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Israel, Stop Fearing Vladimir Putin

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
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Israelis hold signs with a photo of Russian president Vladimir Putin at a demonstration against the war in Ukraine, in Tel Aviv, earlier this month.
A woman holds a sign that reads 'Stop Putin, Stop War' at a demonstration against the war in Ukraine, in Tel Aviv, earlier this month.Credit: Moti Milrod
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

Discourse over Israel’s policy about the war in Ukraine focuses on the tension between issues of the Holocaust, morality, justice and universal values, refugees and human compassion, and what has been defined as “security interests.” This means, as Israel’s history proves, it's a lost cause. Interests will always trump values. And so Israel has refrained from giving military assistance to Ukraine, as Western countries are doing, first and foremost the United States and NATO countries.

The prevailing explanation which the Israeli government under Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is fostering is that security interests dictate not to anger Russian President Vladimir Putin, because who knows what his wrath will lead to. This assumption has been accepted almost axiomatically by most of the public.

Government ministers are also in consensus over it, from Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) to Defense Minister Benny Gantz (Kahol Lavan) to Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev and (Labor), his party colleague Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli, and all the way to the Israeli left Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz and Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg, both from Meretz.

But even if we ignore the moral aspects and focus only on cold considerations and the security interests that the decision makers love so much, the fear of Putin’s strong arm is still exaggerated.

A woman holds a sign with a picture of Putin's head at a demonstration against the invasion of Ukraine, in Tel Aviv, this month.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

When in 2015, Russia sent its task force by air, sea and land to help the Syrian army of President Bashar Assad, Israel went into a panic. The security establishment sketched horrific scenarios by which Russia would prevent Israel from operating in Syrian airspace, and if Israel ignored the ban, the Russian army would go into action which would lead to a military confrontation between it and the Israel Defense Forces.

According to that scenario, the outcome would be that Iran would entrench itself more deeply in Syria, and especially along the border with the Golan Heights. In other words, Iran, ordering its proxies, the Shi’ite militias and Hezbollah, would array its forces near the border and Israel would have a double front on the north – Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iran in Syria.

But it quickly became clear that nothing changed. Israel has continued, today as well, to attack Iranian targets in Syria undisturbed. Direct channels of communication have been established between the Israel Air Force (IAF) situation room at the Kiriya military center in Tel Aviv and those of the Russian Air Force at its base near Latakiya, which coordinate deconflicting between the two armies in order to avoid the danger of Israeli and Russian dog-fights and of Russian anti-aircraft missiles launched against Israeli planes.

While in public statements Russia strongly claims that it opposes the IAF’s assaults in Syria, in reality it simply turns a blind eye to them, in effect encouraging their continuation. Putin is doing this not out of love of Israel but because of his own interests. He finds a common denominator with Israel – getting Iran out of Syria. And so, no less than Israel needs the Russian blind eye in Syria, Russia needs Israel.

A man walks past a wall with posters depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin in Warsaw, PolandCredit: Petr David Josek /AP

Moreover, while Russia has provided Assad with advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missiles, it has forbidden his commanders from using them. Russia also has its most state-of-the-art anti-aircraft missiles deployed in the Latakiya area – the S-400s. These are intended to protect Russian air action in Syria, but they have never been fired against IAF aircraft. All indications show that Putin has a vast interest in Israel striking Iran in Syria and therefore no interest to stop Israel’s involvement in Syria.

Fear of Putin has paralyzed the good judgement of Israel’s government, and it is unjustified. MK Yuli Edelstein, who has declared his intention to run for chairman of the opposition Likud party to replace Benjamin Netanyahu, surprised people last week when he supported supplying defensive military equipment to Ukraine and said that we shouldn’t be afraid of Putin. Fear is not policy.

Even if Israel supplies defensive gear to Ukraine, Putin would be in no hurry to order his army to act against Israel in Syria. First of all, his interest in removing Iran from Syria has not changed because of the fighting in Ukraine. Moreover, while his army is mired down in Ukraine, and its performance is poor, Putin would think twice whether to order another front opened in the Middle East.

We should also remember that the fact that Putin has so far refrained from ordering the cutting-edge S-400s into action stems from the concern of putting the Russian technology to the test, lest it turn out that the IAF has found a way to neutralize it; this would be a humiliating blow to his already deteriorating military reputation.

How does Israel not fear challenging its greatest ally, the United States, on the Iranian issue – Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Barak Obama era and now Bennett versus U.S. President Joe Biden – but fears butting heads with Putin? Isn’t toeing the line with the West IS in Israel’s security interest?

And so the Bennett-Lapid government must stand with the west in its struggle against the Russian evil. It must provide the courageous Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy with military equipment. Not with assault and offensive equipment, but at least with non-lethal weapons, such as bulletproof vests, helmets, medical equipment for the military, intelligence assistance and perhaps even sending Home Front Command experts to save Ukrainian civilians in damaged and destroyed buildings.

Putin will be very angry with Israel and will consider this ingratitude, but he will very carefully weigh whether to limit Israel’s freedom of action in Syria, which would work against his own interests. And interests is something he does understand. It could also be explained to him that giving limited military assistance to Ukraine is an Israeli interest, or at least that Israel has no choice because of its special relationship with the United States.

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