Given its strong relationships with the parties involved, the Israeli government has multiple concerns about developments in the Ukrainian crisis. Tel Aviv is apprehensive about the continued declining status of the US in the world, which may lead to reduced American support for Israel and an accelerated US withdrawal from the Middle East that may leave Tel Aviv face-to-face with hostile powers in the region. Furthermore, Tel Aviv fears the possible negative repercussions of the Ukrainian crisis on its understandings with Russia in Syria, which may limit the room to maneuver that Israel has grown accustomed to in recent years, not to mention the potential blow-back of the Ukrainian crisis inside Israel, where nearly one million Jews of Russian origin live, and concern for a new wave of Jewish immigration from Ukraine if the situation worsens. All these factors are pushing Tel Aviv to try to maintain an equal distance from all sides in the Ukrainian crisis and to work as hard as possible to prevent a full-blown war. Despite a statement from Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, on 20 February 2022 that his nation’s position will be consistent with that of the West in the event of "an outbreak of war between Russia and Ukraine," all indicators confirm that Israel is eager to adopt a "policy of neutrality" vis-à-vis the crisis, which has prompted some Ukrainian officials to accuse Israel of sympathizing with the Russian view of the crisis.
The main aspects of the Israeli position vis-à-vis developments in the Ukrainian crisis can be identified as follows:
1. Tel Aviv’s deliberate silence on the crisis: Although many nations have taken clear positions on the Ukrainian crisis, it is notable that Israeli officials have deliberately remained silent on the issue and have not announced any official positions that may appear biased toward any of the parties to the conflict, as this may negatively impact Israel’s advantageous relationship with Russia, its strategic alliance with the US, or its strong relationship with NATO or Ukraine, where tens of thousands of Jews live. Likewise, the current president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish and has close relationships with Israeli leaders.
2. Attempt to play role of mediator between Moscow and Kyiv: In keeping with Israel’s strong relationships with Moscow and Kyiv, Israel has more than once attempted to play mediator and bring the two sides together. During his visit to Russia last October, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett tried to hold a Ukrainian-Russian summit, which Russia rejected. It is worth noting that former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had presented the same request to the Russian president, which the latter also rejected.
3. Refusal to supply Kyiv with Israeli weapons: The data indicate that, with the rising tensions between Moscow and Kyiv—first, with the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, then the war in Donbass—Israeli governments have been eager to scrutinize their defense cooperation with the Ukrainian side, as clearly demonstrated in the current crisis. The Hebrew-language newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, reported that Tel Aviv refused to supply Ukraine with the Iron Dome system. In another reassuring message to Moscow, some Israeli media reported that Tel Aviv was prohibiting nations that buy Israeli weapons from re-exporting them to Ukraine, especially the Baltic states, as it appears that Kyiv intended to acquire anti-tank missiles, aircraft, and other Israeli weapons from the Baltics.
4. Limited diplomatic differences between Tel Aviv and Kyiv: Developments in the Ukrainian crisis are reflected clearly in Israeli-Ukrainian relations, which have traditionally been strong. The relationship has seen some limited diplomatic differences in recent weeks, with Tel Aviv summoning the Ukrainian ambassador to a reprimand session on 4 February 2021, after the latter criticized Israel’s policy on the crisis, having previously accused Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid of adopting Russian views on the crisis. The Ukrainian ambassador also criticized Lapid’s description of the crisis as a "dispute" between Russia and Ukraine, and not a Russian "war" or "invasion" of his country.
On 17 February 2021, Kyiv summoned the Israeli ambassador to its own reprimand session, where the Ukrainian foreign ministry demanded a clarification of reports that Tel Aviv asked Russia to help provide security corridors for its citizens in Ukraine in the event of a Russian invasion.
There are multiple motives behind Israel’s "neutral" stance vis-à-vis the current Ukrainian crisis, which can be analyzed as follows:
1. Maintaining Israeli interests with the parties to the crisis: Israel has solid relationships with all parties to the current crisis. It is linked to Moscow by complex political interests, perhaps most notably their mutual understandings in Syria. The two countries are also joined by growing economic interests and are cooperating on commercial projects ranging from USD 2 billion to USD 3 billion annually. Last October, President Putin indicated that the volume of trade between the two countries increased by 50% in the first seven months of 2021, despite the pandemic. Russia and Israel are also looking forward to deepening their cooperation in various fields, especially modern technologies.
