I Understand Israel's Position on Ukraine. I Still Wish It Would Do More | Opinion

Not since the end of the Nazi regime has there been such a brutal, senseless, baseless war in Europe like the war launched by Russia against Ukraine. There is no question of who is the victim and who is the evil aggressor. Yet while all of Europe and the U.S. have stood firmly in Ukraine's corner, the Israeli government has taken a more subtle approach, focusing on backchannel negotiations and refraining from taking actions that would anger the Russians like imposing sanctions, while at the same time standing together with the U.S. on UN votes.

How to understand the prevarications in Jerusalem, which simultaneously assert Israel stands with the Ukrainian people while refusing to publicly condemn Putin?

As a small country constantly threatened by larger neighbors and firmly anchored in the democratic west, identifies with Ukraine, and yet its security interests rely heavily on coordinating with the Russians in Syria, where Russian troops control much of the country and the airspace. Coordination with Russia has allowed Israel to operate in the air over Syria without opposition, even while attacking Iranian targets.

Moreover, while there are many Jews living in (and now fleeing) Ukraine, there is also a sizable Jewish community in Russia. There is concern that if Israel's relations with Russia deteriorate further, the Jews who live there would be trapped with no way to get out. This is why the Israeli government has insisted that El Al continue flight service to Russia, for example.

Finally, Israel has a complicated relationship with the many Jewish Russian oligarchs—those same people whom the majority of Western countries have sanctioned. Over the years, many of those oligarchs have obtained Israeli citizenship, meaning that as far as Israel is concerned, they are Israelis, and Israel does not have any law which would allow it to confiscate the property of its citizens just because foreign nations have sanctioned them.

Israel, Herzog, Ukraine, Zelenskyy, Kyiv, 2021
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (C) welcomes his Israeli counterpart Isaac Herzog (2ndL) ahead of their meeting at Mariinskyi Palace in Kyiv on October 5, 2021. SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images

What we're seeing now in Israel's posture toward Russia and Ukraine is in essence an attempt to balance its values with its interests. And this approach certainly has its upsides. It's provided Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett with the ability to speak to both sides and facilitate dialogue between Putin and Zelensky.

But as the Russians resort to ever more brutal methods in their war against Ukraine, this balancing act will become increasingly untenable. Israel cannot be seen as the only western democracy that failed to side with Ukraine. Carrying on "business as usual" with a man who is clearly becoming a war criminal is not a real option.

Furthermore, the concern is that the Russians in Syria could close Syrian air space to Israel is not an urgent one; historically, every time the Israeli Air Force encountered the Soviet (now Russian Air Force), the rendezvous did not end well for the Soviets.

In the one dogfight between Israelis and Soviet Planes during Israel's War of Attrition, the IAF shot down five Soviets planes and did not suffer a single loss on the Israeli side. In 1981, during the First Lebanon War, the IAF destroyed the carefully designed Soviet missile system in Syria and suffered no casualties. And since then, Israeli technology, training, and tactics have continued to advance rapidly, while the Russian army seems little more than the Soviet Army with a new coat of paint, as we have seen in Ukraine.

The bottom line is that while there is always risk in pursuit of the unknown, it is implausible that the Russians would try to interfere with Israeli activities in Syria. An Air Force that cannot dominate the skies over Ukraine after two weeks of battle is not about to take on the IAF.

With the war now in its third week and no clear end in sight, Israel's position on the tightrope is becoming inexcusable. Israel will soon be forced to pick values over some of its perceived interests. If the war goes on, Israel will not be able to continue to operate El Al flights to Moscow or protect the financial interests of Jewish oligarchs indefinitely. Israel will have no choice but fully coordinate its actions with the rest of Western Democracies.

Marc Schulman is a multimedia historian.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.