The Reasoning Behind Israel’s Refusal to Supply Weapons to Ukraine

by November 2022
Protestors hold signs at a demonstration against the Russian military invasion into Ukraine, in Tel Aviv, Israel. Photo credit: REUTERS
Is [Israel] with the democratic world . . . or with those who turn a blind eye to Russian terror?
–Volodymyr Zelenskyy, October 24, 2022%%

Ever since the Russian invasion of Ukraine last February, Israel’s policy of not supplying weapons to Ukraine has come under both domestic and international criticism. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently stated that the decision by Israeli leaders not to support Kyiv has encouraged Russia’s military partnership with Iran. Inside Israel, critics say support for Ukraine is a moral imperative; others demand that Israel stand with its greatest ally, the US.

Israel faces a dilemma: How to balance its intricate ties with Moscow, its strategic alliance with the United States, its significant partnerships with Western countries, and its long-cordial relations with Kyiv. What are the reasons behind the current policy and how might it change in the future?

The surge in Russian attacks on the Ukrainian hinterland in autumn 2022 made the Ukrainian government’s need for air-defense systems urgent. At the end of September, Zelenskyy claimed that only five states produced the kind of air defense that Ukraine needed, and he pointed to Israel as being one, and as not helping Ukraine enough. In a late October interview, Zelenskyy revealed that former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had refused his request for Iron Dome short-range anti-rocket systems years before the Russian invasion, and that he had received the same answer from Netanyahu’s successors after the war started. Zelenskyy was upset that Israel refused to supply even non-lethal communications systems for the Ukrainian military. Israel’s Defense Minister Gantz has since offered to provide his Ukrainian counterpart with an early warning system for missile attacks.

Ukrainian officials further claim that the Russian–Iranian convergence emphasizes that Moscow would do anything to support Iranian nuclear ambitions; therefore, helping defeat Russia in Ukraine would allow Israel to weaken Iran.

There are tactical reasons for Israel’s refusal to supply Ukraine with the Iron Dome short-range missile defense. The Israelis claim they don’t have spare batteries and interceptor missiles and question whether the Iron Dome is the right system for Ukraine. Indeed, the Iron Dome is used in Israel against unguided rockets, whereas in Ukraine, the main threat is from precision-guided missiles and drones. It’s not clear that the Iron Dome would have the same success rate against Russia as it has against terrorists in Gaza.

The Israeli Iron Dome batteries are deployed to protect a relatively small amount of territory. To cover Ukraine’s vast lands, it needs more extensive air-defense arrays than the Israeli one does. Taking the systems out of the Israeli order of battle would leave the country vulnerable, as there is a constant threat of escalation from the Palestinians in Gaza or Hezbollah in Lebanon. There is also an apprehension that Russians would study the Iron Dome to find weaknesses and take revenge on Israel by helping Hamas and Hezbollah challenge the Iron Dome more effectively.

Ukraine could use a few Iron Dome systems to defend its critical infrastructure. Alternatively it could benefit from other Israeli air-defense systems. The main reason behind the Israeli refusal is not tactical but rather political-strategic.

At the beginning of the war, the US and the European countries pressured Israel to adopt a clear public position against the Russian invasion. Since then, the US government has eased up on its pressure and doesn’t expect Israel to increase aid to Ukraine. Still, many critical voices in Washington, both on Capitol Hill and in the think-tank community, have expressed “displeasure at Israel for refusing Ukraine’s request for defensive military equipment to combat Russia’s invasion.” The criticism in the US Congress is both from Democratic and Republican lawmakers. A senior Israeli former defense official conveyed recently to one of the authors that while the Europeans are quite understanding of the Israeli position, he’s extremely anxious about future repercussions for US–Israeli relations and specifically Israel’s reputation as a major US ally in the Middle East.

For its part, Russia is not interested in alienating Israel, which is one of a small group of Western countries not overtly hostile to it. The war has brought Russia and Iran closer together as the two most anti-western countries in the world, as Iran seems to be the only (or at least the major) supplier of weapons that Moscow desperately needs in Ukraine –  loitering munitions (aerial attack weapons that search for a target) and soon, probably precise ballistic missiles. It’s not clear whether or not Israel is helping Ukraine with intelligence to counter newly employed Iranian-made weapons. Some Ukrainians claim Israel is helpful, while others deny it. Israel doesn’t believe it is in Moscow’s interest to help Iran go nuclear; however, nobody in Jerusalem is hopeful that Russia would actively prevent a nuclear Iran scenario.

Russian officials threaten that giving weapons to Ukraine would mark Israel as an “unfriendly state,” to be followed by countermeasures. These might include interfering with Israel’s freedom of operations in Syria and Lebanon; supplying sophisticated military technology to Iran (Russia does have capabilities Iran desires); and limiting the emigration of Russian Jews to Israel, which has intensified in recent months.

Russia’s intervention in Syria’s civil war in 2015 made Moscow an important factor in Israel’s ability to continue weakening the Iranian military presence in Syria and Lebanon. Russia has thus far turned a blind eye to Israeli air attacks in Syria against Iran, as long as Israel accepts Russia’s strategic dominance in Syria. Throughout the Russian–Ukrainian war, Russia has continued to acquiesce in Israeli operations in Syria, despite moving closer toward Iran. Russia has warned Israel that weapons supplied to Ukraine would change its passive position on Israeli attacks in Syria. Despite the weakness of the Russian military in Ukraine, Russia can make it harder for the Israeli Air Force to act in Syria, and no Israeli commander or politician is willing to sacrifice Israeli soldiers to help Ukraine.

Last summer, Russia initiated a process of closing down the Jewish Agency in its territory, signaling to Israel that the Kremlin can put pressure on Israel by endangering its capability to help Russian Jews emigrate to Israel.

Finally there are domestic Israeli political considerations. The Israeli public and the government, in general, are quite sympathetic to Ukraine and do not want Russia to defeat the Western allies. Nevertheless, Israel’s security is under constant threat of sudden escalation into war with Hamas in Gaza or Hezbollah in Lebanon, with an increasing probability of a nuclear Iran scenario. Not many in Israel support opening a new confrontation front with Moscow, if it’s not necessary. An October 18 poll by the Israeli public TV showed that a plurality of the Israeli public oppose supplying lethal weapons to Ukraine (41% against, 21% supportive of selling weapons, 38% with no opinion).

The issue was also politicized during the run-up to elections for the Knesset on November 1. The right accused Yair Lapid’s government of not being sensitive enough in maneuvering between Moscow and Washington and claimed that former Prime Minister Netanyahu could reduce tensions with Moscow. Therefore, the current government didn’t want a new crisis with Russia that could play into the hands of its political opponents.

Conclusions

Israel supports the Western camp on Ukraine but faces both tactical and strategic constraints in supplying lethal weapons to Ukraine. Internal public criticism could conceivably move government policy to some degree but probably only to increase humanitarian and non-lethal military aid.

Jerusalem’s dilemma is harsh. Supplying weapons to Ukraine would, given explicit Russian threats, endanger concrete security interests in the short term. Not supplying weapons to Ukraine involves the less clear and more long-term reputational loss of not being supportive enough of the West in its generational fight against Russia. Currently Israel prefers the short term, but it might change its calculations if the long-term losses become more concrete and observable.

Daniel Rakov
Lt. Colonel (res.) Daniel Rakov is a senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS).
Pnina Shuker
Deputy editor
Dr. Pnina Shuker is a national security expert and a research fellow at JISS (Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security). She is also lecturer at Bar Ilan University and at the "Shalem" College. @pnina_shuker    
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