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Israel Needs to Make Up Its Mind on Ukraine

The Israeli government is feigning neutrality—but its long-term national interests mean it has no choice but to side with the West.

By , a nonresident senior fellow of the Middle East program at the Atlantic Council. From 1990 to 2016, he served seven consecutive Israeli premiers at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during their meeting, in Sochi, on Oct. 22, 2021.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during their meeting, in Sochi, on Oct. 22, 2021.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during their meeting, in Sochi, on Oct. 22, 2021. YEVGENY BIYATOV/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s comedian-turned-president, sure can tear up the dance floor. The fancy footwork he put on display in 2006—when he won the debut season of his country’s version of Dancing with the Stars—continues to serve Zelensky well today, as he marshals local and global resources to try and repel a Russian invasion of his country. Israel could desperately learn a few artful steps from the world’s newest poster child for inspiring leadership.

Cold War 2.0 has found the government of Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett torn between the tug of realpolitik and the imperatives of morality. But straddling the fence has become an increasingly untenable position for Israel, where this conflict’s inflammatory rhetoric—Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claims of “denazification” has met Ukrainian comparisons of Putin to Adolf Hitler—has resonated particularly loudly among Israelis, who are well aware that Zelensky is Jewish. Harsh realities have forced an evolution of thought among Bennett’s cabinet, which is inching too slowly toward the only decision that makes sense for Israel.

If Israel’s special relationship with the United States has been the solid rock of its security, Russia represents the “hard place” sandwiching Israel from the other side. In an era when the U.S. government is taking great pains to extract itself from the Middle East—U.S. President Joe Biden’s withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan last summer was the most salient data point in recent memory—Russia is very much present in Israel’s immediate backyard. Israel is not indifferent to this predicament.

Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s comedian-turned-president, sure can tear up the dance floor. The fancy footwork he put on display in 2006—when he won the debut season of his country’s version of Dancing with the Stars—continues to serve Zelensky well today, as he marshals local and global resources to try and repel a Russian invasion of his country. Israel could desperately learn a few artful steps from the world’s newest poster child for inspiring leadership.

Cold War 2.0 has found the government of Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett torn between the tug of realpolitik and the imperatives of morality. But straddling the fence has become an increasingly untenable position for Israel, where this conflict’s inflammatory rhetoric—Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claims of “denazification” has met Ukrainian comparisons of Putin to Adolf Hitler—has resonated particularly loudly among Israelis, who are well aware that Zelensky is Jewish. Harsh realities have forced an evolution of thought among Bennett’s cabinet, which is inching too slowly toward the only decision that makes sense for Israel.

If Israel’s special relationship with the United States has been the solid rock of its security, Russia represents the “hard place” sandwiching Israel from the other side. In an era when the U.S. government is taking great pains to extract itself from the Middle East—U.S. President Joe Biden’s withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan last summer was the most salient data point in recent memory—Russia is very much present in Israel’s immediate backyard. Israel is not indifferent to this predicament.

Israeli air operations to prevent the entrenchment of Iran and its proxies in Syria demand critical deconfliction with Russian pilots.

Putin is the primary benefactor of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose decaying country functions as a staging ground for Iran, Israel’s mortal enemy; Assad has tendered his support for Putin’s Ukraine campaign. Rolling Israeli Air Force operations to prevent the entrenchment of Iran and its terrorist proxies in Syria demand critical deconfliction with Russian pilots in that theater, lest Jerusalem come into open confrontation with Moscow.

The potential for such a clash escalated dangerously in January when Russian and Syrian fighter jets began flying joint patrols over the Golan Heights, which lies between Israel and Syria. A Russian electronic jamming system installed on the Hemeimeem Air Base in Latakia, Syria, further compromises Israel’s long-held air superiority in the neighborhood. Russia also plays an outsized role in the Vienna negotiations to revive the Iran nuclear deal, which is seen by many in Jerusalem as having ominous implications for Israel’s security.

Caught between its historic allegiance to the United States and its need for coordination with Russia, Israel has been struggling awkwardly to remain on the Ukraine war’s ever-shrinking sidelines and preserve its credibility with all parties. Bennett instructed his ministers to maintain a “low profile” and keep the chatter to a minimum. He has spoken multiple times with both Zelensky and Putin, even proposing to mediate a cease-fire between them. (Bennett was careful to first run the idea by the Biden administration.)

Israel has dispatched humanitarian aid to the region but refrained from rendering any military assistance, even, according to unconfirmed reports, scuttling a U.S. bid to transfer Iron Dome defensive missile batteries to Ukraine. Complicating Israel’s situation further is the presence of established Jewish communities—and more than a few Israeli citizens—in both Ukraine and Russia whose welfare and, in many cases, extraction Israel seeks to guarantee.

