Defense Official on Ukraine Policy: Israeli Interests Needn't Be Identical to U.S.'

U.S. officials angry over Israel's lack of condemnation of Russia.

Tomer Appelbaum

Israeli policy is driven by its own security interests and does not need to be identical to that of the U.S., a senior defense official said Sunday in response to Haaretz's report that White House and State Department officials in Washington have built up a great deal of anger over Jerusalem's "neutrality" regarding Russia's invasion of the Crimean Peninsula.

Senior figures in the Obama administration have expressed great disappointment with the lack of support from Israel for the American position on the Ukraine crisis and with the fact that the Israeli government puts its relations with the United States and with Russia on the same plane.

The head of the Defense Ministry's political-security department, Maj. Gen. (Res.) Amos Gilad said in response to Haaretz's report that Israel's policy on the matter was driven by its own security interests, which should not be confused with that of the U.S.

"Israel is following the events… and we have here a plethora of security challenges," Gilad said in an interview with Army Radio on Sunday morning. "Israel is watching the conflict in Ukraine and recording the events, and focusing on the issue of national security which will influence not only our present, but our future as well."

"The U.S. is involved in its own way, but our [Israel's] security interests should not be defined as identical to that of any one else, even the U.S.," he added.

Following Israel's decision to abstain from the UN vote, the chairman of the Knesset's Israel-U.S. lobby appealed to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein to convene his Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee to discuss the matter at hand.

"Quietly, Israel abstained from a critical UN vote and as such caused great disappointment to all of our friends, primarily the U.S.," said Shai. "It would be interesting to see how Israel would have responded should the U.S. have abstained from a similar vote and how quickly Israel would have attacked it over disloyalty and lack of amity. It appears that what's legit for Israel is off-limits for the U.S."

"The prime minister or foreign minister should lay out for the committee their considerations, or perhaps their lack of considerations, in taking this surprising step, which appears to have stirred a great grudge in the U.S. has caused a cloud to darken over relations between the two states," Shai added.

One senior U.S. official noted that one of the reasons for the anger in the White House was Israel's absence from the UN General Assembly vote about two weeks ago on a resolution censuring the Russian invasion and expressing support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

“We have been consulting closely on Ukraine not only with our partners and allies around the world," a senior U.S. official told Haaretz. "Obviously we are looking to the entire international community to condemn Russia’s actions and to support Ukraine, so we were surprised to see that Israel did not join the large majority of countries that voted to support Ukraine’s territorial integrity at the United Nations.”

A senior Israeli official said that Israel's absence from the United Nations vote was viewed around the world as an extremely irregular measure, a departure from a long-standing Israeli policy of voting with the United States in the UN. While the Americans viewed Israel's behavior as ungrateful, in light of Washington's unshakable support for Jerusalem in the UN, in the Kremlin and in the Russian media Israel's action was seen as an expression of support for Moscow, or at the very least a lack of opposition to the invasion of Ukraine.

According to the Israeli official, in response to U.S. inquiries Israel attributed its absence at the vote to the strike by the Foreign Ministry's employees. The White House and the State Department found the explanation wanting, especially in light of the lack of advanced notice from Jerusalem.

"The strike was an elegant solution to a dilemma, but even without the strike there is a good chance Israel would not have voted with the United States on the issue," the Israeli official said.

Adding more fuel to the flames in Washington were public remarks by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman in which they maintained their "neutrality" and failed to back up the United States.

"We have good and trusting relations with the Americans and the Russians, and our experience has been very positive with both sides. So I don't understand the idea that Israel has to get mired in this," Lieberman told Israel's Channel 9 television when asked about the Ukraine crisis.

When White House and State Department officials read these comments, they nearly went crazy. They were particularly incensed by Lieberman's mentioning Israel's relations with the United States and with Russia in the same breath, giving them equal weight. The United States gives Israel $3 billion a year in military aid, in addition to its constant diplomatic support in the UN and other international forums. Russia, on the other hand, supplies arms to Israel's enemies and votes against it regularly in the UN.

Israel faces a serious diplomatic dilemma regarding the Ukrainian crisis, split between its alliance with Washington and its fear of the damage to its interests that Moscow could do. Despite Jerusalem's fence-sitting on the issue, avoiding public denunciations of Russian actions in the Crimean Peninsula, it has also avoided getting any closer to Moscow and further angering the United States.

A senior Israeli official pointed out that Netanyahu has canceled a scheduled visit to St. Petersburg in June, in part for a gala concert initiated by President Vladimir Putin to celebrate Israeli-Russian cultural ties. Putin himself invited Netanyahu to the event some months ago.

Putin and Netanyahu were to sit together in the first row for the concert, and the Prime Minister's Office had already confirmed Netanyahu's participation. A week ago, however, the Prime Minister's Office informed the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv that the visit was off in light of political circumstances and the Ukraine crisis.

"We told the Russian ambassador Netanyahu wouldn't be able to commit himself to this event due to the political climate, and will consider doing it in the future," said an Israeli official. "We told the Russians we hope they would understand, and they did."

A senior Israeli official said the PMO also decided that all cooperation with Russia must be approved in advance by Israeli leaders, in light of the sensitive situation. A high-level meeting with Russian officials over counter-terrorism, for example, has also been postponed until further notice.

Officials in Jerusalem attribute Israel's cautious behavior over the Ukrainian crisis to Netanyahu and Lieberman's desire to preserve what they see is a good and close relationship with Putin. In fact, fear is a significant motivation.

"Russia's ability to cause damage with regard to issues that are important to us, such as Iran and Syria, is very great," a senior Israeli official noted, stressing that Israel did not want to get into a confrontation with Russia over an issue that did not directly concern it.

Another Israeli official criticized the fact that Israel is sitting on the fence regarding Ukraine. "There is an assumption in Jerusalem that it is easier to ask the Americans to swallow the frog than to risk upsetting the Russians. Out of fear, we made our lives harder."