Why Israel Refused to Help Ukraine Defend Itself From Russian Missiles

Israel not only refused to sell its Iron Dome missile defense system to Ukraine, but it also blocked the U.S. from sending Iron Dome batteries owned by the U.S. Army to Kyiv.

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL - MARCH 20:  Demonstrators gather to watch Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's speech to the Israeli parliament as it broadcasted at Habima Square on March 20, 2022 in Tel Aviv, Israel. Ukrainian President Zelensky has been making a virtual world tour in recent weeks, lobbying foreign governments by video to help his country defend itself against Russia's invasion.  (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)
A live feed of Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, addressing Israeli lawmakers via Zoom on Sunday is broadcast to pro-Ukraine demonstrators in Tel Aviv, Israel. Photo: Amir Levy/Getty Images

As Russia’s brutal assault on Ukraine continues, officials in Kyiv appear to be losing patience with the mediation efforts of Israel’s prime minister, Naftali Bennett, who has tried and failed to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin to meet his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, for talks in Jerusalem.

Zelenskyy made his frustration clear in a virtual address to Israel’s parliament on Sunday, when he asked why the country had blocked the transfer of Iron Dome missile defense batteries to Ukraine before the Russian attack and then refused to impose strong sanctions on Russia after it. Zelenskyy shredded the official excuse offered by Bennett, that Israel has to remain neutral to act as a mediator.

“Mediation,” Zelenskyy told the lawmakers on a Zoom call from Kyiv, his embattled capital, “can be between states, not between good and evil.”

Israel’s ambassador to Ukraine, Michael Brodsky, seemed to confirm the next day that the country had asked to purchase the Iron Dome missile defense system last year and was turned down. As the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported, Brodsky told Israel’s Army Radio on Monday that “to the best of my knowledge, the issue also came up before the war. It was made clear to the Ukrainian side that this was impossible, and they still insist on raising it.”

Rather than offering to help Ukraine protect itself from Russian missiles, Israel’s prime minister has embraced the role of mediator between Zelenskyy and Putin.

Given that Israel has not managed to broker a peace agreement with Palestine more than five decades after it seized through warfare the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the Golan Heights, and given that it rules over millions of people who are deprived of political or civil rights in those occupied territories — and still has no clearly defined borders of its own — the country might seem ill-placed to help Ukraine and Russia settle their conflict.

Still, Zelenskyy had reportedly been asking Bennett to intercede with Putin on Ukraine’s behalf for at least a year before the invasion. “I don’t think it would be right at this point to meet in Russia, Ukraine, or Belarus. These aren’t places in which we could reach any understandings on stopping the war,” the Ukrainian president told an Israeli reporter in Kyiv this month. “I believe Israel could serve as such a meeting place, especially in Jerusalem.”

But Ukrainian officials have expressed doubts about the usefulness of Bennett’s efforts now that more than two weeks have passed since he traveled to Moscow for a three-hour meeting with Putin, accompanied by Ze’ev Elkin, Israel’s housing minister, who was born and raised in Kharkiv, a largely Russian-speaking Ukrainian city that has endured fierce bombardment from Russian forces. One shell fired at a residential building in Kharkiv last week took the life of Boris Romantschenko, a 96-year-old Ukrainian who survived four Nazi concentration camps, including Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen, only to be killed in a Russian campaign officially dedicated to “denazification.”

After Bennett’s trip to Moscow, an unidentified senior Ukrainian official told Barak Ravid, a diplomatic correspondent for Walla News in Israel and Axios in Washington, that the Israeli prime minister had phoned Zelenskyy and urged him to accept Putin’s demands to end the fighting. “If I were you, I would think about the lives of my people and take the offer,” the official said Bennett told Zelenskyy. “Bennett is basically telling us to surrender, and we have no intention of doing that,” the Ukrainian official said.

Bennett’s office denied that he had pressed Zelenskyy to accept any offer from Putin and said he had merely been acting as a messenger. But given what Putin has said in public about why regime change is necessary in Kyiv — the lie that Zelenskyy, who is Jewish, leads a government of drug-addled Nazis who must be demilitarized to stop a fictional genocide against ethnic Russians in Ukraine — it is not hard to see why Ukrainian officials might have been offended to hear his terms described as anything but delusional. Agreeing to give up its military and its elected government and redrawing its borders to suit Russia would make Ukraine into a de facto colony of its larger neighbor, ruled from Moscow by a repressive autocrat, as it was in the Soviet era.

If the idea that Ukrainians should simply give up their independence and accept an offer of limited autonomy on terms dictated by a neighboring country with a stronger military sounded reasonable to Bennett, it might be because Israel has been pressing Palestinians to accept similar terms of surrender disguised as a peace deal for decades.

Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, who is also Jewish, joined the criticism of Israel a week after Bennett’s Moscow visit seemed to bear no fruit. In a video message to fans of the Soviet-era game show “What? Where? When?” — which is still played as a competitive board game in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, and Israel — Reznikov said that Israel’s “inexplicable detachment and unwillingness to choose sides” would cause Ukrainians to mistrust the country in the future. And, he added, Ukrainians will have a future, “because we will stand tall, have no doubt — with or without you.”

