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[Research Reports] What's Behind Israel's "Ambiguity" over the Ukraine Conflict?

Akifumi Ikeda (Former President, Toyo Eiwa University)
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Research Group on 'The Middle East and Africa' FY2022-#2

"Research Reports" are compiled by participants in research groups set up at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, and are designed to disseminate, in a timely fashion, the content of presentations made at research group meetings or analyses of current affairs. The "Research Reports" represent their authors' views. In addition to these "Research Reports", individual research groups will publish "Research Bulletins" covering the full range of the group's research themes.

A Policy of "Neutrality" and "Humanitarian" Assistance

When Russia unilaterally launched a military invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, and the West unanimously denounced this and moved to provide military support to Ukraine and impose sanctions on Russia, Israel, which was regarded as a powerful strategic partner of the West in the Middle East, carefully avoided political and diplomatic alignment with the West and took a "neutral" position. While refusing to transfer weapons and other supplies requested by Ukraine and forgoing participation in various sanctions against Russia, Israel initiated a fast and effective "humanitarian assistance" that was widely publicized as if to provide a counterbalance. In addition to establishing an assistance framework of unprecedented scale with opening of a field hospital in Ukraine ahead of other countries and transportation of 100 tons of medical supplies and essential goods less than a week after the start of the war, Israel also decided to accept refugees. The Law of Return, which stipulates the unconditional acceptance and granting of citizenship, is applicable to Jewish "returnees" anyway. However, the government announced it would temporarily accept up to 5000 non-Jewish refugees.

The stance of the Bennett coalition government in Israel, which advocated neutrality and equidistance but highlighted substantial humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, was backed by public opinion; 70% to 80% of the population sympathized with Ukraine. On the other hand, Prime Minister Bennet has shown an eagerness to mediate the conflict, becoming the first foreign dignitary to visit Moscow and meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin after the outbreak of the war, and has stated that a neutral stance is essential as a mediator.

Conflicting Demographics, National Security, and Iran Issues

The following three factors are thought to be behind Israel's ambiguous policy. The first is the demographic composition of the Jewish state of Israel. Based on the aforementioned Law of Return, up to one million Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union flowed into Israel between the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and the 1990s. Considering that the population of Israel was about 4.5 million at the time, we can imagine how overwhelming this influx was. Among the current population of about nine million, the number of Israeli citizens from the former Soviet Union is believed to be around 1.2 million, of whom 400,000 are Russian Jews and 400,000 are Ukrainian (the rest are Central Asian and other). Israel cannot openly support one side considering concerns about the treatment and activities of their relatives in Russia and Ukraine.

Even more important, though, is Israel's own security. In 2015, Russia began military intervention in support of the Assad regime in Syria, Israel's northern neighbor that has been in a state of civil war since 2011 due to the spread of the so-called Arab Spring. Russia also joined forces with Iran, which intervened on the Syrian government's side at around the same time, and reversed the tide of battle a few years later, leading the Assad regime to victory. Syrian airspace is completely controlled by Russian air and air defense forces. What is particularly troubling for Israel is the growing presence and influence of Iranian forces on Syrian territory. Initially this took the form of members of Iranian puppet Hezbollah in Lebanon and "volunteer soldiers" from neighboring countries, but now regular units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps are being deployed. The next major armed conflict (the "next war") envisioned by Israel will be nothing less than the "Northern War" in which the Iranian-aligned forces in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon will jointly launch surprise attacks. For this reason, Israel's security challenges are focused on preventing the transfer of advanced Iranian military technology and materials, such as precision-guided missiles and rockets, to Hezbollah, as well as targeting Iranian military positions in Syria to gradually reduce them. In response to this situation, Israel has adopted the doctrine of Campaign Between Wars (CBW), which infinitely blurs the lines between war and peace. However, the principal theater of application of this doctrine is Syria, and it cannot be implemented without the tacit acceptance by Russia, which controls Syria's airspace. Already during the former Netanyahu administration, Israel had agreed with Russia on the rules of the game regarding CBW, and Russian President Vladimir Putin acquiesced in Israel's attacks on Iranian bases under certain conditions and procedures.

For the Bennett administration and future Israeli administrations, keeping to secure such position of Russia is a major precondition for security in the anticipation of the "Northern War." This is the second, and perhaps the biggest, reason that Russia cannot be unnecessarily provoked on the Ukraine issue.

Finally, Russia is a member of the negotiations aimed at re-establishing the so-called Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA) and a supplier of nuclear-related materials and technology to Iran. US President Joe Biden, who was vice president at the time the agreement was signed, publicly stated that he would seek to restore the agreement from which President Trump had unilaterally withdrawn in 2018, and Israel has serious concerns about this policy. Even if the agreement is reinstated, the time for Iran to become a nuclear threshold state has been brought forward considerably, taking into account the uranium enrichment that Iran has pursued in response to the suspension of the agreement, and it is believed that the lifting and easing of sanctions against Iran will expand Iran's freedom of action in the Middle East and beyond. Russia's efforts to link the lifting of sanctions against Iran with the lifting of sanctions against Russia have been a source of resistance to the Biden administration's "lean forward" stance in reviving the JCPOA. To the extent that Russia pursues this course, its interests coincide with those of Israel, which wants to prevent or delay the restoration of the JCPOA.

