Is Israel An Ally Of Ukraine? Four Players & Counting: What’s In It For Israel?

Modern Military

Is Israel An Ally Of Ukraine? Four Players & Counting: What’s In It For Israel?

“Israel did not provide us with anything. Nothing. Zero.”

Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in Israel, Jan. 24, 2020. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

That was President Zelensky back in October. Since the onset of the Russo-Ukrainian war, Israel has carefully upheld neutrality and purposefully avoided open condemnation of Russia’s invasion. However, as there is increasing evidence of direct military intervention in the battlefield from Iran – Israel’s avowed neighboring nemesis – the dynamic is changing.

To date, Israel has still refused to sell air defense weapons to Ukraine, despite repeated requests from Kyiv. However, Jerusalem seems to start weighing between incentives and disincentives of further participation in the war more seriously than before. Especially after Netanyahu’s re-election, who promised to reconsider Israel’s position if elected, the world awaits Jerusalem’s decision – one that could greatly change the landscape of the war.

TIT FOR TAT: ISRAEL’S RESERVATION

Israel’s inaction makes it a rare singleton among Western countries. While it has given Ukraine humanitarian aid – equipment such as helmets, bulletproof vests for medical teams – and refused to recognize Russia’s orchestrated referendums, it has so far refrained from joining Western sanctions against Russia, and from providing advanced weaponry and defensive weapon systems to Ukraine.

Shortly after the “kamikaze” drone retaliation strikes following the Crimean Bridge explosion, Ukraine requested Israel again for air defense systems, designed to counter Iranian ballistic missiles and Iranian attack drones that are being used by Russia. Frustration and irritation from the U.S. and Europe is also mounting, reported by Foreign Policy

Yet Israel’s answer remains “no”.

Jerusalem’s reservation is to make a bid to maintain relations with Moscow. Beginning in the late 1990s, Israel developed strong diplomatic and economic ties with Russia and became one of its only allies among Western-aligned states. The nation’s interests are based on two main reasons. On the one hand, a clash with Russia risks harming Israel’s security interests, especially in its northern neighbor Syria, whose airspace has been tightly controlled by Russia ever since its civil war in 2015. Israel frequently launches air strikes into Syria targeting Iranian proxy fighters and Iranian weapons, in response to Iran’s persisting provocations such as transferring Lebanese militant groups Hezbollah.

The two countries closely cooperate – for example, Israel’s military would inform Russia ahead of impending airstrikes through a designated hotline. Preserving this – what is known in Israel as military “freedom of action” in Syria – has been a priority for Israel’s security establishment. “Its concern, among others, is that aggravating Moscow would lead to further Iranian entrenchment in Syria, and advanced weapons getting to Hezbollah,” as reported by BBC. 

“Russians are ‘sitting’ on our borders,” says Alex Fishman, an Israeli military analyst in an interview with BBC, “In the Golan mountains, in Syria and along the Mediterranean shores, the navies are close all the time. Israel [can’t] be in an open conflict with the Russians.” 

On the other hand, Russia still hosts a Jewish population. “The first priority for Israeli foreign policy is the Jewish community,” said Mr. Fishman. Israel has received an influx of more than a million Jews from the former Soviet Union since its collapse in 1989. Since the invasion of Ukraine in February, at least one in eight of Russia’s remaining Jewish population fled to Israelby August 20,500 of Russia’s estimated total of 165,000 Jews had emigrated to Israel.

STATIC GAME TURNS DYNAMIC

Now, however, the static game turns dynamic, as a new player – Iran – who has been proven to supply Russia with drones, enters the landscape.

The White House stated on October 20 that Iranian troops are “directly engaged on the ground” in Crimea supporting Russian drone attacks on Ukraine’s power stations and other key infrastructure, claiming it has troubling evidence of Tehran’s deepening role assisting Russia as it exacts suffering on Ukrainian civilians just as the cold weather sets in. According to National Security Council spokesman John Kirby, Iran has sent a “relatively small number” of personnel to Crimea to assist Russian troops to launch Iranian-made suicide drones against Ukraine to attack civilian target.

Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby speaks at a press briefing on the Afghanistan withdrawal at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Aug. 16, 2021. (DOD Photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Carlos M. Vazquez II)

Britain, France and Germany have called for a United Nations probe of Russia’s Iranian-origin drones used to attack Ukraine, which would allegedly violate U.N. Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2231 endorsing the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Iran has confirmed in early November sending drones to Russia for the first time, but insisted that the drones were shipped before the Ukrainian war. It has also condemned all calls for U.N. probe into use of its drones in Ukraine. Meanwhile, CCN reports that western officials claim Iran is preparing to send additional weapons including ballistic missiles to Russia. 

Iran’s entry is a game changer for Israel. The two countries have been hostile, particularly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when Iran severed all diplomatic and commercial ties with Israel, and its theocratic government no longer recognizes Israel as a state. Power struggle in the Middle East has since then spotlighted between Iran and Israel. Deterioration of bilateral relations further escalated following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the defeat of Iraq in the Gulf War in the early 1990s, and both countries have adopted more aggressive postures to each other. On the other hand, other factors that also have incited conflicts include Iran’s nuclear program relative to Israel’s long-stated Begin Doctrine, Iran’s funding of anti-zionist Islamist groups, as well as alleged involvement in terrorist attacks from both parties. 

Tensions between the two states since Russia invaded Ukraine in February continued to rise. In April, President Ebrahim Raisi declared in the speech that “Iran’s armed forces will target Israel’s heart if it makes ‘the slightest move.” Queries also include Iran’s accusations of Israel’s planned assassinations of two scientists at Iran’s Natanznuclear facility, and other important personnel. Iran’s developing nuclear program also continues to increase the risk of destabilization. Tehran now has enough highly enriched uranium to build an atomic bomb if it chooses — and continues to make more as negotiations over its tattered deal with world powers have collapsed

“The Iranian collaboration with Russia was a big shift for us,” Ukraine’s ambassador to Israel, Yevgen Korniychuk, said at his country’s embassy in Tel Aviv last week. “We’d hoped Israel would choose to be on the right side of the war as a democratic country. But in the end, it happened because we have the same enemy, which is Iran.”

A retired general Amos Yadlin, former head of Israeli Defence Intelligence, has also long urged Israel to actively support Ukraine: “Iran is our main enemy. And whenever Iran is sided with somebody, Israel should be on the other side.”

Defending against Iranian influence is in every interest of Israel. But are the incentives persuasive enough?

STATE OF PLAY

The letter from the Ukrainians requesting for Israeli weapons stressed that the Ukrainian request is based on the consideration that “positive experience gained by Iran of using … weapons in Ukraine will lead to further improvement of Iranian systems.” This will “significantly contribute in strengthening Iran’s potential of producing offensive weapons and, as a result, will increase the security threats for the State of Israel and the Middle East region,” the letter said. “The Ukrainian side expects a positive reaction from Israel to this proposal.”

Israeli weapons are evaluated, by people close to the matter, to be more sophisticated than the Iranian ones the Russians are using, such as “suicide” drones, so experts believe military aid would be a huge help for Ukraine. Israeli officials claim to have destroyed 90% of Iran’s military operations in Syria. The Jerusalem Post reported that, according to the officials, Israel has in recent years “succeeded in almost completely curbing Iran’s ability to transfer weapons to Syria,” while “Iranian drones that attack Ukraine were probably produced to attack Israel,” tweeted Anton Gerashchenko, adviser to the Minister of Internal Affairs of Ukraine. 

A Mohajer-6 UAV was seen during a defense exhibition in Tehran. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Further, according to U.S. and allied security officials, Iran is strengthening its commitment to supply arms for Russia’s assault on Ukraine, secretly agreeing to send not only attack drones but also what some officials described as “the first Iranian-made surface-to-surface missiles intended for use against Ukrainian cities and troop positions”. The increased flow of weapons from Tehran to Moscow – troubled by weaponry and supply shortage – could set back the Biden administration’s efforts. 

In an interview with Foreign Policy, a former director-general of Israel’s foreign ministry with more than 30 years of service, Alon Liel, brought forward another argument for more Israeli support to Ukraine – moral considerations.

“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 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.”

“Most of the public supports Ukraine, but the politicians are pressured by the security establishment, which made air superiority in Syria the dominant consideration.”

