Since the beginning of the current Ukraine crisis, in late February, Israel has had to play a careful balancing act between its allies in Moscow and in Washington. Tel Aviv now seems to be choosing a side and the recent row over Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov’s, comments seems to be leading the way to a larger feud.
Russia’s Sergei Lavrov claimed, during an interview on Tuesday, that Hitler had Jewish roots, when questioned on Russia’s “de-Nazification” slogan which they have used to justify military intervention in Ukraine. The remarks came in an attempt to refute the claim that; due to Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, being Jewish, the neo-Nazi influence in Kiev cannot exist as Moscow claims. Lavrov also stated that “for a long time now we’ve been hearing the wise Jewish people say that the biggest anti-Semites are the Jews themselves,” after making his claim about Hitler. Russian spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, also said after this that Israelis are fighting side by side with Ukrainian neo-Nazis.
Israeli officials, along with pro-Israel groups, have demanded an official Russian apology for the “unforgivable” statements, which Israel has claimed seek to minimize the Nazi Holocaust and amount to anti-Semitic tropes. Israel also agreed to treat wounded Ukrainian soldiers, who have sustained their injuries from fighting Russian forces.
In response to Israel’s actions and statements, Russia lashed out again, claiming that Israel supports neo-Nazi’s in Ukraine. Moscow’s foreign ministry issued a statement in which they said that Israeli foreign minister, Yair Lapid’s, statements were “anti-historical” and “explain to a large extent why the current Israeli government supports the neo-Nazi regime in Kiev”.
According to Axios news, Israel is considering upping their military aid supply to Ukraine, following requests last week from the US Biden administration to do so. What is most interesting about this development is that Tel Aviv is not only battling Russia verbally, with both sides having withdrawn their diplomats, during the Ukraine conflict, but is also getting involved directly to aid Moscow’s enemy. Although Israel gains greatly from their close relationship with the West, picking a fight with Russia may have fatal consequences, especially given the influence that Moscow now holds in the Middle East.
So far, ostensibly, Israel has only sent non-lethal military equipment, during the recent escalation, although it has become clear that members of the Ukrainian military — including the Azov regiment — are in possession of Israeli equipment. Israel has been careful not to fulfill the requests, from Kiev, for more advanced military technology, despite the Ukrainian President claiming that he wishes for his country to become a “big Israel” and asserting that the two states share common struggles.
The Israeli position has been, so far, hesitant to fully side with NATO powers in this conflict due to an understanding of Russia’s importance to Middle East affairs. Yet the Israeli ruling coalition seems to be divided on how to move forward. Israeli Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, has attempted to remain balanced between the Ukrainian and Russian sides, whereas the Israeli defence and foreign ministers have repeatedly condemned Russia’s actions. The Israeli coalition has already lost its Knesset majority, now faced with domestic turmoil of its own doing. It may not be around for much longer, if opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu can secure 61 votes in favor of a bill of no-confidence.
Netanyahu has advocated taking a position that refrains from confronting Russia, criticizing the current Israeli government for its treatment of Moscow. During the recent row, Netanyahu has refrained from taking such a critical position, so far, but there is no doubt that he also holds influence over how far the Israeli government will go in advocating for Kiev.
Russia is clearly changing its rhetoric surrounding Israel and is attempting to push them into backing down, but if Tel Aviv is now set on maintaining its pro-NATO-leaning position, it could trigger a Middle East backlash. The number one area of influence for Moscow, in the region, is perhaps Syria. It is Russia that has the sway over what advanced weapons systems are supplied to Damascus, and Israeli media often claims that airstrikes on Syria are given a green or red light by the Russians. Although these claims are certainly unsubstantiated, Russia clearly has pull over the actions of the Syrian government when it comes to military confrontations.
If Israel is to pick the side of the West, as the world heads into a ‘new Cold War’ era, this may well mean that Moscow will attempt to get behind the Palestinian groups in their struggle against Israel, for strategic purposes. Russia sends a strong message, just by convincing Damascus to respond to Israeli airstrikes on its territory. A wider regional conflict between Arab armed-groups/nations and Israel could well change the entire dynamic of regional affairs. Palestinian, Lebanese, Iraqi, and Yemeni armed groups are all poised to take on Israel in an upcoming battle. If Syria is to be included, this would completely change the course of the Israeli-Arab conflict.
Messing with Russia too much will have unintended consequences for Tel Aviv, which could result in aiding the return of Netanyahu to power and resulting in a military confrontation in the region that Israel is not prepared for.