Biden's Visit as "Pressure"

In any case, the above factors kept Israel from joining with Europe and the United States in supporting Ukraine. While trying to find the limits of what Russia would tolerate, Israel maintained a lukewarm attitude from start to finish and, as the war became protracted, opinion in Europe and America naturally became more critical. President Biden had originally planned to make his first trip to the Middle East in conjunction with his participation in the G7 summit and the NATO summit in Europe in late June, and his major agenda item for Israel, along with Iran, was to coordinate on the Ukraine issue. Coordination, in short, is simply the exercise of pressure to bring Israel closer to the West.

In early June, however, Biden's Middle East tour was suddenly postponed to mid-July. There were two main reasons. The first was the confusion in Israel's internal affairs. Even after four general elections in just two years since April 2019, a stable majority of political blocs has not been established, and the Netanyahu government maintained its record as the longest in office (12 years) even though it was only a de facto caretaker administration. By contrast, the March 2021 general election came down to a fight between pro-Netanyahu and anti-Netanyahu factions. As a result, a grand coalition government, which is unprecedented in Israeli political history, was inaugurated in June of the same year, with political parties having completely different policies and ideologies bound together solely by their opposition to Netanyahu. In terms of political positions, the Bennett-Lapid cabinet, which included various parties from the extreme right to the right, the center, and the left, as well as the first Arab party in the ruling coalition in the history of Israeli politics, was rich in diversity at best, but the reality was nothing less than an alliance of convenience. This administration, which barely had 61 seats out of the 120 seats in the Knesset (the Israeli parliament), was widely expected to collapse within a year after its inauguration. Even so, Prime Minister Bennet managed to overcome crisis after crisis, but he lost his majority in the Knesset in April 2022 due to defectors from his own right-wing party. In June, a key bill was rejected, highlighting his complete failure to run the government. As a result, the Knesset passed a dissolution bill at the end of June, and the fifth general election in three and a half years will be held on November 1. Meanwhile, the caretaker administration will be led by center-left Foreign Minister Lapid, who is expected to become the next prime minister based on the coalition agreement. The postponement of President Biden's visit to Israel was partly due to the uncertain political situation in Israel.

The second reason is that international supplies of energy and food are rapidly becoming tight due to the conflict in Ukraine and the prolonged sanctions against Russia, and the effects of this on the economies of Europe and the United States are spreading. As a result, Europe and the United States find themselves in a position where they must pay attention not only to the course of the war in Ukraine itself but also to the easing of energy and food supplies. The fact that the visit to Saudi Arabia was reported as additional destination almost at the same time as the postponement of Biden's Middle East tour was announced indicates how the agenda of the trip has changed.

Biden's Middle East Trip and Preliminary Assessments by Israel

In the end, President Biden's Middle East tour took place from July 13 to 16. Israel was the first country he visited and, on the 14th, President Biden and Prime Minister Lapid signed the Jerusalem Declaration, affirming that the United States' commitment to Israel's security was unchanged and emphasizing cooperation to prevent Iran's possession of nuclear weapons, which both countries regard as a common threat. However, President Biden did not promise to set a deadline for negotiations on the revival of the JCPOA as Israel had hoped, or to clarify the limits on acceptability for Iran's actions (red lines), and he showed no signs of changing his policy of prioritizing diplomacy. There was no "pressure" that Israel had been worried about. Instead, it has been reported that the United States has shown an interest in Israel's research and development of advanced military technology, and particularly in greater investment in laser-based anti-aircraft defense systems (Iron Beam). Biden's visit to Israel was followed by one to the Palestinian Authority, and the importance of the "two-state solution" was reaffirmed during his summit meeting with President Mahmoud Abbas. The two leaders also agreed to work to repair the relationship between the United States and the Palestinian Authority that had cooled during the Trump administration.

President Biden flew directly from Israel to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and before that the Saudi authorities issued a statement saying they would allow Israeli commercial flights to pass through Saudi airspace. Passage over the Arabian Peninsula would greatly improve air access from Israel to India, Thailand, and the Far East. While Israel is taking this measure as a first step toward normalizing relations between the two countries, Saudi Arabia has maintained its stance that resolution of the Palestinian issue is a prerequisite for normalization. Even if various partnership and cooperation develop behind the scenes in future, more twists and turns are expected before the situation moves to the stage of officially establishing diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The main purpose of President Biden's Middle East tour was to encourage Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab oil-producing countries to increase their oil production, but the results have not been clear. At the expanded Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) meeting with Egypt, Jordan and Iraq, held in Saudi Arabia on the occasion of Biden's visit, President Biden sought to restore the confidence of these Arab countries, which are reeling from the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, by asserting that the US attitude toward engagement in the Middle East remains unchanged and that he would not allow Russia, China and Iran to take advantage of the situation. However, he did not go as far as Israel had hoped in discussing specific measures, such as building a cross-regional early warning network with Iran as a common enemy or establishing an air defense identification zone.

In this way, the greatest success for Israel of this President Biden's visit to the Middle East was the fact that he actually "came" to Israel for the first time since taking office, and that Biden "met" with key Israeli officials despite the political turmoil. It is possible to give some credit to the fact that the two leaders had reached a preventive understanding so that differences in their positions on issues such as Ukraine and Iran would not lead to a deterioration in relations. Still, the real test will be the two countries' upcoming elections, i.e., the Israeli general elections and the US midterm elections in November.

(The original Japanese version of this paper is dated July 20, 2022)