Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky declared Tuesday that, when the war is finally over, Ukraine would emerge from the rubble a “big Israel.”
He meant that the war would never really be over, that Ukraine would be on a permanent war footing, just as the Jewish state is. He meant that it would view its neighbors the way Israel has long viewed its own: As enemies waiting to pounce. Most importantly, he meant that Ukraine would never again rely on anyone else for its security: not the West, not the international community, not the so-called liberal order. It would be, like Israel, a nation apart, answering to no one but its people, in control of its own destiny.
It said something heroic about Ukraine, which has gone from pleading with NATO to save it from imminent destruction to fighting—forcing—the Russians into peace talks in a matter of weeks.
It said something not so heroic about the West, which had failed to admit Ukraine to NATO and, more recently, to wean itself off Russian oil and gas.
But mostly it said something profound about Israel—a country whose behavior over the past seven weeks has confused and confounded. How did the Israelis—scrappy, abrasive—become the convener of presidents and nations?
Zelensky has repeatedly suggested that the Russians and Ukrainians could meet in Jerusalem to hash out a peace agreement. It’s an amazing suggestion, even if he’s just floated it. Not Washington, not London, not Brussels or Paris. Jerusalem. The Israeli capital, which, until just a few years ago, the United States did not even recognize as the Israeli capital.
It wasn’t Joe Biden who was shuttling to meet with Putin, but Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, an observant Jew who jetted to Moscow on Shabbat to meet with Vladimir Putin in the early days of the war. (He is the only Western leader to have done so.) Since then, Bennett has had countless separate phone calls with Putin and Zelensky, who repeatedly asked Bennett to mediate in the first place, and he has sought to remain as diplomatic as possible—the better to keep the Russians and Ukrainians talking to the Israelis.
All this has raised the increasingly burning question: whose side was Israel on?
Israeli politicians and the public overwhelmingly support Ukraine, but Zelensky, who is Jewish, was frustrated with what he saw as Jerusalem’s inaction. In an address to the Knesset last month, he tried to prod Israel into taking a greater stand by comparing the invasion of his country with the Holocaust. Noting that the invasion happened February 24, exactly 102 years after the Nazi Party was founded, Zelensky went on to rail against Russia’s “final solution,” repeating the Holocaust comparison so much that some Israeli politicians accused him of distorting its history.
On the one hand, Israel has flown plane loads of medical supplies, water-purification systems, winter coats and sleeping bags to the Ukrainians. And it is the only country that has built a field hospital in Ukraine. On the other hand, it won’t send military aid, including its famed Iron Dome anti-missile system. (Israeli officials say Iron Dome won’t work against Russian missiles.)
On the one hand, Israel has barred Russian oligarchs like Roman Abramovich from using Israel as a safe haven. On the other, it has not sanctioned Russia—as the United States, the European Union and many other countries have done. (Israeli lawmakers have noted that they lack the legal mechanism to impose sanctions.)
On the one hand, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has repeatedly condemned Russia’s attacks, and on Tuesday, while discussing the Bucha massacre, he accused Russia of “war crimes.” On the other, Bennett has only expressed a more general sorrow about the loss of life. Reacting to the slaughter at Bucha, the Israeli prime minister said, “We are shocked by what we see in Bucha, horrible images, and we condemn them”—but he refrained from explicitly condemning Russia or Putin.
How did Israel end up walking this tightrope? In part, it’s because Israel exists to be a safe haven for Jews everywhere, and there are still nearly half a million in Ukraine and Russia. Israel wants to make sure it doesn’t alienate Putin—and complicate things for the Jewish community in his country. (Since the war began, over 10,000 Jews have applied to immigrate to Israel from Russia. The country has prepared to absorb as many as 100,000 refugees.)
But the bigger reason is waning American hegemony. America’s post-Iraq war exhaustion with the Middle East led Israel to begin to see what Ukraine has just discovered: That it cannot rely on the assurances of an America that has turned inward—and away from the rest of the world. As the United States backed away from its “red line” in Syria and pursued a nuclear deal widely viewed in Israel as an existential threat, former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu shifted Israel away from relying on the vaunted special relationship, forging new ones with China, India, and Russia, among others. Israel’s position in the Ukraine war has brought the Jewish state’s new geopolitical reality into stark relief.
When did the realignment begin? It’s a complicated story, but there are two years that matter most: 1989 and 2015.
In 1989, the communist bloc started to fall apart and hordes of Jews started to immigrate to Israel. By the late nineties, more than one million Jewish emigres, mostly from Russia and Ukraine, had arrived—moving Israeli politics to the right. (Since 1996, there has been only one left-wing prime minister, Ehud Barak. He lasted less than two years.)
Even though the Jews had fled the former Soviet Union, they helped Israel forge a bond between Israel and the post-Soviet world. They weren’t nostalgic for the old country, but they brought with them many of the old habits: they mostly spoke Russian at home, they ate pickled herring and black bread, and were more sympathetic to strongman politics. (Until recently, Bar Putin was a hot spot for Russian-speakers in Jerusalem. After the war broke out, the owners changed the name.) To win over this bloc of voters, Israeli politicians had to speak their language—literally or figuratively. And, of course, many Soviet-born Israelis started to get into politics—like Natan Sharansky, Avigdor Liberman and Yuli Edelstein.