Israeli officials said Monday that Ukraine has asked Bennett to come to Kyiv to meet Zelenskyy in person if he senses any progress in the talks about talks. Bennett told the Jerusalem Post that he got the sense that Russia might be willing to let Zelenskyy stay in office and settle for something less than the complete demilitarization of the country, but Ukraine is hardly likely to see either as a concession.

In the meantime, Zelenskyy and his aides are reportedly wondering if Bennett’s offer to mediate between the sides might have been motivated less by any real hope of brokering a peace deal than by his desire to remain neutral so he can avoid alienating Putin. “His initiative looks like an excuse for why he is not speaking out against Russia, not providing weapons to Ukraine, and not sanctioning Russia,” a Ukrainian official told Ravid.

Since 2015, when Russia’s military intervened in the Syrian civil war to keep President Bashar al-Assad from defeat, Russian forces have controlled the skies over Syria. That’s important to Israel because the Russian military command in Syria has been willing to allow Israeli jets to enter Syrian airspace to carry out airstrikes on Iranian-backed forces crossing through Syrian territory. As a result, Israel’s leaders seem to be wary of offering any support to Ukraine that might anger Russia.

“His initiative looks like an excuse for why he is not speaking out against Russia, not providing weapons to Ukraine, and not sanctioning Russia.”

Two weeks ago, Russian soldiers patrolling Syria’s contested border with Israel in the Golan Heights were reportedly spotted driving vehicles marked with the letter Z — the mysterious coded symbol of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

As Bernard Avishai pointed out in the New Yorker last week, Israel not only refrained from joining the U.S. and European Union in sanctioning Russia, but it also “continues to provide a residence and tax haven for Russian-Jewish oligarchs, some of whom have funded campaigns and projects of Israeli ministers.”

The Israeli prime minister’s efforts to bring peace to Ukraine also drew some sarcastic comments from Israeli critics of his failure to even try to achieve that at home. “I tip my cap to the prime minister’s mediation efforts in Ukraine,” Uri Zaki, a leader of the liberal Zionist Meretz party, tweeted Tuesday. “If Bennett believes he can bridge such conflicting positions, why is he giving up in advance on negotiations with the Palestinians and the opportunity to reach an agreement that will save Israel?!”

Others mocked Bennett’s refusal to arm Ukraine with weapons Israel has sold to repressive states. “It’s only in Israel that selling arms to dictators is cool, but selling arms to a democracy that was attacked by a dictator is complicated and sensitive,” lawyer Itai Leshem observed.

There has been pointed criticism too from some American lawmakers. When Zelenskyy sharply asked Israel’s parliament why Ukraine was unable to buy missile defense systems to “help us protect our lives, the lives of Ukrainians, the lives of Ukrainian Jews,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican, tweeted: “Israel’s reaction to #Ukraine will have bearing on future aid from the US to #Israel. Pay it forward.”

Last summer, the Jerusalem Post reported that officials in the now-ruined Ukrainian city of Mariupol wanted to purchase an Iron Dome missile defense system from Israel to protect their airport, but the sale never went through because of Israel’s concerns about upsetting its relationship with Russia. For the same reason, Israel also refused to allow the U.S. Army to send two Iron Dome batteries it had purchased but couldn’t use to Ukraine. Since the system was developed jointly by the U.S. and Israel, both countries reserve the right to veto sales to third countries.

After that disappointment, Ukraine appears to have made another diplomatic effort to get military support from Israel: The Ukrainian ambassador to Israel told the Times of Israel that Zelenskyy was ready to recognize Jerusalem as the country’s “one and only capital” and move Ukraine’s embassy there within months if “certain preconditions in the security and defense relationship between the countries” could be met. That apparent willingness to ignore the Palestinian claim to East Jerusalem — which Israel occupied in 1967 before annexing in violation of international law — in exchange for weapons distressed some Palestinians who otherwise sympathized with him.

“I admire Zelensky and stand with Ukrainians in their struggle against Putin’s aggression, but it surely can’t be lost on him that Israel itself has occupied Palestinians for decades, violating global norms and rejecting persistent appeals,” Shibley Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland, observed on Twitter about the Ukrainian president’s address to Israel’s parliament.

“Palestinians empathize with the people of Ukraine who are fleeing and resisting Russia’s military invasion and occupation,” the nonprofit Institute for Middle East Understanding tweeted. “Palestinians know all too well that pain and have been enduring it for decades. But let’s be clear: Zelensky has it backwards when it comes to Israel and its military. Ukrainians are fleeing and resisting oppression like Palestinians. Russia is violently advancing a military occupation and invasion like Israel.”

Update: March 23, 2022, 4:48 p.m. ET
This article was revised to add a new headline and more information about Ukraine’s effort to purchase the Iron Dome missile defense system from Israel.

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