Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.
Q: Israel seems to be involved in or affected by the war in Ukraine in a multitude of ways. Can you sort out what is strategically important?
A: This is a key question, because it is easy to get distracted by the human and humanitarian drama, by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s heroic stance and by President Vladimir Putin’s villainy, and to lose focus. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s surprise flight to Moscow and Berlin on Saturday to meet Putin and Chancellor Olaf Scholz was an attempt to maintain Israel’s focus.
First, and most important, Bennett coordinated his trip with the Biden administration, which reportedly gave its blessing and even its encouragement, and secondarily with European leaders--primarily Germany’s Scholz. This signaled the primacy for Israel of strategic coordination with Washington and the West. Secondly, he coordinated with Zelenskyy, thereby upholding the Israeli effort to maintain contact with both sides in this war in an effort to help mitigate their conflict.
Bennett also reportedly devoted a portion of his three-hour conversation with Putin to the Iran-nuclear issue, the plight of Ukrainian and Russian Jews, and Israel’s need to coordinate its attacks against Iranian military resources in Syria with Russia’s forces there. All these issues are linked and all are strategically important to Israel.
Q: Yet regarding the key reason for this unusual visit with Putin, some sort of mediation effort between Russia and Ukraine, there is absolutely no indication that Bennett made progress.
A: Indeed, and in the absence of visible progress in this endeavor it will be increasingly difficult for Bennett to continue to argue in his contacts with Washington, Berlin, Paris and London that Israel should exempt itself from most sanctions against Russia. Flights continue between Tel Aviv and Moscow. Bank links are open. Israel bows to Russia’s demand not to sell even defensive weapons to Ukraine. Israel is just beginning to constrain links with Russian Jewish oligarchs. And all this due to fears lest Russian forces in Syria actively oppose Israel’s ‘campaign between wars’ against Iran there.
Q: Ukraine’s leader Zelenskyy both solicits Bennett’s mediation efforts and berates Bennett for not identifying with Ukraine’s plight (“he’s not wrapping himself in the Ukrainian flag at the Wailing Wall”). Bennett seemingly can’t win.
A: Israel has sent Ukraine 100 tons of humanitarian aid, yet this is a drop in the bucket by NATO standards. It has refused to sell Ukraine even helmets for medical teams, lest Russia take affront. But if Zelenskyy indeed wants Bennett to try to mediate with Moscow, the Ukrainian leader should go easy on him.
Here I don’t envy Zelenskyy, who is a genuinely courageous leader. But I do question his strategic wisdom. Calling on NATO to provide air cover in the skies over Ukraine is clearly inviting NATO-Russian combat and World War III. That is strategically both unrealistic and irresponsible, and reflects poorly on Zelenskyy’s judgement.
It should be clear by now that without significant Ukrainian concessions to Russia, Putin--assuming he’s prepared at all to compromise--will soon be able to determine Ukraine’s future. Even if Bennett were a negotiating genius (he is not) and even if he had levers of strategic influence over both sides (he has none), he would be powerless to negotiate an end to the conflict without Ukrainian concessions. So far, Bennett appears to be successful, and valuable, at delivering messages between the two sides. But little more.
This insight, in turn, again calls into question Bennett’s calculations in seeking to maintain Israel’s relative neutrality. Yet he is persevering. Since returning Saturday night from Moscow and Berlin he has been in constant contact with both Putin and Zelenskyy. On Monday he sent Foreign Minister Yair Lapid to Latvia to report to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. For the moment, Bennett is exploiting Israel’s unique geostrategic status as trusted friend of both Russia and Ukraine, and playing in the global big leagues.
Q: Highly sophisticated Russian air defense units deployed in Syria can lock onto Israeli airspace and ground Israeli aircraft. Or they can target Israeli aircraft overflying Lebanon and Syria. This is a serious threat. Iran’s presence in Syria is a serious strategic threat. Surely this justifies Bennett’s calculations in maintaining neutrality toward Moscow.
A: And the US can ground the Israel Air Force by denying it a long list of critical ordnance and can deny Israel billions of dollars annually in security assistance. The real issue is, where are Israel’s strategic, ideological and moral loyalties? The unequivocal answer is, with the US and the democratic West. Unless he has something to show for his efforts, Bennett not only cannot long straddle the US-Russia divide in this way, but he risks international ridicule for seeking without cover to play with the really big boys or, worse, for playing into Putin’s hands.
Here the Atlantic Council’s Shalom Lipner, a former adviser to Israeli prime ministers, argues persuasively that “Time has run out for the Bennett government to get with the program and stop equivocating. Although it cannot neglect the definite repercussions for its delicate ties with Russia, Israel has never had a realistic option other than to join Team America. . . . The strategic depth provided by US diplomatic, economic and military backing is considerably more vital for Israel that anything Russia will ever propose to deliver.”
Q: One of the most significant issues at stake is the Vienna talks regarding renewal of the JCPOA Iran-nuclear agreement . . .
A: To be sure, Bennett opposes a renewed agreement. But he has agreed not to seek to undermine American policy on the issue the way his predecessor Netanyahu did. Still, it is reasonable to assume that he tried to persuade Putin last Saturday to toughen Russia’s stance in the Vienna talks. Putin, remarkably, has not sought to wreck the Vienna talks in protest at the West’s support for Ukraine. But he just did introduce a Vienna-Ukraine-Iran linkage, insisting that sanctions against Russia leave a loophole for Russia’s nuclear obligations to Iran.