Russian bombs have fallen on Uman, Ukraine, where the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov has been a popular Jewish pilgrimage site, and in the vicinity of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center. Zelensky referenced both cities specifically in a Hebrew-language Facebook appeal to “all the Jews of the world,” whom he beseeched to raise their voices against the killing of Ukrainians because “Nazism was born in silence.”

These tenuous circumstances have prompted Israel to employ a haphazard playbook. On Feb. 23, Israel’s first official communique on the crisis upheld “the territorial integrity and the sovereignty of Ukraine” but conspicuously avoided any mention of Russia as the guilty party trampling on Ukrainian independence with its full-scale invasion.

An Israeli official, championing this questionable language, rationalized that “the United States and the world understand the complexity of our situation.” By the next day, Israel had pivoted to a good cop, bad cop footing. Bennett, speaking on Feb. 24 to graduates of the Israel Defense Forces’ officer academy, declined to rebuke Russia by name—instead “pray[ing] for peace and calm” and expressing solidarity for the embattled people of Ukraine—while Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid lashed out that same morning against the “Russian attack,” which he condemned explicitly as “a serious violation of the international order.”


The middle ground is collapsing. The United States, via its ambassador to the United Nations, conveyed its displeasure at Israel’s refusal to join 87 other countries in sponsoring last Friday’s Security Council resolution that denounced Russia’s incursion into Ukraine. Putin has put Israel on notice as well. “We’re concerned over Tel Aviv’s announced plans for expanding settlement activity in the occupied #GolanHeights, which contradicts the provisions of the 1949 Geneva Convention,” Russia’s U.N. mission tweeted on Feb. 23, taking a shot across Israel’s bow after the United States already recognized Israel’s rights to the Golan Heights in March 2019.

Israel’s ambassador in Moscow was also summoned and reprimanded by Russia’s deputy foreign minister, who took exception to Lapid’s words. Even Ukraine criticized Israel for not doing enough on its behalf. Nobody has been fooled by Israel’s attempt to talk out of both sides of its mouth.

Israel has never had a realistic option other than to join Team America.

Time has run out for the Bennett government to get with the program and stop equivocating. Although it cannot neglect the definite repercussions for its delicate ties with Russia, Israel has never had a realistic option other than to join Team America. Realpolitik cuts both ways: The strategic depth provided by U.S. diplomaticeconomic, and military backing is considerably more vital for Israel than anything Russia will ever propose to deliver.

The U.S.-Israel special relationship has withstood the challenges of domestic partisanship, proving far more dependable—owing also to the executive branch’s accountability to public opinion in U.S. politics—than Putin’s capricious efforts to accommodate Israel. Additionally, as a democratic nation and in light of the Jewish people’s particularly tragic experience with brutality, Israel is morally bound to speak out vigorously against unprovoked Russian aggression.

Jerusalem is starting to get the message. On Feb. 27, Lapid warned his fellow ministers against extending help to Russian Jewish oligarchs who either have been or may yet be the targets of international sanctions. Later in the week, on March 2, Israel voted in favor—and signed on as a co-sponsor—of a U.N. General Assembly resolution censuring Russia’s assault on Ukraine. Old habits die hard, however. Remarks made by both Bennett and Lapid just one day earlier feigned neutrality once again, as if Russia bears no responsibility for the atrocities being perpetrated in Ukraine.

At a time when Bennett is banking on the United States to stand by his side in confronting Iran, he should be laser-focused on Biden’s commitment of “unwavering support for Israel’s security and freedom of action.” Allowing bad blood to build up in the Oval Office threatens to undermine that pledge.

After then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulated Biden on his 2020 election victory in a backhanded fashion—not referring to the fact that Biden had actually defeated incumbent Donald Trump in the 2020 election—Biden waited almost a full month from his inauguration to return Netanyahu’s call. Bennett cannot afford to have the White House switchboard put him on hold.

Israel is not the only regional actor striving to hedge its bets. In fact, Washington should pay close attention to—and take measures to rectify—the erosion of Pax Americana in the Middle East, which poses great risk to U.S. interests. (Examples of this phenomenon include the abstention of the United Arab Emirates during last Friday’s vote at the U.N. Security Council, of which it is currently a member, and Saudi Arabia’s refusal to increase OPEC+ oil production quotas.)

Meanwhile, as the United States and a possibly expanding NATO unite in an effort to send Russia’s economy back to the Dark Ages, Israel needs to eliminate all lingering doubts that it might not be playing on the right team.

Shalom Lipner is a nonresident senior fellow of the Middle East program at the Atlantic Council. From 1990 to 2016, he served seven consecutive Israeli premiers at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. Twitter: @ShalomLipner

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