As I write, air raid sirens have just sounded their somber, eerie annual wail throughout Israel in memory of the six million Jews exterminated by the Nazis. That so much of the Holocaust took place in Ukraine made this year’s Remembrance Day particularly poignant.
Some have criticized Israel’s response to the war as deficient. A Washington Post editorial singled out Israel and a handful of other states, for ostensibly having equivocated. Ukrainian President Zelenskyy castigated Israel, in a speech to the Knesset, charging that "indifference kills." A scathing article by former Israeli Foreign Minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, long-known both for his wisdom and restraint, is so disturbing that it is worth quoting verbatim:
"How can this refuge for Holocaust survivors accept Putin’s vile use of the term ‘Nazi’ to describe Zelensky - whose own relatives fought Hitler’s forces and died at their hands?…Israel’s leaders need to pick a side. The choice should be easy. It is between Russia’s tactical acceptance of the Israeli Air Force’s freedom of operation in Syria and Israel’s strategic, long-term moral and political alliance with the U.S. and the West…
"Israelis tend to see all their wars as ‘existential’ and ethical considerations as luxuries they cannot afford. But there are times when morality and realpolitik align..."
On an emotional level, it is almost impossible not to agree with Ben-Ami. National leaders, however, as he knows far better than most, must make critical security decisions on the basis of cold, rational, considerations. It is also far from clear that Israel’s response truly has been deficient, or that morality and realpolitik are as aligned as he contends.
Israel is hardly the only country that has sought to balance a moral commitment to a free and democratic Ukraine, with their own strategic considerations. The U.S. has risen to the hour and responded massively, honoring the finest American traditions. It has, nevertheless, imposed clear limits on what it would do.
It announced from the beginning that it would not directly defend Ukraine, a non-NATO state, or deploy troops to its territory, and would do everything possible to avoid a direct conflict with Russia. The scale and sophistication of U.S. military assistance have grown as the conflict has evolved and the U.S. has grown more confident in its ability to support Ukraine without causing a clash with Russia.
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France took a low-key approach from the beginning, providing modest economic assistance and minimal military aid. President Macron stated that a direct conflict with Russia remained a "red line." Germany overcame its initial inhibitions and is now providing Ukraine with limited military aid, but Chancellor Scholz recently warned that sending heavy weaponry could trigger a broader conflict. Like his French counterpart, Scholz emphasized the importance of avoiding a direct confrontation with a "highly armed superpower."
The EU, as a whole, remains dependent on Russian oil and gas and has consequently balked at a further expansion of sanctions. As of late April, it was still paying Russia $1.1 billion every single day for energy.
Japan, which is dependent on Russia for 8 percent of its electric power, maintains that it cannot cut energy ties with it. As of early April, Tokyo had provided Ukraine with a very modest $28 million worth of food, medicines and protective gear. South Korea had only provided a paltry $800,000 in nonlethal military and humanitarian aid, as of late April, and rejected a request for an antiaircraft system, although it did subsequently pledge a further $30 million. Ireland and New Zealand have provided nonlethal aid.
Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid were probably a day or two behind the international community in condemning the Russian invasion, but no more than that. They have also adopted a coordinated approach, whereby Bennett has intentionally spoken in more cautious and balanced terms, designed to minimize the blow to Israel’s interests vis-à-vis Russia, whereas Lapid has been vocally critical, openly accusing Russia of war crimes.
On the diplomatic level, Israel has voted in favor of two General Assembly resolutions condemning Russia, but did not endorse one in the Security Council, while it did support the call for Russia’s removal from the UN Human Rights Council.
Israel has provided Ukraine with a fully staffed field hospital, the first country to do so, six large generators for a hospital in Lviv, ten ambulances and 100 tons of humanitarian aid, including food, clothing and water purification equipment. It has taken in 24,000 refugees, only one third of whom are Jewish.
Israel recently modified its previous refusal to supply military assistance of any kind and announced that it would provide protective gear, such as helmets and vests. It reportedly conducts intelligence cooperation with Ukraine and also participated in a U.S.-led international forum designed to provide it with ongoing military and other assistance.
Russia, at least, has no doubts about which side Israel is on, and has clearly and ominously expressed its displeasure. It has affirmed that the two countries are "still" friends, but that it expects more, and implicitly warned of its ability to curtail the Israel Air Force’s freedom of maneuver over Syrian skies.
Moscow further found this to be the appropriate timing for a condemnation of Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights, placed the onus for the recent violence in Jerusalem squarely on Israel, accused Israel of trying to distract international attention from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and assured the Palestinians of their diplomatic support. One does not have to speak Russian to get the message.
