Veteran Israeli Diplomat: ‘We Are Only Part of the West When It Suits Us’

Alon Liel discusses the lack of arms for Ukraine and the long-term damage accommodating Moscow could do.

By , a former Arab affairs correspondent at the Jerusalem Post.
Alon Liel introduces his Syrian-American counterpart.
Alon Liel introduces his Syrian-American counterpart.
Alon Liel, former director-general of Israel’s foreign ministry, introduces his Syrian-American counterpart, Ibrahim Suleiman (unseen), at a press conference in Jerusalem on April 12, 2007. David Silverman/Getty Images

A day after Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz announced that Israel is refusing Ukraine’s request for Israeli weaponry to shield it from Russian air attacks, many experts in the United States and Europe are irate with Israel’s decision, which left it a rare outlier among Western countries.

Russian leaders had recently put pressure on Israel to avoid arming Ukraine, especially with air defense capabilities, and Israel’s defense establishment argues that it needs Russian cooperation to ensure a free hand in bombing Hezbollah-bound arms shipments from Syria. Israel also wants to ensure unhindered emigration and freedom from maltreatment for Russian Jews. 

But Alon Liel, the former director-general of Israel’s foreign ministry, criticized the decision in an interview with Foreign Policy, saying Israel is “betraying” its Western allies. Liel, a veteran of more than 30 years in Israel’s foreign service, teaches diplomacy and international relations at Reichman University in Herzliya, Israel.

A day after Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz announced that Israel is refusing Ukraine’s request for Israeli weaponry to shield it from Russian air attacks, many experts in the United States and Europe are irate with Israel’s decision, which left it a rare outlier among Western countries.

Russian leaders had recently put pressure on Israel to avoid arming Ukraine, especially with air defense capabilities, and Israel’s defense establishment argues that it needs Russian cooperation to ensure a free hand in bombing Hezbollah-bound arms shipments from Syria. Israel also wants to ensure unhindered emigration and freedom from maltreatment for Russian Jews. 

But Alon Liel, the former director-general of Israel’s foreign ministry, criticized the decision in an interview with Foreign Policy, saying Israel is “betraying” its Western allies. Liel, a veteran of more than 30 years in Israel’s foreign service, teaches diplomacy and international relations at Reichman University in Herzliya, Israel.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Foreign Policy: Why won’t Israel provide Ukraine with air defense systems?

Alon Liel: Almost from day one, the Israeli decision-making toward this war was very selfish. Israel only looked at its own angle. At the beginning, it was considerations regarding Syria. Then it was considerations regarding the Jewish community in Russia, and then considerations regarding the nuclear agreement with Iran.

When Yair Lapid took over as prime minister [in July] from Naftali Bennett, he took a more moral approach and made some changes, mostly by supplying helmets and minor defensive equipment, which angered the Russians. We will have to see what Lapid does if he wins the elections [on Nov. 1]. The issue is controversial in Israel. Most of the public supports Ukraine, but the politicians are pressured by the security establishment, which made air superiority in Syria the dominant consideration.

FP: Does the security establishment have too much say in this matter?

AL: Yes, we have lacked an overview specifying that we are part of the West and will stay part of the West and that we should be loyal to the Western camp and contribute to the Western effort. Generals see things from a very narrow military angle while the politicians should have a wider, more flexible view.

FP: Do you think moral considerations should be a factor in the decision-making given that we are talking about a country that was invaded?

AL: In Israel’s foreign policy, in which I have had decades of involvement, moral considerations were never on top and were always secondary, if they existed at all, to realpolitik considerations. This Ukraine-Russia case is no different—Israel is putting its interests first. When you inject the position of the security establishment, they want the aircraft bombarding in Syria to come back safely. But when you have a much wider perspective of where the world is going, this consideration is completely marginal. If it’s existential to attack in Syria, you can do it in other ways, not only through aircraft. So this is an Israeli mistake, and I hope it will not cost us in the future.

If the war ends up with the West having the upper hand, everyone will remember that Israel declined to be part of the effort. In fact, with this policy, we are betraying the West, but this is not the way our security establishment sees the problem.

At the microlevel, if your measurement is how many Jews leave Russia and how many attacks you can carry out in Syria, it’s been a successful policy in the short term. But if you look into the future, it’s a mistake morally and also in realpolitik terms if it is not corrected.

FP: What impact would it have if Israel did supply Ukraine with the weaponry?

AL: Even if it’s only defensive weapons, Israel can decide this war. Our weapons are by far more sophisticated than the Iranian ones the Russians are using. We are a military power, and everyone knows it. The Ukrainians know it, and the Russians know it. We can make the difference on the side of the Ukrainians. Israel knows it can determine this war. The war is at such a stage that massive Israeli provision and sales can determine the future of the war. 

Maybe our politicians think that determining the outcome of this war is too much to take upon their shoulders in terms of future relations with Russia, Russia’s ability to cooperate with Iran, and that Russia has a nuclear arsenal. This is part of the hesitation. But still, I think morally we have to do it.

FP: Is there any concern in Israel that other nations will draw a comparison between the Russian occupation in Ukraine and the Israeli occupation in the West Bank?

AL: My point of view is that the occupation [of the West Bank] is immoral and the Russian attack is immoral. I think our government is wrong on the occupation of the West Bank and on its attitude to the Russia-Ukraine war.

I think some of the politicians here believe the West will not like us anyway in 20 years when we annex the territories and lose our democracy, so maybe they think, ‘Why fight with the democracies when in any event Israel won’t be a democracy.’

FP: How important is it for Israel to align with the West?

AL: We owe everything we have to the United States—the historic political support, the historic military support, the alliance with the U.S., the economic support. The reason we can say we won the war with the Palestinians is because, to a great extent, the U.S. sided with us, especially during the Republican and Trump period of time. I think our refusal to requests from the U.S. to help Ukraine may have a cost. Israel is very self-confident that the U.S. will never, ever do anything against Israel even if we refuse. Looking at the future, I don’t know if this is correct.

FP: Is Israel undermining its ability to identify as a state that belongs to the Western family of nations?

AL: Israel always says it’s a democracy. The government always says we are the only democracy in the Middle East and we are part of the West. But in real terms, we are not a democracy with the occupation, and we are only part of the West when it suits us. In this case, it doesn’t suit us because we want to stay on good terms with Russia and don’t want to take any risk. 

I think it is immoral to say you are part of the West and to act as part of the West only when it suits you. It is immoral to leave the U.S. and Europe with the burden of this war and to stand aside and see how it will end in order to decide what we are doing.

Ben Lynfield is a former Arab affairs correspondent at the Jerusalem Post. He has written for the National, the Independent, and the Christian Science Monitor.

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