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With Russia, Israel Too Is a Little Like Ukraine

Avi Shilon
Avi Shilon
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Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during their meeting in Sochi, in 2021.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during their meeting in Sochi, in 2021.Credit: Yevgeny BIYATOV / Sputnik / AFP
Avi Shilon
Avi Shilon

One of the most apt remarks about Israel’s situation was made by Levi Eshkol during the 1960s, in Yiddish: “Shimshon der Nebedicher” (“Samson the nebbish”). He used it to characterize the tension in Israel between confidence in its enormous military might and its existential angst.

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The term could be used today to explain Israel’s international position in light of the criticism of its rather lukewarm attitude toward Ukraine, and in light of Naftali Bennett’s mediation attempts. On one hand, Israel is strong militarily, and the prime minister’s justified visit to Moscow surely gave him and the state a prominent position in the international arena; but the sad truth, to which few admit, is that “close security coordination with Russia” is a euphemism for the kind of extortion to which Israel has been subjected since the Russians decided to establish an outpost in Syria and in effect dictate to Israel the limits of its freedom to act against the Iranians there.

On the surface, Benjamin Netanyahu was on good terms with Vladimir Putin, or even was the one responsible for such a close relationship. Everyone remembers the then-prime minister’s trip to Moscow that was followed immediately by Israeli airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria. It would have seemed then, certainly from reading Netanyahu’s propaganda, that the Russian president was on our side and had given us carte blanche. What’s more, the Iranians did not really dare to respond.

But that’s only what’s on the surface. The real story – and in an interview with Yedioth Ahronoth about a year ago former deputy Mossad chief Nadav Eyal implied as much – is that Putin arrived in Syria against Israel’s will, allowed the Iranians to enter and, at the same time, cleverly authorized Israel to continue to attack them, albeit under restrictions that have left Jerusalem anxious lest Russia change its attitude to Israel. In any case, this situation gives an advantage to Iran, which is developing a military front on Israel’s border, and therefore it is convenient for them not to react. Thus, Russia keeps Israel and Syria, and to a large extent also the Iranian forces there, on a short leash.

The choice facing Israel’s leadership, therefore, is not between a moral position and realpolitik: Israel has no choice but to maneuver. And since the Russians are in Syria only because the Americans relinquished it in the days of Barack Obama (and also in the Donald Trump era), there is no reason to fear U.S. disappointment with the Israeli position. The Americans recognize that they bear some of the responsibility for Israel’s inability to support Ukraine full-throated and openly.

The Russians were generous enough, in their wisdom, to give credit to Netanyahu in his meetings with Putin and to allow Israel to present itself as attacking Syria nonstop of its own accord. They are now allowing Bennett to assume the standing of an international mediator. It’s not clear that an Israeli leader can ask for more, unless he is willing to acknowledge the harsh reality beneath the surface.

When Israeli activity against Russia is undertaken out of fear that Moscow will suddenly inform Israel that it no longer has the right to operate in Syria – even if Putin has special affection and admiration for Israel and the Jews, which gives us a little more leeway in the equation of forces – in this context we are, to some extent, in the role of Ukraine.

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