Analysis |

Israel Won’t Be Able to Remain Neutral in the New Cold War Between U.S., Russia and China

Though a close strategic ally of the U.S., Israel hasn't always been in the American camp at times of global confrontation. This time around, remaining on the sidelines is going to be increasingly difficult, and that it also has to do with the Iranian nuclear deal

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping during a meeting in Beijing in February.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping during a meeting in Beijing in February.Credit: Alexei Druzhinin/AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The United States of America is at war, in all but name, with Russia. Officially, American troops are not engaged in kinetic warfare in Ukraine.

But the way American intelligence has been used to target Russian forces to a devastating effect and the rapid supplies of arms to Ukraine, along with training designed to exploit the invading army’s many vulnerabilities, is as close as it can get without actually firing a shot.

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Meanwhile, hostilities with China are at a much less advanced stage, for now, but the way tension ramped up rapidly around what was just a brief visit of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, is proof of just how bad relations between the world’s two superpowers have become.

This may not have been how Joe Biden expected to see his term develop, but without a doubt, this is the worst it has been in the more than three decades since the Cold War ended.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi welcomed upon her arrival at Sungshan Airport in Taipei, Taiwan, on Tuesday.Credit: Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs / Handout via AFP

America is now in open confrontation with Russia and China and it will be increasingly difficult for any of its allies to pretend that nothing has changed. This is especially true for Israel which has tried in recent years to ignore American demands that it clarify its own ties with the two dictatorships.

It should be clear that when America – a nation that Israel regards as its closest strategic ally – is in a global confrontation, Israel is firmly in its camp. But that hasn’t been the case so far.

Under Benjamin Netanyahu’s long rule, Israel rebuffed American pressure to join international condemnations of Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014. At the end of Barack Obama’s presidency Netanyahu even tried to get the Russians to veto a Security Council resolution condemning the West Bank settlements which the U.S. abstained on.

During the term of the Putin-admiring Donald Trump, there was less pressure on Israel regarding its stance on Russia, but that was replaced with demands that Israel curb sales of technology to the Chinese.

The government promised to form a committee that would examine trade deals with China, but it took many months for its members to be appointed and start working.

“Netanyahu was the main booster of tech sales to China and seemed to think that his close relationship with Trump would allow him to get away with anything, and for a long time we had no guidelines of any kind on deals with China,” says a senior executive in one of Israel’s largest venture capital funds, which had received many approaches from Chinese investors.

Campaign ads on Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv show former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin, in 2019.Credit: NIR ELIAS/ REUTERS

When the administrations in both Washington and Jerusalem changed last year, American diplomats lost no time in seeking out the ministers of the new Bennett-Lapid government and inquiring into their policy briefs on China.

“I was surprised twice. First, that the American embassy called me on my first day on the job to schedule a meeting on China,” says one minister. “And a second time when I discovered that there wasn’t already a policy in place on this issue.”

Things have changed somewhat over the current (now interim) Israeli government’s year in power. The guidelines on the kind of knowhow Israeli companies are allowed to sell to China are much clearer now (and in the wake of the pandemic, China has anyway massively scaled down its foreign acquisitions).

On Russia, there’s been less progress as the government remained largely neutral in the Ukraine war, with the exception of Yair Lapid’s rare condemnation of Russian war crimes back in April, when he was still foreign minister.

Remaining on the sidelines is going to become increasingly difficult for Israel if the tension between the U.S., Russia and China continues to rise. And pressure may come not only from the Americans.

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, in 2013.Credit: AP

Some Israeli officials and foreign affairs analysts are convinced that even if the Russian decision to shut down the Jewish Agency in its territory was based on a legal dispute over how the Agency operates in Russia, the Kremlin allowed the issue to escalate in order to warn Israel against taking sides more overtly with Ukraine.

The Iran card

Israel’s excuses that it can’t jeopardize the safety of Jews in Russia and that it has to be careful due to the presence of the Russian air force across the border in Syria are wearing thin – especially when it seems that Russia is using the Jews as pawns anyway.

As signatories of the Iranian nuclear agreement, Russia and China both have another lever of pressure over Israel. As the prospects of the U.S. returning to the 2015 nuclear deal dwindle, there is the option of announcing that Iran has broken the deal and therefore the main Security Council sanctions should resume (under the “snapback” clause).

Russia and China can be expected to exert all their influence to prevent such an outcome. It’s enough for just one of the countries that signed the agreement to announce that Iran is in breach. The U.S. has withdrawn from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and the likeliest signatory to do so now would probably be the U.K.

But while Russia and China can’t veto the snapback, they can do a lot to undermine the Security Council sanctions, if either of them choose to do so.

For the Americans and the British, who have already made their positions clear, this would be just one more source of tension. For Israel, it would force the realization, that should have been clear already, that in the new Cold War, it cannot allow itself to be neutral.

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