Israel has long sustained close diplomatic and commercial ties with Ukraine, and is also a strong ally of the US and EU countries. And yet, the Israeli government was reluctant to condemn the Russian aggression, has not joined the international sanctions on Russia and had refused pleas to supply weapons to the Ukrainian army.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has exposed the particularities of Israel’s position in the international scene. Perhaps most striking is Israel’s hesitance to overtly condemn Russia in the early days of the war. It has since joined the international condemnation, but it has gone to great length to also portray itself as a neutral party in many regards. Despite being one of the largest exporters of arms internationally, Israel has rebuffed President Volodymyr Zelensky’s pleas to send Ukraine military supplies and has confined its assistance to the war-torn country to humanitarian aid. Alongside China, India, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates, Israel is also one of only a handful of countries to have abstained from imposing economic sanctions on Russia, much to the United States’ dismay. Given what is often described as its “special relationship” with Washington, and its close connections with the European Union, Israel’s cautious approach towards Russia has surprised many external observers.
To understand Israel’s reaction it is necessary to turn to Syria. The decision by the Obama administration to avoid an intervention in the war in Israel’s neighbor allowed Russia to establish its dominance over there. With Russia affectively at its doorstep, Israel’s security is very much at the hands of President Vladimir Putin, and its leadership has put much effort into maintaining an amiable relationship with him. Russia also allows the Israeli military to carry out operations on Syrian territory, primarily against the Iran-backed Hezbollah, which threatens Israel’s northern borders. The war in Ukraine has put Jerusalem between the rock and a hard place: Israel’s dependence on Russia’s goodwill has meant that it has to abstain from taking actions that might enrage Putin, all the while maintaining its good relations with its major allies.
Israel’s refraining from imposing sanctions on Russia was informed by other factors too. These are not primarily economic. The trade between the two countries is negligible for their respective economies, and severing it would constitute a mostly symbolic gesture. Imposing economic sanctions would have allowed Israel to signify its alliance with the major players in the international community, without having to endure any costly repercussions. The fear of enraging Putin has no doubt given Israel’s leadership pause, yet this is not why Israeli businesses have not followed their international counterparts in severing ties to Russia. Israel itself has been the target of calls for sanctions, primarily by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign since 2005, in protest of its occupation of Palestinian territory. There is therefore a concern among the business community that taking part in similar measures against another country would embolden and perhaps even legitimize similar calls against Israel.
While these may be the most straightforward explanations for Israel’s hesitant reaction to the war, other factors have also contributed to it. Public opinion overwhelmingly supports Ukraine, but Israel has also absorbed more than a million Russian immigrants since the 1990s. Some of the country’s most prominent political figures come from this demographic, including, most notably, Avigdor Lieberman, on whose Yistrael Baitainu party the fragile governing coalition depends. Lieberman has a cozy relationship with Russia’s political leadership and draws his electoral power from a Russian-speaking constituency that is almost exclusively informed by Russian media and tends to be pro-Putin.
Faced with an almost impossible balancing act, Israel’s leadership sought to make the most of these uneasy circumstances, as the ability to sustain open channels of communication with the governments of Russia and Ukraine has allowed it to serve as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett travelled to Moscow in March and has acted as the go-between Putin and Zelensky since. Israel also offered to hold the peace talks in Jerusalem. Its mediation efforts are driven by a sincere desire to facilitate a peaceful end to the war, but they also enable Jerusalem to position itself as a trusted and impartial mediator and as a vital international actor, which may prove consequential in the post-war global order.
Another unexpected outcome of the war concerns migration to Israel. In the early days of the war, the government issued a call for all Ukrainians of Jewish descent to come to the country. It was expected that Israel would be a particularly attractive destination for eligible Ukrainians given that it offers a quick path for naturalization to all Jews and that they would enjoy the full scope of rights upon arrival rather than being treated as refugees. The government has gone to great lengths to ease the passage of Jews from Ukraine into Israel, including the setting up of dedicated facilities in western Ukraine and in neighboring countries as well as arranging free direct flights. There has been, however, very little demand. It seems that many were deterrent by the high cost of living and the security instability in Israel, and that some also preferred to stay close to Ukraine to ease their return home once the fighting subsides. Much to its surprise, Israel has seen a surge in migrants from Russia instead of Ukrainians since the outbreak of the war. Those who seek to escape from the repercussions of international sanctions and the economic downturn in Russia do not have many alternatives, or fear that they would not be welcomed in many countries given the prevailing anti-Russia sentiment, making Israel an attractive destination.
Finally, perhaps the most consequential aspect of the war for Israel in the long term is the one that had received the least attention. One can safely assume that any peace agreement between Russia and Ukraine would include a demand by Moscow to annex the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and any other territories it manages to occupy. Israel would watch closely how the international community reacts to Russian demands. While it might feel like a lifetime ago, it has been a mere two years since an Israeli annexation of West Bank territory seemed imminent, as then-prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was nearing securing an endorsement from the Trump administration for what has long been an aspiration for the nationalistic right in Israel. As neither Trump nor Netanyahu are still in power, all such plans have been suspended. The current government, which is composed of a coalition of parties from the entire political spectrum, including for the first time a Palestinian party, would not support such an annexation. Yet many influential actors in Israeli politics have yet to abandon such aspirations, including Prime Minister Bennett. Any indication that the international community would be willing to even consider a Russian annexation of Ukrainian territory would serve as a strong indication for Israel that an annexation of West Bank territory is similarly plausible, once the right political conditions present themselves.
Merav Amir is a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at Queen’s University Belfast and an Emma Goldman Fellow at the IWM (2022).