Editor’s Note: Anshel Pfeffer (@anshelpfeffer) is a writer for Ha’aretz and the Israel correspondent of The Economist. He is the author of “Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu.” The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
Long before the current war in Ukraine began nearly a year ago, Israel has maintained strict neutrality in the hostilities between Russia and Ukraine. That may be about to change.
Since he came to power at the end of 1999, Russian President Vladimir Putin has gone out of his way to court the Israeli leadership. He made sure to hold a meeting at least once a year with the serving Israeli prime minister, usually at his residences in Sochi or Moscow, and every few years he would travel to Jerusalem.
A former Russian diplomat explained to me that “Putin respects strength and sees Israel as a strong country with which he wants to be on good terms.”
The same is true of Israel’s leaders, especially of Benjamin Netanyahu, the country’s longest-serving prime minister who returned to office at the end of 2022.
Netanyahu was so proud of what he claimed was a close relationship with Putin that in 2019 he used photographs of them together as part of his election campaign. He has claimed on multiple occasions that their relationship was advantageous to Israel’s strategic interests.
One instance of this was when Russia first deployed its military to war-torn Syria in September 2015 to prop up President Bashar Assad’s blood-soaked regime. Within days, Netanyahu was in Moscow at the head of a military delegation for an unscheduled meeting with Putin.
The two leaders reached an agreement whereby Israel would continue to operate in Syrian airspace but would only attack targets linked to its enemy Iran, while leaving Assad’s forces untouched. A “deconfliction mechanism,” including a hotline between the Russian command center in Syria and Israel’s air force headquarters, was swiftly established.
Over the years, senior Israeli officials have been at pains to emphasize that while Israel’s chief strategic ally remains the United States, it was crucial to maintain coordination with the Russians.
In 2014, despite pressure from Washington, Israel refused to join the western governments in condemning Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Strict neutrality was to be maintained throughout.
When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 last year, Netanyahu was not in office. The prime minister was Naftali Bennett and he stuck to the neutrality policy.
Bennett explained to me that “we are not in the same position as other countries. We have Russia just over our border in Syria. We have to take into consideration the presence of large Jewish communities in both Russia and Ukraine which could be impacted. And besides, it’s useful for everyone to have a government like Israel which has good ties with both sides to serve as a go-between.”
In the early weeks of the war, Bennett embarked on a peace mission in which he both visited Putin in the Kremlin and had multiple conversations with Ukrainian President Vlodymyr Zelensky. He insists that “there was a 50% chance of reaching a ceasefire, sadly it failed.” He also claims that his involvement helped broker short-term local truces, which allowed saving civilians from the war zone.
Any hope of a ceasefire has long vanished, and Ukraine has since publicly requested Israel help supply it with arms, especially with missile defense systems like the Iron Dome. Israel has sent humanitarian aid but has refused to send any weapons.
In recent months, as Russia began using Iranian drones to attack Ukrainian targets, Israel has agreed to supply Kyiv, through NATO, with intelligence and technical information on how to counter the Iranian drone threat.
Not everyone in the Israeli leadership agreed with Bennett’s neutral policy. His political partner and then-foreign minister Yair Lapid was more forthright in publicly condemning Russian war crimes in Ukraine.
Opinions were divided in the country’s security establishment as well. One Israeli general told me that “the fear of Russia is overblown and Israel could have been much more supportive of Ukraine without any fear of retribution.”
Ten months after the Russian invasion, Netanyahu returned to office. Suddenly he was a lot less friendly toward Putin. He took one congratulatory phone call from him a week before his inauguration, but that was all. Meanwhile, in media interviews, he has said that he is reconsidering Israel’s policy on the Ukraine war, though he wouldn’t specify any details.
“Netanyahu has two immediate reasons for changing policy and supporting Ukraine,” a former Israeli intelligence officer who was deeply involved in Israel’s military relationship with Russia, told me.
“First, Russia has greatly diluted its forces in Syria as they were needed in Ukraine. The threat to Israel from them is now negligible,” the officer said.
“Second, Russia is now using Iranian drones and missiles on the battlefield and Israel now has a valuable opportunity to supply Ukraine with defense systems so we can see how well they do in an actual war. One day we may have to face the same Iranian weapons,” the officer added.
An Israeli diplomat adds another reason why Netanyahu would consider supporting Ukraine more forcefully. Unlike the Bennett-Lapid government, his new coalition of far-right and ultra-religious parties is regarded with suspicion by the Biden administration that has already voiced its displeasure with the new government’s plans for a legal overhaul, which drastically weaken the powers and independence of Israel’s supreme court.
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