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A geopolitical balancing act

A new government has been sworn in in Israel under the re-elected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. How will the new Israeli government position itself with regard to the Russian war in Ukraine?

February 1, 2023 - Svenja Petersen - Articles and Commentary

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a speach in Jerusalem on September 9, 2019. Photo: Gil Cohen Magen / Shutterstock

Shortly before the deadline for forming a government expired, the time had come for former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who failed to form a government in 2021, to announce the creation of a new Israeli cabinet. Together with the Religious Zionist alliance Tkuma and two religious parties, Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party will form a coalition. But what stance will the new Israeli government take with regard to Russia’s war in Ukraine?

So far, Israel is one of the few western states that has not imposed sanctions on Russia or undertaken any arms deliveries to Ukraine. There are several realpolitik reasons for this. The most important of these is that Russia, as an ally of the Assad regime, has air sovereignty in Israel’s neighbouring country of Syria, forcing Israel to coordinate with Russia on air strikes against the Iranian-backed militia “Hezbollah”. Against the backdrop of Iran threatening Israel with the annihilation of the Jewish state on more than one occasion, Israel finds itself threatened by the Hezbollah militia. Thus, the ability to take action against Hezbollah in Syria, if needed, is of existential importance to Israel. In the past, Russia has turned a blind eye to Israeli interventions in Syrian airspace. However, should Israel militarily support Ukraine in its fight against the Russian army, Russia could use its advanced S-400 air defence system, which it has deployed in Syria, to close Syrian airspace to the Israeli army. Most recently, in October 2022, former Russian President and current Deputy Chairman of the Russian Federation Security Council Dmitry Medvedev openly threatened Israel with a break in intergovernmental relations. This would certainly include military retaliation on the part of Russia.

Until now, the Israeli government has yielded to this pressure. Although Israel sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine, it took ex-Prime Minister Naftali Bennett quite a while to comment on the war in Ukraine. Afterwards, he even suggested that he and his country could act as mediators between Russia and Ukraine. He then became the only western prime minister to travel to Moscow to meet Vladimir Putin. Prime Minister Yair Lapid, on the other hand, subsequently took a much clearer stance in support of Ukraine, but also decided against sending military aid to the country.

Now, the newly elected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also likely to take a stand on the war. Indeed, conservative and right-wing parties frequently advertised during the election campaign that Netanyahu – in supposed contrast to Lapid – would be able to reduce tensions with Moscow. In the past, Netanyahu had referred to Putin as a “friend” on several occasions. Under Netanyahu, Israeli-Russian relations improved noticeably. Netanyahu was invited to Moscow by the Kremlin on several occasions. Even in his 2019 election campaign, election posters could be found in Israel featuring Netanyahu together with Putin under the slogan “Netanyahu – in a different league”.

Also, after the recent announcement of a new Israeli government coalition, Vladimir Putin was among the first to call Netanyahu personally and congratulate him on his election victory and a successful government formation. Nevertheless, it remains unclear at the moment what Netanyahu’s stance on the war in Ukraine will be. On several occasions, Netanyahu had expressed his sympathy for Ukraine. In October, he made a surprising plea to Putin to end the war in Ukraine.

Presumably, the military cooperation between Russia and Iran, which has recently become apparent, also led the new prime minister to take a clearer rhetorical stance. In the autumn, it became known that the Iranian regime was supplying Russia en masse with Shahed-136 drones for its war in Ukraine. The Russian rapprochement with Israel’s arch-enemy Iran will have caused heightened alarm in Israeli government circles and even more so for Netanyahu, who has never held back on containing Iranian influence in the Middle East.

The high Russian casualties and immense wear and tear on Russian weapons in Ukraine most recently led Moscow to withdraw troops and weapons from Syria for use in Ukraine. These may be the first indications of a shrinking Russian role in Syria. Although such a development would lessen Israel’s dependence on Russia’s military acquiescence regarding air strikes in Syria, this scenario also causes the Israeli government concern for the future. If Russia withdraws from Syria, this could leave a vacuum that Iran will try to fill – right on Israel’s border. With such a scenario in mind, it stands to reason that Israel will diplomatically seek to soothe its strained relations with Moscow.

At the same time, however, the pleas from Kyiv are getting louder that Israel should support Ukraine militarily. On several occasions, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy turned directly to Israel and asked for the delivery of weapons. The Ukrainian request for the delivery of Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system was particularly explosive. Apart from the fact that the success of such a missile defence system is controversial in the context of the war in Ukraine, since it involves a different kind of warfare and different weapons than those fired at Israel, Israel can hardly comply with these requests for security reasons. The technology of the Iron Dome is top secret. Through Russian military espionage in Ukraine or with the help of Israeli missile defence systems captured in combat, the Russian military could obtain Iron Dome technology. In this case, it would be easy for Russia to replicate the technology or resell it to its allies, such as Iran. Such a scenario would also pose the risk that Russia could identify gaps in the technology and use it in retaliation against Israel.

Moreover, another challenge awaits the new Israeli government in its relations with Russia. Most recently, the Russian justice ministry asked a court in Moscow to classify the “Jewish Agency for Israel”, which handles Aliyah, Jewish immigration to Israel, as a “foreign agent”. This could severely restrict the agency’s activities or even stop them altogether. Estimates put the number of Jews living in Russia at about 135,000. Some even assume that almost one million people would be eligible to apply for Aliyah. Countering such a decision by the Russian authorities will be another challenge for the Israeli government, which will likely require a great deal of tact in its future relations with Russia.

Israel is caught between Russia and Ukraine, the West and Iran. Israel’s security interests make it difficult for the country to take sides militarily in the context of the war in Ukraine. In the long run, however, the new Israeli government knows which alliance its partners are in and which alliance its enemies are in. The extent to which the newly elected government will be able to translate its stance into political action will become clear very soon.

Svenja Petersen studied political science, European affairs and political economy at Sciences Po Paris, the Free University of Berlin and the London School of Economics. In June 2021, she graduated from the College of Europe in Natolin, where she specialised in the EU’s Eastern Partnership and EU-Russia relations.

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