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Netanyahu’s Ukraine Policy: Sit on the Fence and Play for Time

In Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s world, foreign policy is transactional – so he would likely look for a quid pro quo from U.S. President Joe Biden in return for any possible tilt toward Kyiv

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting in Moscow in 2017.Credit: PAVEL GOLOVKIN /AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

On the very last page of Benjamin Netanyahu’s recently published autobiography, there’s an intriguing detail at the end of the lengthy index. It says “Zelenskyy, Volodymyr, 620.”

However, once you turn to page 620, you find jovial descriptions of meetings between Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin, but no mention of the Ukrainian president. Not on that page or on any other.

Even the best edited books sometimes have an incomplete index. But the mistake is usually that a subject or person mentioned doesn’t appear in the index. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone appear in the index but not then find the corresponding mention in the book.

The only possible explanation is that Zelenskyy did feature in an advanced draft of the manuscript that was used to compile the index, but then was hastily cut from the final version before it went to print.

Why Zelenskyy originally appeared and was then expunged from Netanyahu’s memoir is anyone’s guess. But there’s no doubt the newly reelected Israeli prime minister is uncomfortable with the Ukrainian president.

Over the years, Netanyahu has taken much pride in what he describes as a uniquely close relationship with Putin. And not just in his book. He has repeatedly touted their friendship, and the ways he claims it has helped Israel’s interests, in many of his speeches. In the second of Israel’s 2019 elections, Likud’s campaign used photographs of him with Putin (as well as others with Donald Trump and Narendra Modi) and the slogan “Netanyahu, a different league.”

Giant banners of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump, on Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv, July 2019. The words in Hebrew read, "Netanyahu, a different league."Credit: NIR ELIAS/REUTERS

In Netanyahu’s telling, Putin is a great friend and ally – of both Israel and his. But that was from the last time he was prime minister. A lot has changed in the world over the past 18 months. Putin sent his army into Ukraine on a disastrous invasion, making himself a global pariah and transforming Zelenskyy – a comedian who had seemingly become president by mistake after playing one on television – into an international superstar representing the brave Ukrainian people.

If there’s one thing Netanyahu understands well, it’s political PR. And while he was vocal about nearly every issue while serving as leader of the opposition, one issue he remained notably silent about was the Russia-Ukraine war.

In an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” a month ago, he was uncharacteristically humble on the matter. He said that when he got back into office, he planned “to have a detailed discussion with our experts who’ve been following this and to be updated on it.” On the question of military assistance to Ukraine, he didn’t rule it out. “That’s one of the issues I’m going to take up, and I’m not frivolous and fast – fast and furious, as you like to say – on this. I think it requires careful deliberation.”

Israel under previous prime ministers Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid took a cautious, neutral position, refusing Ukrainian entreaties to supply it with any form of weaponry, but sending humanitarian supplies. In a number of cases, Lapid – first as foreign minister and then prime minister – clearly condemned Russian war crimes in Ukraine. Netanyahu paid the duo the rare praise that their policy on Ukraine had been pragmatic.

Zelenskyy has spoken with Netanyahu a couple of times since his election victory in November. In the second call, last Friday, Netanyahu requested that Ukraine vote against the UN General Assembly resolution to refer the issue of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank to the International Court of Justice. Instead, Ukraine did not attend the vote.

Then along came Netanyahu’s new foreign minister, Eli Cohen. On Monday, in his first meeting with Israel’s diplomatic corps, he told them that unlike his predecessor Lapid, “On the issue of Russia and Ukraine, we will do one thing for sure – speak less in public.” He also said he intended to speak over the phone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, with whom Lapid had not spoken since last February’s invasion.

Israel's Foreign Minister Eli Cohen speaking after a handing over ceremony in Jerusalem on Monday.Credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS

Cohen’s remarks were taken by many as a shift in Israeli policy toward Russia. That included Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, who subsequently refused to talk over the phone with Cohen, and also by one of Israel’s staunchest allies in Washington, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham. In a rare act of criticism, the South Carolina senator tweeted: “The idea that Israel should speak less about Russia’s criminal invasion of Ukraine is a bit unnerving.”

So, has Israel’s policy on Ukraine changed under the new Netanyahu government? The only thing that can be said with any certainty is that if and when there will be a change in policy, it won’t come from Eli Cohen – a drab Likud flunky who is foreign minister in title only.

In the foreign policy hierarchy of the new government, he is at best number four, after Netanyahu, new Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and the new head of the National Security Council, Tzachi Hanegbi. Cohen’s job is to remain silent while Bibi and the other grown-ups take care of foreign policy.

And when it comes to Ukraine, Netanyahu is in no rush. He knows that everything has changed and he can no longer pal around with Putin. Not just because the Russian president is now untouchable, but also because the new alliance between Russia and Netanyahu’s main enemy, Iran, means that he can no longer claim in public – as he used to – that his relationship with Putin is helping Israel confront Iran.

But he’s not going to rush to take sides either.

Like most other Israeli leaders over the past 22 years, with the notable exception of Ariel Sharon, Netanyahu is still gripped by an irrational fear of Putin. And Russia’s abject failure on the battlefields of Ukraine hasn’t changed that.

The two leaders have had many dealings over the years, and Netanyahu is likely aware that Putin could disclose information that would cause him personal and political damage. But even if he were to overcome those fears, any change in Israel’s policy in Ukraine’s favor would be something Netanyahu would embark upon only if he feels it is advantageous for him.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy walking under a camouflage net as he visits the war-hit Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine last month.Credit: Ukrainian Presidential Press Office/AP

In Netanyahu’s world, foreign policy is transactional and he would use a tilt toward Ukraine in return for a quid pro quo from the world leader who is most anxious to see Israel become a more active member of the pro-Ukraine camp: U.S. President Joe Biden.

Netanyahu has a long relationship with Biden, even longer than the one he has with Putin, and knows he is currently not in his good books. The Biden administration – even if its representatives remain outwardly cordial – is extremely unhappy with Netanyahu’s new far-right coalition partners and is keeping a close eye on the government’s actions.

If Netanyahu chooses to make more favorable gestures toward the Ukrainians, it will come with a price tag to be paid in Washington.

He may use it to get Biden to forgive some egregious action by one of his ministers; to clamp down even harder on Iran; or just to finally land him an invitation to the White House that, frustratingly, has not yet arrived.

Until then, he is going to play for time and has therefore ordered his Likud lackey Cohen to say nothing on Ukraine. He’ll tell him if and when he can say anything.

For now, the Netanyahu government’s Ukraine policy is to have no policy.

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