Israel is under mounting pressure to take a side in Russia’s war with Ukraine. And the complications Israel faces are largely of its own making.
From the outset, it seemed natural that Israel would join Western, democratic nations in support of a feisty, democratic Ukraine whose much larger enemy wants to wipe it off the map. But that’s not what happened. Instead, Israel’s nuanced responses to the war have disappointed the Ukrainians, angered the Russians and frustrated the United States and other Western allies.
Beginning with former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s quixotic offer to serve as the mediator of the dispute and continuing with Israel’s refusal to boycott Russia or to provide meaningful funding and military assistance to the Ukrainian army, Israel has been a Western outlier by failing to join the United States and its allies in their coordinated response.
Recently, however, following reports that Iran has started to provide Russia surface-to-surface ballistic missiles in addition to already deployed attack drones, there has been mounting pressure on Israel to provide Ukraine with air defense systems and know-how, and even a call by Israeli government ministers to provide military assistance to Kyiv. In addition, Ukraine’s president and prominent U.S. lawmakers have openly challenged Israel’s public neutrality, while Russia has warned against a tilt toward embattled Ukraine.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky was direct in his challenge: “Isn’t it time for your state to choose who you are with? [Are you] with the democratic world, which is fighting side by side against the existential threat to its existence? Or with those who turn a blind eye to Russian terror, even when the cost of continued terror is the complete destruction of global security?”
Similar sentiments were voiced by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who chairs the Senate subcommittee dedicated to the Middle East, who told CNN: “Israel needs to get off the sidelines. … I just don’t buy that countries like Israel need to play both sides. This is a moment where you have to take a side and you have to stand with the people of Ukraine.” In response, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev warned Israel that if it offered military assistance to Ukraine, it would seriously harm relations with Moscow.
Israeli public opinion is decidedly pro-Ukraine. But Israel’s security establishment sees Russia and Iran just over Israel’s border in Syria as the Jewish state’s first priority. Syria is Israel’s traditional enemy. Iran, which bolsters the Syrian regime, has vowed to destroy Israel. Russia is the gatekeeper, supporting Syria, working with Iran and, by controlling the skies, deciding how much freedom Israel has to attack the military buildup on the ground that can threaten Israel. And some analysts worry that if Israel sends weapons to Ukraine, Israel could find itself at war with Russian-backed forces or more sophisticated Russian air defense systems in Syria.
We don’t minimize these concerns. They are real. But the escalating death and destruction in Ukraine demands that Israel do what it can to help and join with the rest of the Western democratic world in support of Ukraine.