Since the start of the Russia-Ukraine war, a global cold war has also kicked in. As a strong ally of the US and the home of a massive constituency of Russian, Ukrainian and Eastern European Jews, it was only natural that Israel would be at the heart of the global conflict. When the war began, Israel was ruled by an odd coalition, bringing together political parties from the right, center and left. These parties were aware of the electoral importance of Russian Jews, who mostly arrived in Israel following the collapse of the former Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This sizable and rapidly growing constituency is largely anti-Moscow, as opinion polls have demonstrated.
These demographics, in addition to Israel’s loyalty to Washington, complicated the Israeli position. On the one hand, Tel Aviv voted in favor of a UN General Assembly resolution in March 2022 that condemned Russia. In response, Moscow expressed its “disappointment” in Israel. Additionally, Israel opened its doors to Ukrainians and also Russian Jews who wanted to flee the war zones. On the other hand, then-Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett attempted to play the role of mediator, holding meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky. Moreover, Israel was repeatedly floated as a possible meeting place for future negotiations, giving it a special status as a peacemaker, although in media coverage only. This did not culminate in anything. In fact, it later resulted in multiple controversies. They included an ongoing diplomatic row over what Israel views as Ukraine’s veneration of Nazi collaborators. Another embarrassing episode followed allegations by Bennett that Zelensky had sought assurances through the Israeli leader that Putin would not try to kill him. Ukraine denied this took place.
Yet, while Bennett was trying to insert Israel into the conflict as an important global power, Yair Lapid, then Israel’s foreign minister, openly condemned Russia. The Israeli position may have reflected the country’s political-demographic makeup. It could also be true that it was largely a political ploy, in which Bennett attempted to pacify Moscow, while his coalition partner, Lapid, sought to reassure Washington. Despite occasional rebukes of Israel by the US and Russia, the language used by both sides was hardly comparable to the threats they leveled against other countries that refused to toe their line. In fact, the strongest of Moscow’s warnings to Israel came in February, when Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters that “all countries that supply weapons (to Ukraine) should understand that we will consider these (weapons) to be legitimate targets for Russia’s armed forces.”
The reference in Zakharova’s statement was understood to be Israel, since it followed a CNN interview with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In the interview, Netanyahu said that his country was “looking into” sending “other kinds of aid,” aside from humanitarian assistance, to Ukraine. In the same interview, Netanyahu referred to Tel Aviv’s relationship with Moscow as “complex” because of their conflicting interests in Syria and Moscow’s strong ties to Tehran, Israel’s archenemy in the region.
Unlike the previous two prime ministers, Bennett and Lapid, Netanyahu was keen on maintaining a degree of neutrality in the Russia-Ukraine war and the resulting global cold war. Whether Netanyahu was sincere or not, it seems that Moscow is far more comfortable with Tel Aviv’s new position than those of the previous governments.
For example, in July 2022, Russia’s Justice Ministry declared a legal war on the Jewish Agency for Israel, whose mission, starting a century ago, has been to facilitate Jewish immigration to Palestine and, later, Israel. The Russian move was clearly political, meant to send a strong message to Israel that Russia has many tools at its disposal should Tel Aviv veer too much to the Ukrainian side. Israel responded by bombing Syria more frequently than before, sending a message back to Moscow that it also has options. The truth is that the legal move against the Jewish Agency did raise serious alarm bells in Israel. It demonstrated Russia’s seriousness in countering Israel’s politicking and mixed agendas. Still, the rift between Russia and Israel is yet to have any direct positive impact on Palestinians. There are reasons for this.
One, historically, Russia’s – and previously the Soviet Union’s – view of Israel has been based on Moscow’s own political priorities. Two, Russia’s foreign policy discourse has, in recent decades, been largely tied to the collective Arab stance toward Tel Aviv. This was illustrated by the severing of ties between Moscow and Tel Aviv during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and the resumption of ties during the Israeli-Palestinian/Arab peace talks in 1991. Today’s absence of a united Arab position regarding Palestine makes a stronger Russian push against the Israeli occupation of little urgency. Three, the Palestinian leadership has mostly failed to navigate the geopolitical spaces that have opened up since the Russia-Ukraine war began, therefore rendering itself largely irrelevant to Russia’s political calculations.
In fact, as soon as Israel began adopting a more consistent and less aggressive position on the Russia-Ukraine war, it began reaping the rewards. In July, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen celebrated the “diplomatic achievement” of his country following a Russian decision to open consular offices in West Jerusalem. This surprising announcement was coupled with the use, by some Russian government-funded media, of the term “West Jerusalem,” instead of Tel Aviv, to refer to the capital of Israel. It could be argued that the Russian stance on Palestine remains strong and that Russia’s concessions to Israel are likely temporary, merely necessitated by the war. Indeed, this could be the case, especially if we keep in mind the strong pro-Arab constituency in the Kremlin and the Duma. It is also possible – in fact, true – that Russia’s foreign policy toward Israel and Palestine at the present time is entirely motivated by Russian priorities. This means that Moscow cannot be taken for granted as a Palestinian ally, and an outright recognition by Russia of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is not entirely off the table.