Hard Questions, Tough Answers - War in Ukraine: Israeli Dimensions III (April 18, 2022)


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: Whatever happened to PM Bennett’s mission to mediate between Russia and Ukraine?

A: Bennett is currently extremely busy with Ramadan-Passover related violence in and around the Temple Mount. And with coalition desertions and threats thereof. He has little time to try to make peace between Putin and Zelensky.

But even when he had time, in March, he does not appear to have gotten very far. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, asked recently by Haaretz about Israel’s mediation role, replied diplomatically, “I’m certain Israel is doing something concrete, but I don’t know of anything.”

How long Bennett can maintain Israel’s neutral pose is anyone’s guess. For the moment, “doing something concrete” appears to be sufficient. In addition, of course, to the fact that Russia is Israel’s next-door neighbor in Syria.


Q: So is the Russian presence in Syria still the main rationale for Israel’s attempt to remain neutral in the Ukraine conflict?

A: The Russia-Syria-Iran nexus is becoming increasingly complicated for Israel. On the one hand, the Israeli military continues to pursue the ‘campaign-between-wars’ against Iran and its proxies in Syria, with Russian forces in Syria looking the other way. It is indeed primarily in this connection--Russia as Israel’s northern neighbor--that Israel tries to maintain a relatively neutral stance in the Ukraine conflict.

This does not always work smoothly. Israel’s Moscow ambassador was recently reprimanded by the Russian Foreign Ministry for anti-Russian votes by Israel in the United Nations and condemnations by Foreign Minister Lapid of Russian atrocities in Ukraine.

On the other hand, Russia has withdrawn some forces from Syria for deployment against Ukraine. Russia has also recruited veteran Syrian militia “volunteers” to fight in Ukraine. The upshot is a pro-regime military manpower deficit in Syria that is being filled by additional Iranian and Iranian-proxy units. They are needed by the Damascus regime to maintain order in a country still fighting a civil war. According to some reports, they are expanding their deployment in Syria.

More Iranians in Syria is bad news for Israel. Paradoxically, this is a negative consequence of Russia’s stumbling war in Ukraine.


Q: Israel could get off the fence and begin selling Ukraine lots of weaponry for defending itself . . .

A: Ukrainian President Zelenskyy’s much-discussed request that Israel supply Ukraine with Iron Dome anti-rocket radar and missile systems is a non-starter. Iron Dome was built for much more confined spaces than the Ukrainian arena. And its deployment requires two-years of training.

That Israel is avoiding supplying weaponry to Ukraine--again, so as not to exacerbate the delicate relationship with Russia in Syria--has not affected Israeli arms sales to Europe in the least. On the contrary, Iron Dome, drone and cyber systems and even Israeli armor and tactical rockets are suddenly in great demand by countries like Poland, Germany and the three Baltic NATO-members that feel threatened by the prospect of Russian territorial gains in Ukraine.


Q: Are military lessons from the Ukraine conflict being studied by the Israel Defense Forces?

A: The IDF has reportedly established special ‘debriefing committees’ to monitor the Ukraine war and look for relevant lessons. Ukraine’s successful urban guerilla and unmanned-drone offensive against Russia in areas north of Kyiv is of special interest. So is Russia’s use of medium-range rockets to destroy Ukrainian cities. Here lessons drawn could be important in the event of war against Iranian forces deployed in Syria.

Then there are lessons to be learned that do not directly involve military hardware. Ukraine’s claim that most Russian cruise missiles never explode is false: is this Ukrainian propaganda, or a misperception on the ground, and why? On the other hand, Ukraine has successfully branded Russia’s war as illegitimate under international law. There is an important lesson here for Israel in terms of ensuring international support in wartime--a lesson that Israel historically has had difficulty applying.

In this regard, note that Russia’s devastating bombing of Ukrainian schools and hospitals as a civilian terror weapon has been practiced in Syria since the 2015 Russian intervention there (and before that was practiced by Russia in its Chechnya wars). Syrian anti-regime forces, incidentally, are coaching the Ukrainian armed forces about dealing with Russian urban bombing and bombarding tactics.

Russian cyber warfare against Ukraine has proven spectacularly unproductive in this war. Why? Does this mean that the cyber dimension has been overrated as a component of all-out war? Israel, as a cyber superpower, is paying attention. In contrast, battlefield intelligence--the kind the IDF excels in, but that in many cases is being supplied to Ukraine by NATO--has proven vital in this war.


