War in Ukraine: behind its neutrality, Israel's balancing act against Russia

In a speech to the Israeli parliament on Sunday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called on Israel to take a stand in the conflict between it and Russia. Since the start of the war, the Jewish state has displayed its neutrality.
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This position can be explained in particular by the major role that Russia plays in security in the Middle East.

“It is time for Israel to make its choice”, declared the Ukrainian president, Sunday March 20, during a speech by videoconference before the deputies of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. Playing on his own Jewish heritage, Volodymyr Zelensky insisted that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was a tragedy for “Jews and the whole world”.

Since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, at the end of February, Israel has displayed its neutrality, asserting privileged ties with the two countries. At the beginning of March, the Israeli Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, tried to launch a mediation between kyiv and Moscow, meeting the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and multiplying the telephone conversations with Volodymyr Zelensky. Which, for the latter, no longer seems to be enough.

“One may wonder why we cannot receive weapons from you and why Israel has not imposed serious sanctions against Russia?”, declared the Ukrainian president while, according to the Israeli media, Naftali Bennett repeatedly rejected kyiv’s requests for military assistance.

At odds with its Western allies, Israel was indeed called to order by the Biden administration, which asked the government of the Jewish state to join in the international sanctions imposed on Russia.

For Elizabeth Sheppard-Sellam, lecturer and director of the international and political relations program at the University of Tours, interviewed on the subject by France 24, this neutrality is explained by Israel’s interests in terms of security in a Middle Eastern region where Russia is emerging as a leading player.

France 24: How to explain the neutrality of Israel, which stays away from Western sanctions against Russia and refuses to deliver arms to Ukraine ?

Elizabeth Sheppard-Sellam : Israeli policy is conditioned by security above all. However, security in the Middle East today cannot be achieved without the Russians, who are particularly present in Syria. They are the ones who control the Syrian skies and with whom the Israelis must work for everything related to targeted attacks against positions of Iranian Shiite militias stationed in Syria, or to fight Hezbollah.

Moscow and Tel Aviv therefore have a very important relationship and the Israelis are well aware of Russia’s place in the region. They therefore do not want to alienate a power that can be an ally in protecting their interests against Iran.

Is this policy attributable to the new Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, or would it remain the same regardless of the government?

You can’t talk about politics in Israel without talking about security: it’s the priority regardless of the leader.

Benjamin Netanyahu was good friends with Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin for these same reasons: Israel’s position in the world depends on the great powers, and the Israelis are very pragmatic about it. This is not necessarily understood and heard by everyone, but it is the result of history and the reality in Israel in terms of foreign policy.

The new Israeli Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, is not yet well known to foreign leaders and has much more to prove than Benjamin Netanyahu before him. His election was stormy, and he is not supported by a good part of the population. He has to make a place for himself, and taking part in the conflict in Ukraine is an opportunity for that, knowing that Ukraine has the fifth largest Jewish population in the world. Israel therefore takes care today to maintain good relations with kyiv, but also with Moscow. And this allows Naftali Bennett to play this role of mediator, while trying to make a name for himself at the international level.

Moreover, it should not be forgotten that many Russian oligarchs benefit from Israeli nationality. Yaïr Lapid (Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs, editor’s note) has already asked his ministers to pay attention to the game they are playing with these oligarchs, their presence being able to affect the internal situation for economic reasons.

Is Israel therefore torn between its own national and regional interests, and the risk of putting itself at odds with its Western allies, in particular the United States?

Americans tend to forget that not everyone is in their boots. Whether it’s a president on the right or on the left, it’s very American to say to yourself: “we are your main ally, we provide you with money, weapons and support, so it is up to us to dictate your position” . However, the American presence seems to be weakening in the region, which allows Putin to do what he wants.

Russia has a huge presence in the Middle East, and since the United States withdrew (and by necessity France and the United Kingdom too) from Afghanistan and Syria, we are now faced with to a growing Russian presence in the region. Also, if the American position weakens more and more, the Israelis have every interest, in the Middle East, in playing the Russian card.

Why is Israel’s position so important for Ukraine?

We must remember the personal story of Volodymyr Zelensky who comes from a Ukrainian Jewish family. He is one of the three Jewish heads of state in the world (along with the Israeli and Latvian leaders). His grandfather’s brothers died in the Holocaust, and this aspect is not negligible compared to other states whose appeal to Israel was not so personal.

In addition, there are a quarter of a million Jews in Ukraine, the Jewish population is very large there, especially in the city of Uman, which is a place of pilgrimage for Jews and is linked to the history of Judaism. Moreover, the Holocaust left its mark and the State of Israel was founded to avoid this kind of extermination, even if in this case the current conflict is not directed against the Jews but against all Ukrainians. The neutrality of Israel, a country supposed to be a haven of peace for persecuted communities, is therefore a great disappointment for the Jewish president, Zelensky.

As for the future of Israel’s international policy regarding Russia and Ukraine, as long as there are talks on both sides, the Jewish state can continue to mediate. But once there is no more talk, Israel will be forced to make a choice, knowing that the Russians can threaten to close the skies over Syria and potentially endanger it. For the time being, Israel therefore continues to help on the spot and to welcome the refugees on its soil, by endeavoring to play the humanitarian game in the absence of a political and military game.

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