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Israel-Russia Feud Continues: Tel Aviv Cautiously Backs The West

When the Russian invasion of Ukraine first began, Israel did its best to stay out of the mix (on the surface) to please both Moscow and Washington. This no longer seems to be possible, although Israel continues to attempt to play both sides, as a number of incidents have led to a serious feud, one which Tel Aviv fears could impact its security and regional ambitions.

In early May, Tel Aviv lashed out at Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, after he had made remarks in which he claimed that Adolf Hitler had Jewish roots. Lavrov’s statement was aimed at rebuking the claim that Ukrainian President Zelenskyy’s Jewish identity alone was proof that there was not a Neo-Nazi problem in Kiev. Israel’s foreign ministry decided to summon Russia’s ambassador, demanding clarification and an apology. Russia, however, refused to back down in their feud with Tel Aviv, with Moscow’s spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, soon after saying that Israeli mercenaries are fighting “shoulder to shoulder” with Azov [Neo-Nazi] militants.

Whilst Israel has for the most part attempted to play a careful balancing act on the war in Ukraine, under the command of former Prime Minister, Naftali Bennet, the new interim PM, Yair Lapid, seems to be coming down on the side of NATO. This has seemed to have greatly frustrated Moscow and it is clear that the issue of Ukraine has proven where Tel Aviv’s true loyalty lies when push comes to shove.

The most recent significant flare-up occurred when Moscow announced that legal proceedings had begun to expel the Jewish Agency from Russia in its entirety. The move prompted Israel’s Yair Lapid to threaten Russia with political consequences, calling the move a “grave event“. The Russian Federation then fired back, stating that the move was not political, but that kicking out the Israeli quasi-governmental organization was due to multiple violations of local laws, making it clear that this was a Russian legal issue. For some time the public were left without a strict answer as to what laws the Jewish Agency had broken, with it eventually emerging that the Jewish Agency was accused of data theft. Following the recent Donbass referendum, four new territories inside Ukraine have voted and chosen to join the Russian Federation. The NATO powers have of course slammed the annexation of Ukrainian territory as “illegal” and “a sham” despite over 100 international observers testifying that the proceedings were legitimate. Interestingly, despite Tel Aviv having annexed both the Golan Heights from Syria and East Jerusalem, Israel also joined in by condemning Moscow’s move and has urged Israeli citizens in Russia to leave, fearing that they will be drafted into the military to fight in Ukraine.

Yair Lapid is on record accusing Russia of war crimes in Ukraine, funnily enough (yes, he did have a straight face whilst accusing Moscow). Israel also supported kicking Russia out of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). The current Israeli PM has stated that he believes the UNHRC to be anti-Semitic, yet thought it was important that it functions to punish others, whilst being wrong only when criticizing Israel.

It just wouldn’t be a feud that Israel is party to without accusations of anti-Semitism; which is where Western media hysteria has done the best job for Tel Aviv. One rant of an article, put out by The Atlantic newspaper, even began to make irrelevant comparisons between Soviet policy towards Israel and Moscow’s announcement that the Jewish Agency would be expelled for violating Russian law. Apparently, it is incomprehensible for an Israeli government linked organization to be capable of breaking the law — it could only be anti-Semitism. What everyone misses is that the Jewish Agency is an anti-Palestinian organization, complicit in some of the worst atrocities visited upon the native inhabitants of Palestine. The Jewish Agency is not simply in charge of issues of Jewish immigration alone, as it is simple for any Jewish person if they wish to claim an Israeli citizenship and live in occupied Palestine. Whereas, if you are a Palestinian in the diaspora, not only can you not go to live in the land that your family still owns the legal deeds to, but in many cases you can’t even visit most of your home country.

All this aside, perhaps the most important part of this feud, is the possible regional implications. On Tuesday, Israeli defence minister, Benny Gantz, confirmed previous reports that a Russian operated S-300 air defense system had opened fire on Israeli jets, during an illegal attack against Syria back in May. Reports, which surfaced this Thursday, also alleged that Russia has agreed to now supply the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) with both S-300 and S-400 air defense systems. Previously the S-300’s were deployed inside Syria, but only Russia maintains the right to fire them. If these reports do turn out to be true, once Syrian operators are trained on such systems, this could present a real threat to Israeli jets when attacking Syrian territory.

If Russian-Israeli relations continue to spiral, a hostile Moscow could make Tel Aviv’s life much more difficult and could do so extremely quickly. Not only does Russia maintain close ties to the Syrian leadership (the closest partner of the Syrian government in fact) but it also has the ability to begin aiding Palestinian groups strategically. For instance, if Russia chooses, it could begin pushing the Palestinian cause for statehood through hosting the likes of Hamas and giving them more of a voice on the international stage, a very likely prospect. Going as far as sending weapons to the Palestinian resistance in Gaza is not likely, however.

In Syria, Moscow has been seeking to negotiate an end to the current crisis, working with both Ankara and Tehran to do so. If the Syrian government is able to get back on its feet and the nation can recover economically, gaining back its resource rich territory, this could be a regional game changer. It is clear that Israel seeks to keep Damascus weak. Israel fears the reconstruction of Syria and its re-entry into the Arab League, as it would then not have a routine punching bag, as it does today. If Russia seeks to punish Israel, it will do so easily and has much greater influence than Tel Aviv in the region. It is interesting that Benjamin Netanyahu, who maintains close ties with Russia, has been advocating for Israel to not side against Moscow in Ukraine — this is with good strategic reason. Politicians like Netanyahu understand that the United States will never stop supporting Israel over their refusal to go along with NATO, but knows well that taking a side against Moscow will cost them greatly. If Tel Aviv bombed Washington, the US congress would likely approve an aid package to refuel Israeli jets, however, Moscow does not operate like this and the relationship has never been “unconditional”.

All of the above does not mean, by any stretch of the imagination, that we will see a full severing of ties between Israel and Russia, or that the policy of the Russian Federation will resemble that of the Soviet Union. Yet the further the two grow apart the more potential there is for Moscow to teach Tel Aviv a lesson and put Israel in its place.

Robert Inlakesh
Robert Inlakesh is a documentary filmmaker, journalist, writer, Middle-East analyst & news correspondent for The Last American Vagabond.

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