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Israel's Ukraine dilemma?

Tania Krämer Jerusalem
October 21, 2022

Following Russian attacks on the Ukrainian capital Kyiv using Iranian drones, Ukraine has once again asked Israel for military help. Israel, however, is seeking to maintain relations with both Ukraine and Russia.

Drone attacks on Kyiv
Israel has stopped short of providing direct military support to UkraineImage: Gleb Garanich/REUTERS

Shortly after Russia reportedly used Iranian-supplied Shahed-136 drones to attack Kyiv, Ukraine's foreign minister, Dimytro Kuleba, said he would formally submit an official request to Israel for air defense supplies. This would not be Ukraine's first such request for military support from Israel.

To date, Israel has officially refrained from arming Ukraine, offering humanitarian support and other supplies like helmets and protective vests instead. Iran has denied supplying drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), to Russia.

Ukrainian rescuers in blue helmets and protective gear shift through rubble of a residential building hit by a Russian drone strike
US intelligence has confirmed that Russia is using Iranian military drones in its war against UkraineImage: Oleksii Chumachenko/ZUMA/IMAGO

But the latest development, now involving Israel's arch-enemy Iran, has once again highlighted Israel's dilemma vis-a-vis Russia's invasion of Ukraine. It has also sparked a new debate as to whether Israel should continue its balancing act. 

While it has occasionally harshly criticized the Russian invasion and increasingly supported Ukraine, Israel has stopped short of providing direct military support in an attempt not to damage ties with Moscow.

In a phone call with Ukraine's foreign minister Kuleba on Thursday evening, Israel's Prime Minister Yair Lapid said he was updated on the war, affirming that Israel "stands with the Ukrainian people." But he made no mention of Ukraine's formal request for air defense systems.

"Early warning system" offer, but no policy shift

Benny Gantz, Israel's Defense Minister, stands behind a podium
Israel offers to assist Ukraine in developing a "life-saving early-warning system"Image: Ariel Hermoni/MOD

In a briefing to European Union ambassadors on Wednesday, Israel's Defense Minister Benny Gantz said that "Israel supports and stands with Ukraine, NATO and the West this is something we have said in the past and repeat today. Israel has a policy of supporting Ukraine via humanitarian aid, and the delivery of life-saving defensive equipment."

Yet Gantz also added that Israel would not deliver weapon systems to Ukraine "due to a variety of operational considerations. We will continue to support Ukraine within our limitations, as we have done in the past." Instead, he said that Israel will "assist in developing a life-saving early-warning system."

A military drone seen against a blue sky above Kyiv, Ukraine
Amos Yadlin says the Iranian Shahed drones are "easy targets, they fly in low altitude and slow speed"Image: Efrem Lukatsky/AP/picture alliance

Israel's present policy is also being debated by analysts. "Israel has continued to act in a way that has resulted in it getting the short end of the stick in both directions," wrote Israeli journalist Nadav Eyal in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth on Tuesday. "The Ukrainians are furious with it for failing to help; the Russians are using Iranian help and are also helping the Iranians — and are operating against Israel in several different arenas."

Some observers think Israel should be more concerned by closer relations between Russia and Iran, as well as the use of Iranian drones in Ukraine.

"We should be with where our values are: The democratic countries in Europe and the US are against the Russian aggression in Ukraine,” says retired general Amos Yadlin, former head of Israeli Defence Intelligence.

He has long argued that Israel should be more active in supporting Ukraine. "Iran is our main enemy. And whenever Iran is sided with somebody, Israel should be on the other side."

Security and diplomatic considerations

Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February, Israel has provided humanitarian aid to Ukraine while maintaining reasonable relations with Russia. Although there has been a debate in Israel on the moral grounds for helping people in need, as well as the hosting of new immigrants fleeing both Russia and Ukraine, Israel is guided by its own political and diplomatic considerations: The fate of the Jewish community in Russia appears to be the principal concern.

In the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Israel saw an influx of more than a million Jews from Russia. This year, over 20,000 Russians have already made their way to Israel, many of them young men seeking to escape conscription.

Recently, the threat of a "court case” to shut down the Jewish Agency a semi-governmental body that helps Jews immigrate to Israel has made the pressures on Russian Jews all the more visible.

Geo-political concerns

Israel's reluctance to supply Ukraine with weapons stems from its own security considerations closer to home. Since Russia entered the Syrian civil war to help the regime of Bashar al-Assad, it controls much of Syria's airspace.

Israel regularly carries out airstrikes against what it describes as Iranian targets and weapon transfers to Iran's proxy, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. Close military coordination, or a "deconfliction mechanism" through which Israel informs Russia of impending airstrikes, allows the Israeli military the much needed "freedom of action" to carry out such strikes.

An Israeli soldier takes cover as an Iron Dome air defence system launches to intercept a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip
Israel fears sophisticated Iron Dome technology could fall into the wrong handsImage: Ariel Schalit/AP Photo/picture alliance

Ukrainian officials have repeatedly asked for defense systems like the Iron Dome, David Sling, or the Barak 3 defense system. But security analysts believe that Israel doesn't have enough Iron Domes to spare given the security threats it faces in the region.

Additionally, the Iron Dome is considered "very confidential technology and you don't want it to fall into the hands of the Iranians now in Crimea and [in the hands of] the Russians," says Amos Yadlin, former executive director at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).

"The good news is the Iranian drones are easy targets, they fly in low altitude and slow speed, and you could really help Ukraine with less sophisticated air defense systems that Israel has already sold to other countries."

A battery of Israel's Iron Dome defence missile system with a silhouette of a soldier in the left foreground
Israel's reluctance stems from its own security considerationsImage: Ariel Schalit/AP Photo/picture alliance

For now, Israel seems determined to continue navigating its delicate course. "We are following Iran's involvement in the war in Ukraine. We see that Iran provides UAVs, and in the near future may also provide additional advanced systems," Defense Minister Gantz said on Wednesday.

He added that Iran was already involved in "Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and additional places." Israel, he said, will "continue developing and maintaining its capabilities."

Edited by: Lucy James