WASHINGTON – Israel’s first official response Wednesday to Russia’s actions in Ukraine caught the attention of many for its seemingly tepid condemnation of Russian President Vladimir Putin and failure to even mention Russia by name.
On Thursday, after Russia launched a full-scale attack on Ukraine, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid delivered a short statement denouncing the attack, mentioning Russia by name, and calling for a return to negotiations between Moscow and Kyiv. Even then, however, Lapid devoted only one sentence to the denunciation, and spent most of his statement emphasizing the fact that Israel has strong ties to both Russia and Ukraine, and is mostly concerned with protecting its own citizens and diplomats in those countries.
These statements were very different from the forceful words offered by other key U.S. allies against Russia. But experts and former senior officials who spoke with Haaretz don't expect the Biden administration to express anger or disappointment at Israel, since the country's cautious pragmatism is largely motivated by Russia’s hold over Syria, and its tacit approval of Israeli military operations against Iranian-backed activities within the country.
Officials and experts say the Biden administration understood that Israel had no choice but to traverse this tightrope, even if it would prefer a stronger reaction – something it may now look for given Russia’s military attacks across Ukraine on Thursday morning.
They believe the fact that Israel supported the U.S. position at all, rather than staying on the sidelines, was a notable sign of Israel’s commitment to being aligned with the Biden administration.
“Israel has been doing the same dance for years in terms of sidestepping potential political landmines with how it engages with the U.S. on Russia,” says Dan Arbell, former deputy chief of mission at Israel’s embassy in Washington and scholar-in-residence at Washington’s American University.
Officials highlight previous examples of Israeli passivity concerning Russia, particularly its notable abstention from a United Nations resolution condemning Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
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Wednesday’s statement, according to Arbell, “brought it to a new artform. It’s just another manifestation of this policy of not upsetting Russia.”
Walking a fine line
Despite Israel’s apparent fence-sitting, experts stress the Biden administration is aware of Israel’s delicate position due to Russia’s genuine leverage in Syria. Last month, Russian and Syrian jets conducted a joint patrol over the Golan Heights, sending a strong signal to Israel that it could cease Israel’s freedom of movement within Syria’s borders if it chose to strategically align itself against Russia.
“Either Israel has the ability to operate there or it doesn’t. From an Israeli perspective, if the Russians limit their ability to operate there, Israel could face a much more profound strategic threat. So walking a fine line is required of the Israelis,” says Dennis Ross, who served as the Middle East peace envoy in the Clinton administration.
One week after the joint Russian-Syrian patrol, Biden and Bennett discussed “the potential of further Russian aggression against Ukraine,” according to a White House readout. However, it did not contain the language of a shared position akin to other U.S. statements following calls with allies.
“Would the administration like a more definitive posture? Of course. Does it understand the Israeli position? Yes, I think it does,” Ross adds.
Martin Indyk, a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and U.S. special Middle East envoy from July 2013 to June 2014, says the United States would like to have Israel on board precisely because it is an example of a liberal democracy threatened by living in a hostile neighborhood.
“They’d like to see Israel stand up, but they understand,” he says. “The interaction at the national security level between the United States and Israel, and between the Biden administration and the Bennett government, is very intense,” he adds, noting that there may be a sort of quid pro quo between their respective public postures.
“Israel is cutting the Biden administration some slack on the Iran [nuclear] deal, even though they oppose it. There’s a feeling in the administration that given the circumstances – particularly in Syria – they should cut Israel some slack too.”
Despite Washington’s seeming acceptance, people familiar with both governments’ thinking understand the situation remains dynamic – particularly in the face of Thursday morning’s full-scale Russian attacks across Ukraine.
“Israel’s reaction to Ukraine, like the [administration’s], is a moving train,” says Carnegie Endowment for International Peace senior fellow Aaron David Miller. “They very much want to fence-sit because of maintaining their interests in Syria, so they’re slow-walking a tough response to Russia, waiting to see how far Putin goes.
“But make no mistake: If Putin moves massively into Ukraine, they won’t – nor will Biden abide without a cost – a middling or tepid response,” Miller adds, speaking before Thursday morning’s developments. “Israel is America’s closet Middle East ally. And Biden will expect Bennett to act like it.”
That warning came days after several senior Israeli officials openly indicated that Israel would be forced to side with the United States should it be forced to make a decision. However, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid attempted to qualify such inevitabilities by stating that “our border with Syria is, for all intents and purposes, a border with Russia.”
When asked about Israel’s Ukraine statement, a State Department spokesperson said that “the United States and many other nations are deeply concerned about the destabilizing role that Russia is playing, and its ongoing threat to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.”
The spokesperson added that the U.S. engages in “ongoing and regular dialogue with other countries at all levels of our government” concerning positions on Russia and Ukraine, and that “the vast majority of the global community is united in their view – a shared view that invading another country, attempting to take some of their land, terrorizing their people is certainly not aligned with global values.”