Israel effectively treats Russia like a neighboring power with whom it “walks on eggshells”, according to the Israeli military analyst Alex Fishman. The concern is well founded: Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Security Council of Russia and a key Putin ally, was reported to have threatened on Telegram.“It seems Israel will supply weapons to the Kyiv regime. A very reckless move. It will destroy all diplomatic relations between our countries”. Uzi Rubin, founder and first director of the Israel Missile Defense Organization in the Israel Ministry of Defense, said that Medvedev’s threats resonated in Israel. “Israel declared neutrality because we have relations with Russia. It’s something I don’t think we can easily give up,” he said.

Medvedev with Vladimir Putin on 27 March 2000, a day after Putin’s victory in the presidential election. Kremlin.ru

Contrary to what Mr. Liel stated about public support in Israel, a polling back in March from The Israel Democracy Institute found that only 22 percent of Israelis supported sending military assistance to Ukraine. And that voters are largely focused on the rising cost of living. 60% of respondents think that Israel’s decision not to fully partake in the West’s sanctions against Russia is the correct course of policy. 32% disagree.

“We are a country at war ourselves, I don’t think we can afford emptying our warehouses,” said Uzi Rubin: “[Israel is] one of the 10 largest exporters. But that means if you want an Israeli system, you have to contract for it and wait for it to be manufactured.”

Multiple Israeli media have also reported that Israeli weapons wouldn’t be as helpful. “This is true for missile defense systems, [but] it is not true for anti-drone systems.” says Barak Ravid, Tel Aviv correspondent at Axios.

We spoke to a former member of the Trump White House who told us that Israel is going to “stay out of Ukraine, no question they will risk angering Moscow.”

STATE OF PLAY

In an article from an open collective of economists and academics worldwide,  “Economists for Ukraine,” two economists, Anastassia Fedyk, from the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley, founder of the organization, and David McAdams, from the Fuqua School of Business at Duke, applied a game theory model – “war of attrition” – to analyze the war in Ukraine. 

Looking at the big picture, the “invasion” started in February seems to be turning into a long-term war. The outcome remains unpredictable. 

One observation that becomes more certain, though, is that oftentimes, modern warfare doesn’t end at the will of the winner. It is the loser to determine when to give in and when the war ends. In a “war of attrition” — a game theoretic model where two adversaries vie for a valuable asset, and “each incurs a cost while their struggle continues and must decide how long to keep struggling and when to give up,” the article defines. 

Beliefs are extremely important in a war of attrition, the article explains. When both sides have equal resources and equal determination to win, such war will continue for a very long time, inflicting massive losses for both. If one of the players, however, can persuade its opponent that it will dedicate more resources and will never give up, then the opponent would be incentivized to immediately fall back out of a fruitless struggle to avoid more losses. A war of attrition is often a psychological competition of will and resolution, projecting one’s own strength and endurance and betting on the opponent’s weakness.

In Ukraine, Putin has not been able to create an image of overwhelming military might. However, he is clearly scornful of the West’s solidarity, especially as the winter season looms – a time of strategic vulnerability for Europe, given its reliance on Russian energy, and its current economic turmoil. Putin may be wrong to underestimate NATO and allied forces, however, “his error ironically strengthens his hand in the current conflict, as it gives him the hope he needs to continue the fight,” as the article points out. Then, relating to the “war of attrition,” Putin’s confidence plays in Russia’s favor.

One way to break the current stalemate in Ukraine more quickly, then, is for the western alliance to show the kind of unexpected strength and resolve that makes Putin so diffident that he backs down. 

“Amid Russia-Iran cooperation, ‘now I hope Israel will help us,” says Zelensky. “We are fighting against [a] new big union, Russia and Iran, and now I hope that Israel will help us, and will strong[ly] react to this,” he said, adding that according to intelligence by Ukraine and other countries, Russia has acquired some 1,500 Iranian attack drones.
Israel now arrives at the crossroad again: whether to continue supplying humanitarian aid only, or start sending weapons to Kyiv. In the past and to date, the payoffs of helping Ukraine have not been persuasive enough for Israel to pay for the costs, particularly costs of risking ties with Russia. Yet the battlefield changes everyday, and Israel is also undergoing drastic changes: Benjamin Netanyahu has just won the Israeli election to be the new Prime Minister, who has promised before the election to re-evaluate helping Ukraine if elected, it is yet to see what will happen in the near future. 

Written by Luxi Sun

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Is Israel An Ally Of Ukraine? Four Players & Counting: What’s In It For Israel?