Russia’s apparent intent to bar the Jewish Agency from operating in the country once again shows how doomed to failure Israel’s attempt to walk a fine line on the war in Ukraine really was. As the Russian invasion has become increasingly bogged down, and a war expected to last a week or two has dragged on for months, the Kremlin’s frustration with any international criticism, and with Israel’s stance in particular, has grown.
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Former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s attempt to appoint himself a mediator between the warring sides and thereby evade demands to take a clear stand on the crisis didn’t work. Subsequently, even a weak Israeli condemnation of Russia’s blatant war crimes was enough to spark Moscow’s fury. The Russians weren’t impressed by the fact that Israel, unlike the United States and Europe, has been very careful not to give Ukraine any practical help in its effort to repulse the invaders.
After the Russian Justice Ministry’s bombshell announcement about the Jewish Agency last week, Moscow sent ambiguous messages on Tuesday. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the problem is a legal one and shouldn’t be “projected” onto the bilateral relationship. But a lower-ranking Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, while confirming that the issue is a legal one, said in the same breath that Israel’s attitude toward Russia in recent months was “unconstructive.”
In practice, Russia apparently decided to retaliate against Israel on an issue where Israeli activity (the Jewish Agency’s presence in Russia) bothered it anyway. The emotional reactions from Jerusalem and its request to send envoys to pacify the Russians and perhaps persuade them to backtrack don’t demonstrate an accurate reading of reality.
The chances that the Kremlin won’t exact a price from Israel over its cautious refusal to support Russia’s moves don’t seem high. Perhaps it would have been better not to make the effort and instead use the opportunity to take an appropriate moral stance, however belatedly, on the war in Ukraine.
Israel’s main argument for not taking an explicit stance against Russia was the so-called “war between the wars,” a campaign in which the army has launched hundreds of attacks throughout the Middle East over the last decade. A key theater for these attacks has been Syria. And ever since two Russian air force squadrons deployed in Syria’s northwest in fall 2015 (thereby gradually tipping the balance in Syria’s civil war in favor of the Assad regime), Israel has been careful not to step on Putin’s toes in Syria.
Initially, Israel would warn the Russians in Syria shortly before each airstrike so they could protect their personnel and bases. In fall 2018, after a Syrian anti-aircraft battery accidentally downed a Russian spy plane, killing 15 soldiers, when it opened fire in response to an Israeli strike, Putin upped the pressure. Israel resumed its airstrikes a few weeks later, but began sending its warnings a bit earlier and was doubly cautious about affecting Russia’s interests.
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Yet Moscow’s decision to blame Israel alone for that incident (even though Syrians fired the missiles) showed that it isn’t motivated by any special sympathy for Israel or its leader. That was underscored a few months later, when Russia failed to uphold its commitment to keep pro-Iranian forces away from Israel’s border with Syria in the Golan Heights for even a day.
None of that stopped then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from boasting about his close personal relationship with Putin (Netanyahu is “in a different league,” his campaign slogan claimed). The absurdity reached its height this week, when Netanyahu supporters accused Prime Minister Yair Lapid of ruining relations with our great Russian ally.
Israel only has one great ally, America. U.S. President Joe Biden, who visited here this month, is evidently no longer at his peak, but there’s no comparison between his sincere sympathy for Israel and Putin’s utterly cynical approach (to Israel, and to everything else).
It’s America, not Russia, that gives Israel $3.8 billion in military aid every year. And it was Putin, not Biden, who visited Tehran last week for a trilateral summit with the leaders of Iran and Turkey. For the same reason, there was never any basis for the ridiculous predictions – by Netanyahu, then by Bennett and sometimes also by senior army officers – that Russia would get the Iranians out of Syria because it prefers to have an exclusive relationship with Damascus.
Just as Israel shouldn’t have pretended to mediate between Russia and Ukraine, it has no reason to outflank Western countries from the right by spearheading the global military aid effort to Kyiv. But taking a clear stance that condemns Russian aggression in Ukraine would be the right move, not just morally, but also practically speaking.
This would entail some risk, but it’s unlikely that Russia wants to open a new front by clashing directly with the Israel Air Force in Syria’s skies. Israel has more important considerations than preserving the Jewish Agency’s freedom to operate in Russia, or even than the sacred continuance of the “war between the wars” for all eternity. With regard to Ukraine, it would be wiser not to remain on the wrong side of history.