by Harry Clynch
Tuesday, 22
March 2022
Explainer
16:09

Why Israel won’t join anti-Russia sanctions

It has security concerns on its border with Russia-backed Syria
by Harry Clynch
Demonstrators in Tel Aviv attend a televised video address by Volodymyr Zelensky. Credit: Getty

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.

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.

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Judy Englander
Judy Englander
6 months ago

In 1967 Israel was also a country minding its own business, trying to build a life for itself and its citizens. And, as with Ukraine, hostile armies vastly outnumbering Israel’s massed on its borders. In 1967 Israel’s enemies clearly declared their intention to invade and wipe the country off the map. As a result of this lopsided war, Israel won the Golan Heights. It’s hardly surprising that Israel’s heart is with Ukraine and its head focussed on trying to keep the peace with Moscow so that the Heights do not once again become a shooting range targeting Israeli villages and towns below.

Last edited 6 months ago by Judy Englander
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
6 months ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

Israel would do well to remember it’s the west and not the Russians who have effectively guaranteed its survival since it’s creation. If the money from the Americans were ever to dry up due to their choice of friends they would be in big trouble

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
6 months ago

Without Israel’s clear-cut “desire to play the mediator”, Israel would look curiously nonchalant, never mind possibly altogether ineffectual, on the war that has broken out in Europe.

The Ukrainian President’s speech to the Knesset, in which he warned the Israelis not to become indifferent to the suffering of the Ukrainians, was an emotional appeal to Ukraine’s own situation as a European country that had been minding its own business but got attacked and invaded just like Poland in 1939, and Holland in 1940. Indifference was the charge laid at many Germans for the Nazis’ strengthening grip on power, especially from Kristallnacht in 1938 onwards. Although President Zelensky pitched the emotion too high by referring to the industrial murder of Jews in War 2 (the Holocaust) and the destruction of Ukraine (ethnic cleansing by being driven out) in as good as the same sentence, he no doubt set out to tell it as it is to the Israelis.

On the ground, in the street, judging merely from the photo at the head of the post, piece, there is no indifference among ordinary Israelis. They want Russia out, out, out. They know Russia is in the wrong. Some of those protestors may well be the children of Russian Jews.

Israel is not in the comfortable position of the well-off small European country, that is not even a member of NATO, has neutrality status, and is therefore almost ignorant in its comfort of a different calculus that would come with being fully aligned or a giver of arms or of being the target of surrounding entities that intend to destroy it. Indifference stalks that very nation that joins in the battle to contain Russia but is not prepared to give the Ukrainians arms. So Israel, on that account, may feel it still necessary to do as Israel does, because its raison d’être is to survive and to do what it takes to survive. At the same time Israel cannot lose bravery nor dismiss right from wrong. It at least must speak out and not have to rely on American pressure to do just that.

R Wright
R Wright
6 months ago

Israel always has the luxury of speaking out both sides of its mouth, or at least since Kennedy. U.S financial and materiel aid will contine to flow regardless.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
6 months ago

Frankly, Israel and India should be far closer allies of Britain: just how does Britain benefit in any way whatsoever from the withdrawal of billions of pounds worth of Russian capital? … it doesn’t but the ” pipl in the street” have not a blind clue, so Boris just tells them what they think that they want to hear? As Tocqville said ” Do not confuse democracy with the will of the masses”… and perhaps the rider to this is that the masses no longer have any will, merely what the internet tells them

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
6 months ago

Given the manifest patheticness of the Russian military machine, does Israel have much to fear?