All this may explain, in part, why Putin, his many depravities notwithstanding, is probably the most philo-Semitic Russian leader ever. It’s not just the absence of anti-Semitic measures like the tsars’ Pale of Settlement, Stalin’s Doctor’s Plot or Brezhnev’s anti-Zionist campaign. It’s that Putin has surrounded himself with Jewish oligarchs and enjoyed an especially close relationship with Netanyahu. “For more than a decade, the United States and other Western countries have turned to Israel for information on Putin’s point of view,” Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, said.
But the Syrian civil war—which would endanger Israeli security while providing Russia with an opportunity to reassert itself overseas—put the Israel-Russia relationship to the test.
By 2015, Syria had been embroiled in the civil war for four years. The United States, which was trying to disengage from the Middle East, had promised it would intervene if Assad used chemical or biological weapons, but then declined to do anything about it when he did just that. Russia saw an opportunity in America’s hesitancy: It stepped into the power vacuum by injecting itself into the war, helping Assad restore order by taking control of Syria’s skies and unleashing terror not only on the Islamic State but countless innocent Syrians who had nothing to do with the fighting. (A British NGO that tracks airstrikes on civilians reported a 34 percent increase in the number of civilian deaths, from 2017 to 2018, which it attributed to Russian fighter jets.)
This created a problem for Israel, which routinely sent its own fighter jets into Syrian airspace to take out Iranian arms convoys headed to Hezbollah in neighboring South Lebanon. The Israelis did not want to accidentally kill any Russian troops on the ground. Putin and then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hashed out a plan enabling the Russians to keep attacking the Islamic State and the Israelis to keep attacking the Iranian arms convoys, which Moscow accepted unenthusiastically but maintains to this day.
Then came the Iran deal. In July 2015, the United States, China, Russia, France, the United Kingdom and Germany signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. On paper at least, the Iran nuclear agreement required that Tehran cease development of a nuclear weapon and allow for international inspections in exchange for sanctions relief. At best, the Israelis viewed the deal as a delaying tactic or an empty gesture for a rogue nation with every intention of going nuclear. At worst, it spelled Armageddon. Iran, Yair Lapid explained last month, “is not a theoretical threat for us. The Iranians want to destroy Israel.”
Feeling deeply betrayed by the Americans, Netanyahu set out to strengthen ties with other rising powers. From 2001 to 2018, Israeli-Chinese trade jumped from just over $1 billion to nearly $12 billion, with China now being Israel’s No. 2 trading partner, behind the United States. In July 2017, Narendra Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel; by 2021, nearly half of all Israeli arms sales were going to India. And, of course, Netanyahu remained on good terms with Putin, who featured, along with Modi and President Donald Trump in Likud ads claiming the Israeli prime minister was “in another league.” (In April 2019, days before the Israeli elections, Putin gave Netanyahu the perfect photo-op when Russia expedited the transfer of the body of Zachary Baumel—an Israeli soldier who had been killed in the 1982 Lebanon war and had been buried in Syria—back to Israel.)
Israelis cheered Trump’s move, in 2018, to pull the United States out of the Iran nuclear agreement. They were apoplectic but not surprised last year when President Joe Biden sought to revive it on considerably worse terms. But by then, Israel’s relationship with the United States—and the wider world—had already been transformed.
When the war in Ukraine blew up, Bennett’s No. 1 security concern was Iran, which meant it was imperative that the Israeli premier maintain good relations with the Kremlin. That was the only way to ensure that Israel would be able to keep targeting Iranian arms convoys in Syria. While Joe Biden had the luxury of calling Putin a “butcher,” Bennett could not.
On top of these short-term concerns, there was the ongoing Iran nuclear-deal negotiations, in Vienna—where the Russian negotiator weirdly has served as a sort of bridge between the Americans and Iranians. It would be smart for the Israelis to keep the conversation going with Putin, in addition to its constant contact with Washington on the matter, if only to limit the potential damage of a revived nuclear deal.
So when Zelensky reached out to Bennett to ask him to mediate, Bennett said yes.
The political crisis this week in Jerusalem—in which one member of the ruling coalition quit, upsetting the balance of power—could bring down Bennett's government. If Lapid takes over—a distinct possibility—Israel would have trouble playing peacemaker given that Lapid has had some pretty harsh things to say about Putin. But the fact that Putin is speaking with Bennett on a regular basis, the fact that the Russian-Israeli relationship is not based on Putin’s personal relationship with Netanyahu but something more durable, shows that Israel’s newfound stature is for real.
Pro-Israel activists once talked about getting outsiders to view Israel “beyond the conflict.” In the end, it wasn’t a matter of messaging but of a new reality—Israel’s exploding tech sector, gas reserves, military prowess, and its ability to see that it could no longer rely on American promises—that forced the world to rethink the Jewish state.