According to the statement issued by the PM’s office, the focus was on regional security issues and close cooperation. According to a message posted on the Kremlin website, the issue of Ukraine was raised in the conversation.

Domestic toll

Political and diplomatic interests are not the only concern and sole constraint that impose extra caution on Israel at this point.

Israel is home to over 500,000 Ukrainian expats and over 400,000 Russian immigrants. Thus, any prospect of a war between the two countries will also become a domestic political issue for Israel.

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In 2014, Russia’s annexation of Crimea tore apart expats from both countries unlike any Israeli domestic issue before. Most newcomers from Ukraine were supportive of their former home, while most of those who emigrated from Russia were pro-Russian. Ex-Ukrainians demonstrated in front of the Russian embassy in Tel-Aviv, and the conflict tore apart families and friendships.

The emotional response now is much milder. The younger generation is disenchanted with Putin’s anti-democratic conduct and legislation, and disappointed with the rise of antisemitism in Ukraine, where controversial fascist Stepan Bandera, considered by many to be a war criminal partially responsible for the Holocaust in Ukraine, is now a national hero with streets named after him.

Unlike in 2014, now it’s the older generation, exposed mainly to Russian TV, that remains openly pro-Russian. The pro-Ukrainian sentiment runs deeper. Social media influencers of Ukrainian origin have framed their profile pictures on Facebook with Ukrainian flags to show support. Back in 2014, however, the heated debate turned into a more polite exchange of opinions.

Immigrants from Russia and Ukraine still have families in both countries and Israel must take their deep concern into account - and these are sentiments that often come with a political price tag in Israel.

In the last round of the 2020 elections, Netanyahu translated his rapport with Putin into huge campaign billboards showing the two of them together. He did not expect the angry reaction of Ukrainian and Russian immigrants who chose to leave when Putin returned to the presidency in 2012. And he certainly did not take into consideration the loss of votes that followed this mistake.

This domestic consideration is not a pivotal issue, but it does add another layer to the complexity of the Israeli position facing the probability of war. So does the Jewish community remaining in Ukraine. While waiting for future developments, Israel is planning a massive airlift of 10,000 Ukrainian Jews if Russia invades. So far, Ukrainian Jews are in no hurry to leave.

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