Tel Aviv needs Moscow more than Kiev, and the Netanyahu government could shift its policy towards the country under siege.
Ukraine’s war-time President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a Jewish politician, has seen Israel as a political model to follow, even describing his country as a “big Israel” and advocating close ties with Tel Aviv.
But Israel – which has received many Jewish migrants from Eastern Europe, including countries like Ukraine, since its establishment in 1949 – hesitated to support the Zelenskyy government’s resistance against Russia, complicating relations with Kiev.
Under the new hardliner Benjamin Netanyahu government, Israel’s Ukraine ties might come under even more strain as the Jewish state needs the Kremlin’s approval for military strikes on pro-Iran Shia groups in Syria, according to Alon Liel, the former director general of Israeli foreign ministry.
Israel needs Moscow, an ally of Tehran, for other critical reasons, ranging from ensuring Russian neutrality over Netanyahu’s hawkish anti-Iran policy to getting more Jewish immigration from Russia, Liel adds.
“In all these considerations, Russia has the upper hand” on Israel, while Ukraine does not carry much importance to the Jewish state’s critical interests, he says.
While the previous Yair Lapid government’s pro-Western ideological orientation was more aligned towards Ukraine, Netanyahu’s pure interests-based policies care more about Russian ties than Ukraine’s suffering, according to Liel.
What matters to Israel?
Zelenskyy’s Jewishness or his closeness to Israel is not “a factor” because the current “Israeli policy is very cynical,” Liel tells TRT World. Israeli policy is more about whether “a non-Jew like Putin can help us more or a Jew like Zelenskyy. They go with the non-Jew” if it works for Israel, he says.
“Russia [which controls Syrian airspace] is the only one that can limit our attacks in Syria. Russia is the only one that can supply fewer arms to Iran if we have good terms with Moscow. Russia can also put limits on the migration of Jews to Israel. So if I take all this package, I think Israeli policy will be less supportive of Ukraine from now on,” Liel says.
But Sophie Kobzantsev, a researcher at the Israeli think tank INSS, believes that not much change will happen regarding Israel’s Ukraine policy under the new government.
“Changes in governments, accompanied by all kinds of statements, are usually related to Israeli domestic politics. Relations with Russia have never been ideological but rather strategic. Hence, the various statements that were made after the elections, as of now, do not really indicate any policy change - both towards Russia and Ukraine,” says Kobzantsev, who is a research assistant to Zvi Magen, a former Israeli ambassador to Ukraine, and hence has a sound knowledge of Tel Aviv’s Kiev policy.
“There is a possibility that Israel will be asked to mediate the ceasefire negotiations in the future between the two sides,” she tells TRT World. Under the previous government, Israel tried to negotiate between the two sides, but after some time – unlike Türkiye – lost interest in mediating between the two Orthodox Christian Slavic nations.
Can Israel arm Ukraine?
Unlike Western states, Israel has refused to arm Ukraine during the Russian attack on the eastern European country, angering Kiev, which has occasionally lobbied against Tel Aviv’s participation in some international events concerning the Ukraine crisis.
But in October, before the latest Israeli election, Netanyahu suggested that he would consider sending arms to Ukraine if he was elected to power. “I think [Putin is] guided by his vision of reconstituting a great Russian realm, and I hope he’s having second thoughts about it,” he had said. It was seen as a surprising statement for a politician like Netanyahu, who has close ties with Vladimir Putin.
However, Liel does not buy Netanyahu’s statement. “He was on tour in the US to sell his new book. And Americans put a lot of questions to him whether he would assist Ukrainians more. So, as a result, he made that statement which Americans like,” Liel says.
Despite his statement, “it will not happen,” he says. Israel will not sell arms to Ukraine because the Jewish state worries about Russia’s limiting power on Tel Aviv’s ability to launch attacks in Syria and Moscow’s technology and military cooperation with Iran, according to the former top Israeli diplomat.
In the Syrian conflict, Russia has been the ally of the Assad regime, while Israel is a fierce enemy of Damascus and its partner, Iran. As a result, Israel has long feared that if pro-Iran groups in Syria and Hezbollah, another Shia group in neighbouring Lebanon, increase cooperation, it could create serious security problems for the Jewish state.
Last week, during the Israeli bombing of the Damascus airport, Israeli-Russia’s understanding was evident once again as Moscow did nothing to protect its ally from Tel Aviv’s strikes, which damaged the airport to a great extent. “Nobody is limiting us. This is very important to this government,” Liel says, referring to Israeli strikes on Syria.
Increasing Israeli generosity toward Ukraine in terms of economic aid under the previous Lapid government will also “stop” under the Netanyahu rule, Liel sees. During the Lapid government, “we assisted Ukraine more and even Russians were very annoyed,” says the former diplomat.
But Netanyahu’s Israel will continue to supply Ukraine in terms of humanitarian aid, he adds.