The War in Ukraine and Its Impact on Israel
JNS.org – The war in Ukraine is clearly far from over. For Israel, the changes it is bringing about have far-reaching implications. In almost all aspects, the war has enhanced Israel’s national security equation and bolstered its position in world affairs.
First, an element of immense importance, from a national and Zionist perspective, is the dramatic rise in the number of people making aliyah from both Russia and Ukraine. Over 13,000 olim from Ukraine have arrived in Israel since February, and almost alone among the millions of war refugees, it has been the Jews who had a home to go to.
An increasing flow is also coming from Russia, as socioeconomic conditions keep deteriorating and a partial mobilization of reserves has been declared. Israel’s Aliyah Ministry reported nearly 19,000 olim from Russia during the first five months of the war, a more than fourfold rise compared with the same period in 2021. Israel’s Zionist imperative, under such circumstances, is rooted in core values and identity, not in the calculus of interest. Still, past experience has taught that any demographic contribution to the Jewish collective in Israel is of strategic importance in the long run.
The war did generate—albeit only in the first few weeks—a rare and indeed unprecedented opportunity for Israel’s then-Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to position himself as a mediator, or at least a go-between, a situation that grabbed the spotlight of global attention.
To some extent, this was a way out of the dilemma posed by Israel’s need to keep open channels with both sides. The ongoing Israeli activity in Syria, as part of the so-called Campaign Between the Wars, requires ongoing deconfliction with the Russian Air Force, while Israel was also willing to be of help to the Ukrainian leadership, which at the time sought dialogue with Putin. The window of opportunity for mediation—and for a diplomatic positioning acceptable to both sides—has since closed.
There is no reason to test the point at which Russia’s volatile patience will run out, and it is legitimate to remain cautious over weapons sales to Ukraine. There are limits to what Israel can part with amid regional tensions, and in any case, it is the US and its NATO allies that undertook to arm Ukraine since the war began, at a cost of tens of billions of dollars. Israel’s contribution is bound to be marginal.
Meanwhile, the military-industrial complex—another important part of Israel’s strategic assets and resources—has also been dramatically affected by the war. It has grown in prominence globally due to a transformed sense of threat to the West. Israel’s defense industries, which provide an indispensable contribution both to the IDF’s qualitative edge and to the national economy, have been on the unimaginable brink of really taking off ever since the war broke out.
During Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s visit to Berlin, the option of a contract with Germany for the sale of Israel’s Arrow 3 missile defense system for more than $2 billion was put on the table. It is part of a broader pattern that is likely to bring Israel’s military exports—to leading countries, including the US, and no longer to suspect third-world regimes—above the $15 billion mark annually. This significant economic boost is a source of national strength.
In a more general sense, there is another impact of the war in Ukraine—less concrete, yet important—on Israel’s standing in the world. Dramatic security events, such as 9/11, the later wave of terrorism in Europe and now the war in Ukraine, can help others understand both the challenges and dangers Israel faces, and the manner in which it responds to them. Negative terms such as “militarism” and “securitization” are cast aside in favor of the defense and intelligence discourse, in which Israel carries weight well beyond its demographic and geographical dimensions.
Moreover, the sharp rise in the costs of oil and gas, and the fears of a cold winter in Europe, had an almost immediate effect on Israel’s position as an energy exporter (albeit a minor one). There was once again talk about the economic feasibility of the EastMed Pipeline, after the US had essentially buried it. Other ways of exporting to Europe based on existing arrangements—such as the tripartite EU-Egypt-Israel agreement for the use of Egyptian liquification facilities—have gained in importance. The talks leading to the agreement began before the war but were greatly accelerated by it.
The same is true of the internal Lebanese dynamic that led to the signing of the parallel exchange of letters over the maritime boundary delineation with Israel. The generous concession Israel made reflected the need to quickly bring gas to the markets, rather than a surrender to Hezbollah threats. Israel responded to US and French needs, and enabled Energean to stay in place and begin gas production at the Karish field.
Indirectly, this also undermined Hezbollah’s raison d’etre: If Israel agrees to a “win-win” with Lebanon, what need is there for an armed Iranian proxy that pretends to be the “protector of Lebanon”? The willingness of President Michel Aoun, long an ally of Hezbollah, to sign the agreement was proof that the war has had an effect, through the gas market, on Israel’s strategic environment.
Moreover, Israel’s standing has been enhanced by the fact that its greatest enemy, Iran, has lined up with Russia against the West. Israel has taken steps to persuade Western leaders that this is a watershed event. With Iran firmly aligning itself with the anti-Western camp forged by the Ukraine war, the meaning of a possible nuclear deal changes. It no longer appears to be a statesmanlike achievement for US diplomacy, but a sign of fatal weakness in the face of a scheming, hostile player. Even without confronting the Biden administration, Israel can and should sharpen this message.
Inevitably, an Israeli position that is focused on the Iranian threat and the implications of Iran’s support for Russia means further deterioration in Israel’s relationship with Putin, but this can hardly be avoided. In addition to the expectations of the Biden administration, the mainstream of both parties in Congress and the attitude of friendly European leaders, Israel should also be aware of attitudes among American Jews, who strongly support Ukraine.
Friends of Israel on both sides of the political aisle in Washington have begun to offer criticism, albeit subdued, of Israel’s “lukewarm” response to Russia’s conduct. There is a moral hazard involved in shrugging off horrors such as those exposed in Bucha and later in Izium, and indeed they were denounced by Lapid.
Still, a measured management of the risks involved requires caution when it comes to providing lethal weapons to Ukraine. It is also necessary to sustain some channels of communication with Moscow, despite all that has happened.
In the Syrian arena, where intensive Israeli activity has resumed after a technical hiatus, the message to the Russians should be clear: Not a sentimental attitude but a cold calculation requires both us and them to avoid friction. It falls to them to restrain those in the Syrian regime who look for ways to avenge the attacks on the Damascus and Aleppo airports and mounting Syrian losses.
Israel’s military capabilities are well-known to the older generation of Russian officers, hence their realization, which has held firm since 2015, that it is better to let Israel strike in Syria than to come to blows between the Assad regime and the IDF. There are ways of validating this realization in their minds, through direct and indirect communication, while leaving room for reconstructing friendly relations on “the day after.”
The bottom line is that the global and regional reality created by the Russia-Ukraine war strengthens Israel and enhances its international and regional standing. The Iranian gamble on a closer association with Russia may yet turn out to have been a costly mistake; one that opens new horizons for Israel in intelligence sharing, diplomacy and advocacy.
Yet there are also dangerous aspects to the situation, above all because it is increasingly difficult to predict how Putin will react if he finds himself in strategic distress.
Col. (ret.) Dr. Eran Lerman, the former deputy director of Israel’s National Security Council, is the vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.
This article was originally published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.