A balancing act: Israel’s dilemma regarding Ukraine

Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz said that “Israel supports and stands with Ukraine, NATO and the West — this is something we have said in the past and repeat today.
Firefighters work after a drone attack on buildings in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Firefighters work after a drone attack on buildings in Kyiv, Ukraine.AP

By TANIA KRAMER

WASHINGTON: Shortly after Russia reportedly used Iranian-supplied Shahed-136 drones to attack Kyiv, Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dimytro Kuleba, said he would formally submit an official request to Israel for air defense supplies. This would not be Ukraine’s first such request for military support from Israel.

To date, Israel has officially refrained from arming Ukraine, offering humanitarian support and other supplies like helmets and protective vests instead.

Iran has denied supplying drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), to Russia. But the latest development, now involving Israel’s arch-enemy Iran, has once again highlighted Israel’s dilemma vis-a-vis Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

It has also sparked a new debate as to whether Israel should continue its balancing act.

While it has occasionally harshly criticised the Russian invasion and increasingly supported Ukraine, Israel has stopped short of providing direct military support in an attempt not to damage ties with Moscow.

In a phone call with Ukraine’s foreign minister Kuleba on Thursday evening, Israel’s Prime Minister Yair Lapid said he was updated on the war, affirming that Israel “stands with the Ukrainian people.” But he made no mention of Ukraine’s formal request for air defense systems.

Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz said that “Israel supports and stands with Ukraine, NATO and the West — this is something we have said in the past and repeat today. Israel has a policy of supporting Ukraine via humanitarian aid, and the delivery of life-saving defensive equipment.”

Yet Gantz also added that Israel would not deliver weapon systems to Ukraine “due to a variety of operational considerations. We will continue to support Ukraine within our limitations, as we have done in the past.” Instead, he said that Israel will “assist in developing a life-saving early-warning system.”

Israel’s present policy is also being debated by analysts. “Israel has continued to act in a way that has resulted in it getting the short end of the stick in both directions,” wrote Israeli journalist Nadav Eyal in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth on Tuesday.

“The Ukrainians are furious with it for failing to help; the Russians are using Iranian help and are also helping the Iranians — and are operating against Israel in several different arenas.”

Some observers think Israel should be more concerned by closer relations between Russia and Iran, as well as the use of Iranian drones in Ukraine.

“We should be with where our values are: The democratic countries in Europe and the US are against the Russian aggression in Ukraine,” says retired general Amos Yadlin, former head of Israeli Defence Intelligence.

He has long argued that Israel should be more active in supporting Ukraine. “Iran is our main enemy. And whenever Iran is sided with somebody, Israel should be on the other side.”

Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February, Israel has provided humanitarian aid to Ukraine while maintaining reasonable relations with Russia.

Although there has been a debate in Israel on the moral grounds for helping people in need, as well as the hosting of new immigrants fleeing both Russia and Ukraine, Israel is guided by its own political and diplomatic considerations: The fate of the Jewish community in Russia appears to be the principal concern.

In the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Israel saw an influx of more than a million Jews from Russia.

This year, over 20,000 Russians have already made their way to Israel, many of them young men seeking to escape conscriptionr.

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