In the last week, President Biden’s surprise visit to Ukraine dominated all the media, especially after White House officials described this visit as “unprecedented in modern times” due to the appearance of the head of the most important country in the world in a dangerous war zone.
Certainly, this visit deserves all this attention, especially since Biden ended the visit promising Ukraine with new weapons and “unwavering” support, revealing during a press conference with his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky about additional aid worth $500m.
Nevertheless, the most important thing that can be documented about Biden’s sudden visit to Ukraine is its coincidence with the visit of two members of the Israeli Knesset at the same time. This is where Israeli parliamentarians Ze’ev Elkin and Yuli Edelstein also visited the Ukrainian capital last Monday to discuss Ukraine’s continued defence against Russia.
In this context, it is also worth noting that Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen met earlier with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during his first official visit to Kyiv. In this meeting, Cohen affirmed that “Israel stands firmly in solidarity with the Ukrainian people and remains committed to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” For his part, Zelensky stressed during the meeting that “Israel and Ukraine have a common enemy: Iran.”
More importantly, when Netanyahu was asked during an interview with CNN whether Israel could assist Ukraine in areas such as Iron Dome, which protects Israel from air attacks, he replied, “Well, I’m definitely considering that.”
These moves and statements from the Israeli side, in light of the presence of clear and unprecedented American sponsorship, completely contradict the statement of Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, who confirmed last month a new direction regarding the strategy that the Netanyahu government will follow, by drawing closer to the Kremlin and strengthening relations with Putin.
This statement was reinforced by the phone call that took place last month between Cohen and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, which is the first contact of its kind for Tel Aviv with a Russian minister since the outbreak of Moscow’s war on Ukraine in late February 2022. In this call, Cohen also hinted that, unlike his predecessor, Yair Lapid, he will not publicly condemn Russia (concerning the Ukraine war). He added that he intends to formulate a new “responsible” policy regarding the war in Ukraine, according to the official Israeli radio, “Kan”.
The Israeli side’s movements on the ground and Netanyahu’s statements also contradict what is published by the National Security Research Center of Tel Aviv University. This is where many reports issued officially from this important centre confirmed that the new Israeli government is looking to be a mediator between Moscow, Kyiv, and the West. This is where the Netanyahu government aims to change the stereotype of Israel in the Kremlin regarding the current policy that it is biased towards Kyiv and the American administration, due to the policy adopted by the previous Israeli government led by Lapid, which directed harsh criticism at Moscow and accused it of committing war crimes in Ukraine. Accordingly, the Netanyahu government, according to the National Security Research Center at Tel Aviv University, will adopt a new policy that requires maintaining good and close relations with Russia because of its strategic interests to undermine Iranian influence in the Middle East, limit Tehran’s military positioning in Syria, and ensure the freedom of action of the Israeli Air Force in Syrian territory.
Certainly, the former Yair Lapid government has escalated tensions with Russia because of its previous positions against the latter in the Ukrainian war. This appeared clearly in the statement of Russia’s ambassador to Tel Aviv, Anatoly Viktorov, who confirmed that “Lapid’s assumption of the premiership harms Moscow’s relationship with Tel Aviv.” The Lapid government also, under American pressure, sent aid that could be called strategic aid to Kyiv. This aid was represented in additional assistance to the Ukrainian rescue forces and civil organizations and included 1,500 military helmets, 1,500 protective vests, 1,000 anti-gas masks, and hundreds of protective suits for demining, according to the Israeli Ministry of Defense. But despite this, and although the Lapid government officially condemned the Russian move and sent regular aid to Ukraine, it did not participate in any real military support. This, of course, is in contrast to the Netanyahu government, which is threatening to send the Iron Dome system to Ukraine.
In fact, Israel’s position towards Russia in the Ukrainian war was complicated from the beginning because of its relationship with Russia, which relied on two main priorities, namely allowing Russian Jews to emigrate, and facilitating striking Iranian militias in Syria. Nevertheless, the military cooperation between Moscow and Tehran may push Israel, which considers Iran its number one enemy, to take an anti-Russian stance. This may actually prompt Netanyahu’s far-right government to send Iron Dome to Ukraine, a mobile missile defence system developed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems that is intended to intercept short-range rockets and artillery shells. Indeed, Ukraine has been appealing to Israel for some time to provide it with this system, but Israel has been very hesitant about this matter, for fear of the Russian reaction.
In this context, the CIA also plays an active role in fueling the fears of the Israeli side regarding cooperation between Russia and Iran. This is where the CIA expressed fears of establishing a full defence partnership between Russia and Iran, considering it a threat to Israel. CIA Director William Burns also explained – in an interview with PBS recently – the US concerns, as Tehran is providing Moscow with drones to support the Russian effort in the Ukrainian war on the one hand. On the other hand, Russia is looking at ways to support Tehran technologically and militarily.
Therefore, the question that arises now is whether the American pressure will succeed in concluding a deal between Ukraine and Israel on the basis of which the Iron Dome system will be sent to Ukraine in return for recruiting Ukraine to speak publicly in the international arena regarding the Iranian issue, or will Israel fear the Russian reaction, which could enhance the Iranian presence in the Middle East, changing the balance of power in the region.
Dr Marwa El-Shinawy is an assistant Prof. at International American University for Specialized Studies(IAUS)