Diplomatic tightrope: Why Syria is central to Israel’s unwillingness to give air defence to Ukraine

Diplomatic tightrope: Why Syria is central to Israel’s unwillingness to give air defence to Ukraine

Diplomatic tightrope: Why Syria is central to Israel’s unwillingness to give air defence to Ukraine

New Delhi: The newly-elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had promised to review the country’s position vis-a-vis the Ukraine-Russia war if he came to power. He has come good on that promise as reports emerged that the review is already underway and that Antony Blinken has been informed as much. Netanyahu, said reports, has said that his government is not going to do less than the last one.

The reason for this assertion is the long-standing friendship-level understanding between Netanyahu and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. But, while America might have been to rest, the realistic position is that Netanyahu is not going to usher any sea change in the Israeli position when it comes to providing lethal and cutting-edge air-defence systems to Ukraine. Ukraine has cried itself hoarse asking and begging for these systems that it argues can save its civilians from Russia’s punishing raids using Iranian drones.

So far, Israel has also withstood a strong American pressure to this end, even as the US understands the national security concerns of Israel on this matter.

Hitherto, Israel has argued that, on the face of it, it is hesitant to provide the air defence systems — Iron Dome and Iron Beam — to Ukraine lest the advanced tech may fall in the hands of Russia and, ultimately, end up with arch enemy Iran.

But, Israel’s interest in not providing Ukraine this tech has a strong Russia and Syria quagmire. The Syrian skies are controlled by the Russians and Israel has had a long understanding with Russia to let it strike against Iran backed elements and Iranian targets inside Syria. Containing Iran is the biggest strategic need of Israel, without a question.

In this scenario, if Israel were to provide Ukraine with air defence systems, Russia could make life difficult for it in Syria. A larger fallout of this could be that Russia, in reaction, could further move closer to Iran.

Israel, so far has been walking a diplomatic tightrope: it has condemned Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, has provided Ukraine humanitarian aid, but has desisted from allying with its western partners in an all-out anti-Russia formation. Israel has also so far refrained from joining the sanctions regime against Russia like the EU and Americans.

Russia can also restrict the movement of Jews to Israel and close the Jewish Agency.

Already last year at the United Nations, Ukraine joined 152 countries, including Russia, to vote in support of a General Assembly resolution that called on Israel to get rid of its nuclear weapons arsenal.

While the former Israeli PM Naftali Bennett had been ambiguous since the Ukraine war started, his then foreign minister Yair Lapid condemned Russia for the aggression. Later, when Lapid came to power he openly censured Russia and Putin. All in all, an official reprimand to Russia came only after seven months of the war.

Now that Netanyahu is again back in the saddle, the military philosophy remains the same: Israel believes that its national security is dependent on its ability to strike inside Syria and keeping its doors open for Russia.

It, however, remains to be seen what happens when Israeli foreign minister Eli Cohen travels to Kyiv soon— the first visit by an Israeli minister to Kyiv since the Russian invasion and the first visit by a foreign minister from the Middle East—to meet his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba to reopen the Israeli Embassy there.

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