Israel has remained largely cautious of its handling of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While Israeli authorities have spoken in defense of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, they have limited their condemnation of Russian aggression, often not naming Moscow in statements. As a testament to this caution, Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett visited Moscow this week, assuming the role of an informal negotiator between the warring parties, likely at the behest of Zelenskyy. After a lengthy meeting with Vladimir Putin, Bennett travelled to Germany, giving the impression that his meditation efforts are in line with those of the West.
Israel in between Russia and Kyiv
Israel finds itself in the midst of a unique yet precarious position, as it is one of the few countries that maintains a working relationship with both Moscow and Kyiv. Russia and Ukraine are significant sources of Jewish emigration to Israel, boasting over a million Russian speakers. Indeed, many infamous Russian oligarchs, such as the likes of Roman Abramovich, also hold Israeli citizenship, further complicating the matter. Moreover, Israel relies heavily on Russian security guarantees to preserve the integrity of its operations in Syria against Hezbollah and other Iranian backed militias. All these factors are compounded with Israel’s alliance with the U.S., which complicates Israel’s position as an interlocutor between Russia and Ukraine.
The Ukrainian debacle also presents an opportunity for Israel’s prime minister, who is a novice in international affairs compared to his predecessor, to distinguish his abilities of statecraft. Bennett is hungry for an international public victory, solidifying his position as Netanyahu’s alternative amongst the Israeli right. Bennett’s role as a mediator between Putin and Zelenskyy has already become a contentious topic of political debate in Israel, casting the long shadow and enduring legacy of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Bennett’s proceedings.
The Russian factor in Israeli security
Israel’s reluctance to come out against Russia stems from a series of calculations that the Israelis deem vital in preserving the country’s distinctive security architecture. Russia acts as a principal broker for Israel in Syria, in which the Israelis have been given leeway to pursue and target Iranian backed Shia militias that are viewed as hostile. This unique arrangement has proved essential to Israel’s strategy to combat Hezbollah and other Iranian backed groups which have been multiplying in Syria and stockpiling weapons, which in turn has heightened the Israelis' threat perceptions.
Israel is able to function in Syria by the grace of Russia, which exercises almost total control of the war-torn country’s airspace. Israel thus views a great incentive in maintaining its relationship with Moscow, hence the muted response to the situation in Ukraine. Any mishap in the relationship could result in Israel being shut from operations in Syria, which would add to the country’s list of mounting security concerns.
Secondly, Israel has come to view Russia as a significant player in the Middle East far beyond the scope of Syria. Russia commands influence in Iranian nuclear negotiations has elevated its relationship with Gulf monarchies and has steadily been positioning itself in the region in lieu of American leadership. Israel is thus highly motivated to maintain its ties with Moscow, and is equally fearful of a heavy hand from Putin if it were to explicitly denounce Russian aggression. Russia could indirectly empower Iran, Hezbollah and other hostile actors if the Israelis were to join the Western chorus in condemning Russia. Hence, Israel’s decision to refrain from open condemnation, all the while pursuing dialogue with both capitals, is part of a wider strategy which deems cooperation with Russia as essential to Israeli security.
Decision making in Israel is ultimately determined by security calculations. With Russia having become so central to Israel’s security architecture in its immediate vicinity, it would have been unrealistic to expect that the Israelis would engage in endeavors to antagonize Moscow. Instead, Israel has opted for a course of engagement that seeks to transform a potentially contentious situation with Moscow into a platform for dialogue, mediation and an opening for Israel to attempt at higher diplomatic endeavors.
Domestic and international political realms are intrinsically linked in Israel. Netanyahu ran his campaign on how great a relationship he maintained with both Trump and Putin. He often presented himself as the only person that could take on leaders in the West, and paraded as a tough negotiator. The Abraham Accords, Washington’s decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem and Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement were all victories for Netanyahu which were in turn amply transformed into electoral propaganda.
Bennett does not enjoy the same international prestige as Netanyahu. He is still unknown to most global leaders, has little experience in multilateral forums and does not come off with the same candor that Netanyahu has in addressing international settings. After all, Netanyahu has a thorough understanding of the American political system, has addressed Congress, and is a UN General Assembly veteran. This stark contrast between the two has ignited a debate in Israel, prompting some pundits to claim that Netanyahu would have been a far more effective negotiator in dealing with Putin.
The crisis has thus transformed into a high-stakes political stalemate in Israel.
Bennett is presented with a platform to eclipse Netanyahu’s legacy, which would have seismic political ramifications for the Israeli right. While the political incentives are indeed immense, so are the risks if Israel’s mediation efforts were to end up becoming subpar. Taking a major gamble but also enjoying a boost to his domestic popularity, Naftali Bennett now has the chance to prove his worth.
While Israel is an unlikely mediator between Russia and Ukraine, and Bennett is an even unlikelier candidate for negotiation, the opportunity seems to have landed on him. Bennett’s meeting with Putin and his further meetings with Europeans could very well transform into the zenith of his political career and could carry him into far securer ground in the realm of Israeli politics.