Ukraine War: 'Other Democracies Paid a Price. They'll Ask Why Israel Isn't Joining'

U.S. and Israeli experts say patience in D.C. is wearing thin with Jerusalem's position on Russia sanctions, after Israel tempered expectations that it will keep oligarchs close to Putin from finding safe harbor

Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels
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Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) welcomes Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during their meeting, in Sochi in October.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) welcomes Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during their meeting, in Sochi in October. Credit: Yevgeny BIYATOV / Sputnik / AFP
Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels

WASHINGTON – U.S. skepticism regarding Israel’s positioning on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reached new heights this week amid fears that sanctioned oligarchs allied with Russian President Vladimir Putin would seek safe harbor in Israel.

A U.S. official first indicated it expected Israel to join international sanctions in a briefing for reporters several weeks ago. Last week, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland publicly warned Israel against becoming the last haven for dirty money that's fueling Putin's wars.

Democracy or Putin: 'Israel must choose a side in Ukraine'

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid clarified that Israel would not become a route to bypass sanctions, but Israeli officials have tempered expectations due to the lack of legal structure allowing for sanctions on assets and citizens of a state not legally defined as an enemy country. Israel also cannot bar Israeli citizens subject to sanctions from entering the country if there is no outstanding arrest warrant against them.

While Israel’s rhetorical dance between the raindrops on Russia and Ukraine engendered a relative amount of empathy, its position on sanctions has provoked a new sense of global indignation. “Unlike rhetorical statements, sanctions actually cost countries something to implement. It’s a better measure of commitment,” says Kori Schake, the director of Foreign and Defense Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.

“When all the other democracies make these steps —Germany tripling its defense budget in a single year, the EU committing to reduce by 80 percent its reliance on Russian oil — those are enormous consequences that other free societies are undertaking. They will question why Israel isn't,” she adds.

Protesters against the Russian invasion, in Tel Aviv, Sunday.Credit: Hadas Parush

Shalom Lipner, a former policy adviser to several Israeli prime ministers and today a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, stressed that “Bennett doesn’t really have any other viable choice than siding with the West. There is the factor of a looming threat from Syria which cannot be easily dismissed, but it would be a mistake to employ a contrived dichotomy where the moral argument is on the side of Ukraine but realpolitik calls for threading a needle with Russia.

“Realpolitik also requires that Israel give consideration to its alliance with the United States which remains a fundamental component of its national security,” he adds.

Schake notes that Israel’s concerns regarding Russia’s role in Syria is a “totally justifiable concern and national security interest, and it’s up to Israel after what Russia has done whether they’re a trustworthy partner.”

Furthermore, while the international community has offered what can be considered a yellow light to Bennett’s mediation efforts between Ukraine and Russia, any Israeli attempts to avoid imposing sanctions in order to preserve ongoing mediation efforts will only further alienate its allies.

“Israel might want to make the argument that as a neutral mediator between Russia and Ukraine, they should do nothing on the sanctions in order to retain their neutrality. That's likely to be seen as a very facile and self-serving argument. Because neutrality between an invaded country and the invading country is a difficult stance to pull off,” Schake says.

Much of Israel’s positioning on sanctions in the immediate term, and Russia-Ukraine matters in the more macro sense, largely hinges on the West’s patience for Bennett’s investment in mediation efforts.

Sandbags piled up as an obstacle in Mykolaiv, Ukraine.

“If the U.S. determines that Putin is just playing with Bennett and that these talks are a dead end then Bennett's license will run out. At that point, we’re certain to witness stronger expressions of displeasure with Israel’s maneuvering,” Lipner says, warning that the U.S. won’t be attentive to any logistical considerations on sanctions.

“Israel will have little wiggle room left. There’s a broader calculus that will extend beyond the minutiae of how Israel would enact sanctions,” he adds.

“It would be terrific to see Israel find a way to stand squarely in the camp of the countries upholding the international norm that borders should only change by consent and not by force. And there will be increasing pressure on Israel to do so,” Schake says.

While U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides recently said the Biden administration has no complaints with Bennett’s self-positioning as a go-between for Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Israeli prime minister is operating on borrowed time.

“People want to believe that Bennett might be able to help deliver some resolution, but as time passes and that becomes less likely, there will be louder calls for Israel to close ranks with the West unequivocally,” Lipner says. “It’s not entirely inconceivable that Israel would hope to continue squaring that circle, but that position is becoming increasingly untenable.”

When asked if Lapid’s comments on sanctions met U.S. expectations, a State Department spokesperson said: “We are asking the government of Israel to do everything it can to support Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. Countries around the world are taking unprecedented and effective actions to punish Putin and his financiers, and the sanctions and other economic measures will increase if Putin does not change course now.

“We are asking, among other things, for every democracy around the world to join us in the sanctions and export control measures that we have put on Russia and Belarus, and to ensure no country will allow circumvention of these measures,” the spokesperson continued.

“We will continue our constant high-level coordination with allies and partners. Our economic measures are strong because we are united with all of the allies and partners who joined us in degrading Putin’s ability to seek vital technology and critical trade,” the spokesperson added.

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