It has security concerns on its border with Russia-backed Syria
As nations around the world rush to implement economic sanctions in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there is one country which is having to play a more delicate game: Israel.
After some hesitation and plenty of American pressure, Israel eventually joined its Western allies in condemning Russia’s war on Ukraine. But while reluctantly joining in some of the rhetoric, the Israeli government remains steadfastly against implementing any economic measures against Russia itself. Shunned Russian billionaires like Roman Abramovich can still show their faces in Tel Aviv. Ben Gurion Airport is still offering frequent services to Moscow when, elsewhere, almost all flights to Russia are suspended. Jerusalem has denied Zelensky’s requests for defensive weapons. The reaction to the Ukrainian leader’s speech to the Knesset on Sunday was, at best, muted.
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What explains Israel’s desire to play the mediator and avoid assertively taking a side? One might point to the deep historical and cultural connection between Russia and Israel, which is home to around a million Russian Jews. But there could also be a more practical reason for Israel’s stance: the issue of the Golan Heights.
The Golan Heights is a disputed border area between Israel and Syria. Every member of the UN, apart from Israel and the US, officially recognises the Golan as Syrian territory. However, Israel has key strategic reasons to retain it.
Until Israel seized the Golan during the Six Day War in 1967, Syrian occupation gave it a vantage point from which it could shell Israeli citizens, and Syria still insists that its territory should stretch right up to the Sea of Galilee, which would imperil Israel’s already shaky water supplies. Until recently, Islamic State and Al-Qaeda affiliates operated in and around the Golan, with the genocidal ambition to wipe Israel off the map.
While skirmishes do still occur, Israel has kept the region under its control. Its desire to maintain this control may therefore partly explain its unwillingness to join in with stringent sanctions. After all, following Russia’s intervention in the Syrian Civil War in 2015, Assad has relied on Putin to remain in power and now takes many of his orders from Moscow.
Should Putin decide that Israel is reacting to his invasion too strongly, he could retaliate by stoking trouble in the Golan Heights. Assad could be quietly allowed to resume some offensives along the border, or at least to turn a blind eye to the operations of Islamist militias.
Indeed, we’ve already had a taste of this. Following Israel’s condemnation of the invasion, Russia declared at the UN Security Council that the Golan Heights “are an inalienable part of Syria.” Russia has also reportedly encouraged the presence of Iranian-backed forces in southern Syria, near the Golan, as a means of applying pressure on Israel for its stance.
Jerusalem is walking a tightrope on Ukraine. If perceived by Russia to have overreached, Israel could find peace in the Golan Heights under threat once more. While much of the world divides into camps, Israel will have to hope that its precarious balancing act can hold.