Netanyahu justifies Israel's ambiguity in Ukraine: "We don't want a military confrontation with Russia"

Israeli Prime Minister considers ceding Iron Dome to Ukraine, but delicate security balance in Syria paralyses decision-making
Benjamín Netanyahu Vladímir Putin

PHOTO/ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO  -   Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greet each other during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, April 4, 2019

"Some of your critics say you seem to be afraid of antagonising Putin in some way," insisted CNN correspondent Jake Tapper.

"No, of course not. It's not a question, but... of course not," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu replied nervously in his first television interview since returning to office. "What we have with Russia is a complex relationship, because not far from here, a few kilometres from here, on our northern border in Syria, Israeli planes and Russian planes are flying within a short distance of each other. I mean, Russia is... militarily in Syria. Iran is trying to establish itself in Syria, right next to our northern border, the same way it did in Lebanon with Hezbollah."

Netanyahu condensed in one response the tight margin of manoeuvre Israel has in its approach to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The Israeli authorities have provided humanitarian aid and intelligence to Kiev, specifically on Iranian-made weapons available to the Russian army. But they have avoided explicitly taking sides in sending weapons to Zelensky's troops, who are blocking the Russian advance in eastern Ukraine. For Bibi this is a red line, as it was for Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid before him. But he acknowledges that the scenario is volatile and can change at any time.

Bennett Putin
KREMLIN/EVENGY BIYATOV via AP  -   Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speak during their meeting in Sochi, Russia, Friday, October 22, 2021

The reasons for Israel's immobility in Ukraine lie in Syria. Russia maintains a military presence there, reinforced in 2015, when Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to intervene in extremis to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad, besieged by rebels after the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011. The Kremlin significantly altered the script of the war in favour of Damascus, which also had the backing of Iran and its like-minded militias. Since then, it has retained positions in the east and south of the country, an area bordering Lebanon and Israel that armed groups linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard want to occupy. 

The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) regularly attack targets in Syria to prevent pro-Iranian militias from settling in the area and establishing a base of operations. Russia, in an unusual move, allows Israel to launch air offensives on these groups. "The main reason is security," explains analyst Steve A. Cook in Foreign Policy. "Putin is happy to oblige the Israelis because, although he and Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, agree on ensuring the survival of the al-Assad regime, the Russians have wanted the Iranians to be the junior partner." 

Israel wants to maintain this balance of power at all costs. Should Iran take over the Syrian area bordering Israel, it would pose a major threat to its national security, to an even greater degree than Hezbollah's activity in neighbouring Lebanon. And Russia holds the key. This is why successive Israeli governments have been inclined to maintain a neutral stance in Ukraine. The aim is not to irritate the Kremlin and to keep the channel of communication open between Russian and Israeli commanders in southern Syria in order to avoid a direct clash.

AFP/ JACK GUEZ  -   Israeli soldiers stand near a self-propelled artillery vehicle on the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights, near the border with Syria

"We have found a compromise that serves Israel's interests and therefore Putin thinks it does not threaten Russian interests," Netanyahu said in another television interview with French broadcaster LCI. "At the beginning, I told Putin that we have a choice, we can go to confrontation, or we can find a common language.... Israel acts freely and we do not interfere in its actions in Syria, and it should leave us alone," said the Prime minister, who verbalised his concern about Iran's intentions, which, he added, are to create an army and deploy it on the Syrian border with Israel. 

Israeli arms to Ukraine? 

During his election campaign, Netanyahu pledged to study the possibility of supplying arms to Ukraine. Three months later, as prime minister, he claims to have kept his promise. "Well, of course I'm looking into it. I am looking into it. I said I'm looking into it and I'm looking into it," he insisted to CNN cameras. Although he said he had "other considerations" on the table: "In particular, the close operational proximity between the Israeli Air Force and the Russian Air Force. Their aircraft operate in Syrian airspace, and so far, we have avoided confrontation. We don't want a military confrontation with Russia". 

The CNN reporter asked him if he would be willing to cede the Iron Dome air defence system to Ukraine. Bibi replied that he would discuss it with senior defence officials but could not give any guarantees. The issue has been the subject of serious debate in Israel since Volodymir Zelenski submitted a formal request to the Hebrew government last October. "Ukraine is very interested in obtaining from Israel (in the shortest possible time) defence systems, in particular: Iron Beam, Barak-8, Patriot, Iron Dome, David's Sling, Arrow Interceptor and Israeli support in the training of Ukrainian operators," read the letter, which met with a refusal from former prime minister Yair Lapid.

Cúpula de Hierro
AFP/ JACK GUEZ  -   An Israeli Iron Dome air defense system launches a missile to intercept rockets fired from the Gaza Strip, outside the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, on August 7, 2022

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova responded at a press conference after hearing Netanyahu's remarks: "Anyone who speculates about sending weapons to Ukraine is escalating the conflict; don't try to provoke us. Months earlier, Russian Security Council deputy chairman Dmitry Medvedev, who took turns in the presidency with Putin when Putin's term in office ran out, explicitly threatened Israel with "destroying all relations" if it provided military aid to Ukraine. The delicate security architecture in Syria could be blown apart. 

Thus, continued US pressure has also failed to make a dent in Israel, despite it being Washington's main partner in the Middle East. In mid-January, the Biden administration called on Netanyahu to hand over to Ukraine the US-made HAWK air defence systems that the Kennedy administration had ceded to Israel in the 1950s. 

Israel has a military priority, which is to weaken Iran, its regional nemesis. A task for which it needs all the means at its disposal. This is an existential issue that has recently led it to attack Tehran's positions in Syria, as well as the infrastructures in which the ayatollahs' regime develops its nuclear programme, and the military bases under the control of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, located on Iranian soil. Last week's Mossad drone attack on the military logistics centre in Esfahan was the latest evidence of this. However, Israel stood idly by as soon as it emerged that Iran had provided weapons and trainers to the Russian army in Ukraine.

Manifestantes se reúnen en la plaza Habima, en el centro de la ciudad costera mediterránea de Israel, Tel Aviv, el 20 de marzo de 2022, para asistir a un discurso televisado por vídeo del presidente de Ucrania, Volodymyr Zelensky AFP/ JACK GUEZ
AFP/ JACK GUEZ  -   Protesters gather in Habima Square in the center of Israel's Mediterranean coastal city of Tel Aviv on March 20, 2022, to attend a video televised address by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky
Israel as mediator 

Netanyahu has been open in recent weeks to acting as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine if asked to do so by "both sides, and frankly if I'm asked by the United States, because I think you can't have too many cooks in the kitchen... but I'm not going to get involved in it". Although the Israeli prime minister did qualify that it would all depend on the negotiations taking place at the "right" time and under the "right" circumstances. His former ally and predecessor in office, Naftali Bennett, tried to do the same in March, but failed to make progress. 

Israel has played an ambiguous role since the beginning of the invasion, which some analysts have compared to that of Turkey. Although, unlike the three Israeli prime ministers who have held office in the past 11 months, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has not been shy about sending weapons to Kiev. Ankara supplied Bayraktar TB2 drones to the Ukrainian army, and this has not prevented him from being the only mediator capable of reaching agreements with both sides alongside the United Nations.