The moral argument for supporting Ukraine against Putin’s aggression is so obvious it needs no further explanation. Yet Israel’s leadership has taken a position of studied neutrality in the current conflict and is supported in this by much of Israel’s political, military, and journalistic establishment. The reasoning is that Israel needs Russian acquiescence for her air war against Iranian entrenchment in Syria, and should do nothing to risk this. I am not a military expert but, in my humble opinion, this is a grave strategic mistake.
Long before the start of the current war Ukrainian President Zielinski, the only other Jewish head of state in the world, has been asking Prime Minister Bennett for Iron Dome and other military technology but was flatly refused. President Biden recently expressed disappointment in Israel following her rejection of the President’s request to co-sponsor a condemnation of Russia’s aggression in the U.N. security council. Yesterday Senator Lindsey Graham expressed dismay at Israel’s refusal to supply badly needed stinger missiles to Ukraine adding ominously that “You know, we stand up for Israel with the Iron Dome.” Coming from one of Israel’s greatest supporters in Congress, this should make Israel’s leadership sit up and take notice.
Israel now finds herself in the company of countries like Iran, China, Syria and North Korea in refusing to unequivocally condemn Russia’s aggression, and this too should give Israel’s leadership pause. In failing to openly defend Ukraine’s sovereignty Israel has set herself apart from the whole of the enlightened world. The same countries, it should be remembered, that Israel traditionally looks to for support when she is attacked. Israel can not demand support from other countries on a moral basis while pursuing a policy based solely on self-interest. In future conflicts Israel’s appeal for support as a fellow democracy fighting against tyranny may ring hollow and appear self-serving. A world order based on naked aggression, as Putin and fellow authoritarians are seeking to construct, is not in Israel’s interest.
The argument that Israel has no choice but to remain in Putin’s good graces, likewise rings hollow. Eastern European and Scandinavian countries directly on Russia’s border, and in Putin’s sights for a future roll back of NATO, have all stepped up to supply Ukraine with weapons. Even Germany has made an exception for Ukraine, to her long standing policy of not exporting weapons to conflict zones.
So what will happen if Israel reverses course and openly supports and arms Ukraine? One indication can be gleaned from Russia’s relations with Turkey. On November 24th 2015 Turkey shot down a Russian SU-24 fighter Jet that took a 17 second short cut over a strip of Turkish territory jutting into Syria. The result: Russia gained new respect for Turkey, never again violated Turkish airspace, and their relations have become ever closer. This despite Russia and Turkey supporting opposing sides in wars in Armenia and Azerbaijan, Kosovo and Syria. Ironically Turkey has now purchased Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missiles, despite pressure from the United States not to do so. Turkey recently sold Ukraine military drones which the Ukrainians are using to good effect against Russian armor. The Russians are unhappy about it but have not let it affect their relations with Turkey.
Another precedent comes from Israel’s own experience during the War of Attrition. When Egypt’s Russian supplied and trained air force proved unable to challenge IAF air supremacy over the Suez Canal, Russia sent her own pilots in to challenge the Israelis. Rather than back down Israel created an ambush for the Russian pilots in the 1970 Operation Ramon. The resulting dogfight between 12 Israeli and 24 Russian jet resulted in an Israeli victory with 5 Russian, and no Israeli, losses. The Russians were so embarrassed by their defeat that they kept it quiet and the battle contributed to the end of the War. This took place at a time when the IAF was relatively weaker in comparison to Russia than it is today.
Russia currently has one airbase near the port of Latakia in northern Syria with a few dozen fighter jets protected by S-400 anti-Aircraft missiles. Without minimizing the threat, these are no match for hundreds of IAF F15s, F15Es, F16s and F35s and Israel’s extensive air defense system. In reality the Russian Air Force was probably never in a position to challenge Israel for air supremacy over Syria and it certainly is not now. Russia has not even been able to establish air supremacy over Ukraine and cannot simultaneously take on the IAF in Syria. I am not suggesting that Israel attack Russian assets in Syria but the ratio of forces would dictate that it should be Russia seeking Israeli permission to operate in Syrian airspace and not the other way around and Israel should make this clear to Russia.
It should also be understood that Russia does not stand aside while Israel attacks Iranian targets in Syria as a favor to Israel. She does so because removing Iran’s influence from Syria is in Russia’s interest. Having cynically used Iran to help Syria’s brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad regain control of Syria, Russia now wishes to be the sole hegemon and not to share power with Iran. At the same time Russia continues to use Iran elsewhere as a thorn in the side of the United States and remains Iran’s chief supplier of military and nuclear technology. Rather than openly betray her erstwhile Iranian ally in Syria, Russia is happy to turn a blind eye while Israel decimates the Iranians. This will remain Russia’s interest regardless of Israel’s policy towards Ukraine.
In supplying Ukraine with Iron Dome, cyber security, drones and other support Israel will be on the right side of history. She will win the gratitude of the United States, the entire free, and the people of Ukraine and a claim to their support in future conflicts. Israel should continue her war against Iran in Syria undeterred and, in the highly unlikely event that Russia challenges her in the air, Israel should take the opportunity to rid herself, once and for all, of Russian interference in her war against Iran in Syria. In this Israel would have the backing of the entire free world and would gain three invaluable things: The respect of her friends, the respect of her enemies, and renewed self-respect.