Israel has very good strategic reasons for trying to avoid a rift with Russia, quite similar in nature to those of the great powers above. Russia is Iran’s primary ally and a crucial player in the nuclear issue, especially as the prospects for a new deal dim. Russia and Iran are the two primary powerbrokers in Syria, where the latter is trying to establish a forward operating base against Israel and which it uses as a way station for delivering potentially game changing weapons to Hezbollah, Israel’s greatest threat today.
With Russian acquiescence, Israel has been relatively successful to date in containing these efforts, but it is fighting an uphill - and possibly even losing - battle.
Unless the U.S. takes advantage of the new situation to restore its primacy in the Middle East, Russia will remain the primary superpower in the region and the only partial counterbalance to Iran’s growing influence in Syria. Moscow has helped, albeit to a more limited extent than promised, to keep a lid on the situation and keep Iranian and Hezbollah forces away from Israel’s border.
That can change, for the worse, at any time of Russia’s choosing. Russian-made weapons have also had a nasty tendency to turn up in Hezbollah hands, Russian disavowals notwithstanding.
It is facile to dismiss Israel’s need for aerial freedom over Syria as petty tactics.
Hezbollah already has approximately 150,000 Iranian-supplied rockets trained on Israel from Lebanon, and Iran is trying to build a Hezbollah presence in Syria, in addition to air, ground and naval capabilities of its own. This is not petty tactics, but potentially the most devastating threat that the Israeli home front and military rear have ever faced.
Critics must also be prepared to deliver the devastating news to a pilot’s family, or explain the ramifications if an F-35 is shot down. They must be prepared to tend large numbers of wounded civilians and to bury the dead in case of a major Hezbollah missile attack on Israel.
Nearly 15 percent of Israel’s population were either born in the former Soviet Union, or are descendants thereof, and there are still some 800,000-900,000 Jews in Russia and Ukraine. The ability to maintain ongoing ties with the communities in both countries and especially the issue of Jewish emigration (aliyah) remain of critical importance for Israel.
For all of the above reasons, Israel is right to try to avoid a confrontation with Russia, especially at a time when it is down and particularly sensitive and aggressive.
In practice, Israel’s position on the issue is clear to anyone who wishes to look. It has not been a case of dramatic leadership, but has been on a par with the international response. The question is what more it could do, now that the international response has ramped up.
Some have suggested that Israel provide Ukraine with defensive weapons, including cyber capabilities, one of those ideas that sound good in theory, but do not hold up in practice. There are actually few differences between defensive and offensive weapons and those that ostensibly fall in one category, may have important uses in the other. The difference between offensive and defensive cyber weapons consists of a few lines of code. No more.
Ukraine’s professed (though now more muted) interest in the Iron Dome air-defense system, despite its limited utility for its purposes, probably reflects a desire to drag Israel into the morass, no less than military need. To the extent that Iron Dome could prove effective for Ukraine, it would be because it had downed Russian fighter aircraft or missiles. That is unlikely to be perceived as a benign defensive capability in Moscow.
In seeking an appropriate balance between Israel’s strategic and moral imperatives, its leaders must avoid the conceptual trap of thinking of the war in Ukraine in terms of the Holocaust. The war is a tragedy and horrific war crimes have been committed, but it is unfortunately one in a long chain of wars in human history, not a case of "Never again." The Holocaust was a unique event.
In a desperate effort to promote sympathy for their cause and to rope Israel and Jews around the world into unbridled support, President Zelenskyy and other Ukrainian officials may be forgiven for their unconscionable abuse of Holocaust remembrance. The fact that Zelenskyy is Jewish, however, and that members of his family perished at the hands of the Nazis, makes his distortion of historical accuracy even more egregious. Israel should support Ukraine in stoic defiance of these statements, not because of them.
In addition to ongoing humanitarian aid, such as food and clothing, and protective wear, there are at least three areas in which Israel excels and could make a major contribution. First, expanding Israel’s already significant medical aid, sending search and rescue teams from the Home Front Command to help find survivors in the rubble, and conducting an airlift to fly out refugees, Jewish or otherwise, whether to Israel or to preferred locations in Europe.
Israel’s national history, and the experience of the Jewish people, place a special moral burden on it, one which it must always weigh with the greatest gravity, but Israel cannot and should not seek to be at the forefront of every international issue.
For all of the enormous improvement that has taken place in its national security in recent decades, Israel remains an embattled nation, still fighting enemies who seek its extinction and who exploit every opportunity for confrontation, as the events of recent weeks have so clearly demonstrated once again. Sometimes the better part of valor is to quietly, but clearly, support efforts led by others.
Chuck Freilich, a former Israeli Deputy National Security Advisor, is the author of "Israeli National Security: a New Strategy for an Era of Change" and the forthcoming "Israel and the Cyber Threat: How the Startup Nation Became a Global Cyber Power." Twitter: @FreilichChuck