In addition to strategic relationships with the US and NATO, Israel has excellent economic and political relationships with Ukraine, as seen in Kyiv’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 2020. Accordingly, Israel has taken a neutral position toward the current crisis, born of its desire to maintain its political and economic interests with the parties to the crisis, especially since hundreds of thousands of Jews live in Russia and Ukraine and have excellent relations with Israel.
2. Concern over Tehran’s exploitation of the Ukrainian crisis: Among the drivers of Israeli neutrality in the current Ukrainian crisis—and the fear of its worsening—may be the concern that Iran will exploit the developments of the current crisis by extracting more concessions from the American administration in the ongoing nuclear negotiations, amid the administration’s preoccupation with the crisis and its desire to revive the nuclear agreement in the hopes of containing Iran if the situation with Russia and perhaps China deteriorates, especially since Iran owns the second-largest natural gas reserves in the world and could supply Europe with natural gas if the Ukrainian conflict develops and Moscow cuts off gas supplies from Europe. Tel Aviv also worries that the worsening of the Ukrainian crisis will lead to greater Russian and Chinese support for Iran, whom they consider an ally against the US. The Ukrainian crisis may also speed up the US withdrawal from the region and distract from Tehran’s activities. Furthermore, Tel Aviv is concerned that the US withdrawal will lead to a rapid rapprochement between Iran and other Arab states, especially after the recent improvement in Emirati-Iranian relations and the recurring rounds of negotiations between Riyadh and Tehran.
3. Attempt to maintain understandings with Moscow in Syria: Israel and Russia have joint understandings in Syria giving Israeli aircraft clear operating freedom in Syrian airspace. Over the past years, dozens of Israeli raids have targeted the Syrian army and Iran and its proxies in Syria, amid Tel Aviv’s eagerness to obstruct Iran’s permanent positioning in Syrian territory and to prevent the transfer of precision weaponry to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Thus, Israel is avoiding taking any position on the Ukrainian crisis that might provoke Moscow’s anger, which could negatively affect their joint understandings in Syria and threaten the operating freedom of Israeli aircraft in Syrian airspace, which is largely controlled by Russia. It is worth noting that many Israeli circles consider the recent joint patrols by the Russian and Syrian air forces above the Golan Heights a message to Tel Aviv that may contribute to limiting Israel’s repeated strikes inside Syrian territory.
4. Concern over US distraction from supporting Israel: Many researchers agree that the current Ukrainian crisis may contribute to shaping the features of the world order in the coming period. In addition to the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Ukrainian crisis may be considered a significant step toward a new world order to be re-structured by China and Russia, given the clear decline of US hegemony. Amid the US withdrawal from the Middle East, Tel Aviv may fear that the development of the Ukrainian crisis into all-out war will lead to more such retreat, such that it leads to Washington’s preoccupation and its declining support for Israel, leaving Israel face-to-face with its regional enemies, led by Iran and its allies, who have good relationships with Russia and China.
5. Fear of domestic crises in Israel: There are an estimated 150,000-250,000 Jewish citizens in Ukraine, among them about 10,000-15,000 Israelis. Tel Aviv fears that exacerbation of the Ukrainian crisis will lead to a new wave of Jewish immigration to Israel under the Law of Return, which could lead to a crisis in Israel and a lessening of its current influence in Ukraine due to the presence of those citizens. In this regard, numerous reports have said that the government and the Israeli army, as well as the Jewish Agency, have drawn up an emergency plan to absorb a new wave of migration from Ukraine. In addition, nearly one million Jews of Russian origin live in Israel; they are expected to mainly support Russia, and they may object to any Israeli support for Ukraine against Russia.
In conclusion, Tel Aviv appears to be among those most affected by the current Ukrainian crisis, given its close ties with the parties to the crisis and the potential negative repercussions on its direct interests, or by easing pressure on and giving greater opportunities to its enemies, particularly Iran. All these considerations are pushing Tel Aviv to try to "steer a middle course" to the extent possible and to adopt a non-committal policy. However, any potential development in the crisis may put more pressure on the Israeli government and lessen its room to maneuver.