Q: In the other direction, Pres. Zelenskyy stated in early April that Ukraine will have to learn to behave like ‘a big Israel’. What did he mean?

A: “I’m confident,” Zelenskyy added, “that our security will be the number-one issue over the next ten years.” An “absolutely liberal state” will be replaced by armed personnel guarding movie theaters and supermarkets. Here Zelenskyy is apparently comparing the Ukrainian reality, in which a portion of the population in certain areas is pro-Russian and accordingly suspect of spying and sabotage, to the juxtaposition of Jews and Arabs in Israel. He may also be referring to institutions like universal military service and an advanced intelligence establishment.

Zelenskyy does not know Israel well. We saw this when, in his Zoom speech to the Knesset, he made unfounded references to Ukraine’s role in the Holocaust that left Israelis angry. Nor is it clear why in Zelensky’s view an ‘absolutely liberal state’ cannot guard its supermarkets.

I would venture that Israel’s liberalism deficit has as much to do with the growing spread of extreme religious views as with nationalism and militarism. Zelenskyy, take note.


Q: Is there a Palestinian dimension? Are Israel’s current efforts to quell violent Temple Mount demonstrations in Jerusalem relevant to the Ukraine context?

A: Palestinian leaders continue to use the Ukraine-Palestine comparison to condemn Israel. Here is senior Hamas official Mousa Abu Marzouk condemning international ‘double standards’: “Everyone is in turmoil over Ukrainian refugees with white skin and blue eyes. Their resistance is considered legitimate, while ours is considered ‘terrorism’”.

The polls in Israel and the Palestinian Authority expand on this mindset. Most Jews, including immigrants from the Former Soviet Union, blame Russia for the war (while nevertheless supporting Israel’s neutral stance); most Arabs do not. Palestinians look at international sanctions against Russia and ask why they are not applied to Israel as well.

Moscow, it turns out, is paying attention to Arab views. On Friday, the Russian Foreign Ministry alleged that Foreign Minister Lapid’s relatively mild criticism of Russian atrocities was “a poorly camouflaged attempt to take advantage of the situation in Ukraine to distract the international community’s attention from one of the oldest unsettled conflicts: the Palestinian-Israeli one”.

Indeed, it seems safe to say that Israel’s current problem with Temple Mount violence, and the danger that it could escalate into another mini-war as in May of last year, would be far higher on the international emergency agenda were it not for the fighting in Ukraine.


Q: Finally, at the broadest strategic level, have recent developments in and around the Ukraine war produced relevant insights and parallels for Israel?

A: At this apparently early stage in the Ukraine war, one can only speculate. Take, for example, NATO membership as a guarantee against Russian aggression. Ukraine’s desire for NATO membership was one of the reasons Russia attacked it. Now Sweden and Finland, two long-time European neutrals that border on Russia, are reliably reported to be considering requesting NATO membership.

There have been times in Israel’s 74-year history when, confronted by active Soviet Cold War support for Arab countries, it also politely inquired whether NATO would take it in--and was politely rebuffed. Assuming that in years ahead a newly aggressive Russia confronting a new cold war with the West begins to expand its military presence in Syria, bordering on Israel, could this issue resurface?

The prospects for a renewed JCPOA Iran-nuclear deal have in recent weeks cooled in the shadow of Ukraine. This is hardly surprising. The influential conservative Tehran daily Kayhan wrote shortly after the outbreak of war in Ukraine, in a thinly-disguised reference to the nuclear option that Ukraine gave up in 1994, that “an important lesson of the war is that to combat threats one needs to project power. . . . Disarmament is the most deadly mistake.” Collapse of JCPOA negotiations in Vienna is likely to result in an immediate escalation of tensions with Iran.

Finally, justifiably or not, Arab confidence in American strategic support has at least in some quarters been eroded by the Ukraine war. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, for example, seem to be taking their distance from the Biden administration. Here is veteran Lebanese journalist Eyad Abu Chakra, who writes in the Saudi-owned internationally-published Asharq Al Awsat, tweeting about the broadest strategic level late in March: “the worst politico-military scenario is to be threatened by Russia and promised protection by America!”

This is an intriguing if not necessarily objective assessment. We can only speculate how many among Israel’s neighbors feel this way.