Meanwhile, most observers concur that there will soon be a renewed JCPOA, with Russian compliance, and that it will benefit both Iran (removal of sanctions) and, through lower energy prices due to renewed Iranian exports, the US-led sanctions effort against Russia. Israel’s political leadership won’t like it, but its security leaders will point to the advantage of renewed breathing space vis-à-vis Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Israel’s problem with Iran in Syria and Lebanon, hence with Russia in Syria too, will not change. Nor will Israel’s need to coordinate strategically with both Russia--in Syria and the broader Middle East where Russia is the rising power--and with the United States.
Incidentally Iran, despite being firmly in the Russian camp regarding the Ukraine conflict, has now begun to talk openly about ‘lessons of Ukraine’: a country without nuclear weapons (Ukraine gave them up in 1994 in return for worthless international guarantees) is helpless in the face of existential threats. Not surprisingly, Iran is also liable to conclude that Russia’s Ukraine war confirms its belief that the use of force (in Iran’s case, usually through proxies) against its neighbors pays.
Q: Another strategic issue for Israel is the imperative, or perhaps opportunity, created by the war for immigration (aliyah) by both Ukrainian and Russian Jews. Israel is devoting huge resources to this effort. But why does it have to close its door to those relatively few non-Jewish Ukrainians asking for shelter from the war?
A: Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked claims that more than 90 percent of Ukrainians admitted to Israel since the war began do not meet the ‘Jewish’ criteria of the Law of Return. She is in a tizzy over this, seemingly fearing the consequences for Jewish racial purity. She is demanding cash deposits by relatives sponsoring the arriving Ukrainian refugees; she is denying them refugee status, and limiting their stay to one month. A handful of arriving Ukrainians have even been refused entry--for reasons not divulged to the public.
Shaked’s concerns are typical of the weird calculations of Israel’s politically dominant right-religious messianists. A handful of Ukrainian gentiles are a danger to Jewish Israel, yet it’s okay to gradually swallow up nearly three million West Bank and East Jerusalem Palestinians and turn Israel into a bi-national entity. Because for the messianic right, holy land is more important than demographics; ‘Jewish’ is more important than ‘democratic’.
True, in recent years a few non-Jewish Ukrainian job-seekers and prostitutes have made their way to Israel, where when apprehended they are deported. Let’s assume not all asylum seekers are innocent. But this is a global emergency where you let desperate people in first and ask questions later. A million and a half Ukrainians have fled in ten days. Poland and Slovakia are absorbing hundreds of thousands without documentation and without financial guarantees. So far, Shaked and her supporters are reacting to just 2,000 new arrivals. “We can’t continue at this rate,” she states self-righteously. “Things need to be planned.”
Well, they can’t be planned when the world as we have known it geopolitically is being turned upside down. And we have not yet begun to count the Russian Jews (and of course their many non-Jewish relatives, all of whom can become loyal Israelis) who will soon be fleeing a collapsing economy. In the midst of Bennett’s unique and impressive dialoguing with both Putin and Zelensky, why does he allow his fellow right-winger to give Israel a bad name? Nachum Barnea put it succinctly in Yediot Aharonot: “Before we save the world from a nuclear holocaust, perhaps we should check whether we can do more to save human beings.”
Q: The Ukraine war evokes for many of us insights regarding the links between history and memory. Your thoughts?
A: My mother grew up near Lviv and my grandfather fell into Russian Czarist captivity at the WWI battle of Przemysl (both then in the Habsburg Empire, now respectively in Ukraine and Poland). My wife’s grandparents fled pogroms in Odessa in the late nineteenth century. Obviously, for me as for many Israelis and Jews elsewhere it is difficult to escape the sense that the scenery of this war is painfully familiar. Far more immediate, however, are the comparisons drawn in the Israeli media between this war and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Those comparisons are all over the place. Israel is Russia (the villain) and Palestine is Ukraine (the victim). If Russia cancels Ukrainian independence, that threatens Israel’s independence. The international coalition recruited to pressure and sanction Russia could one day be deployed against Israel unless it ends the occupation. Or the opposite: Ukraine proves that no one will seriously support Israel if and when it is besieged. Then there was the Ukrainian ambassador to Israel who, to recruit sympathy, argued outrageously that during the Holocaust Ukraine only saved Jews and never murdered them en masse.
Here there is one bottom line no one can argue with: the Ukraine-Russia conflict downgrades the Palestinian issue even further than it already was downgraded in 2020 when the United Arab Emirates and Morocco ignored Palestinian objections and normalized relations with Israel. For the UAE, this was a clear reflection of an order of strategic priorities (the Iran threat, the temptation of Israeli security and high-tech cooperation) that essentially leaves out Ramallah and Gaza.
For the rest of the world, Ukraine is the dominant priority and will be for the indefinite future. Note, in this connection, how German Chancellor Scholz last week visited Jerusalem to coordinate with Bennett yet, without blinking, cancelled a prior commitment that his visit include Ramallah and Amman.
Q: Bottom line?
A: Chuck Freilich, former deputy national security adviser in Israel, summed it up well--however sadly--inHaaretz: “The cold sad truth is that there is almost no way that this ends without a devastating Ukrainian defeat. We in Israel will still have a state to defend long after it is over.” This we note with all due respect to Bennett’s praiseworthy initiative.