Two months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin convened an extraordinary conclave of allies and partners at the U.S. military base in Ramstein, Germany. They were there to establish a wartime coalition whose announced aim, at the time, was to protect Ukraine from further Russian aggression.
The question is, all in on what? Israel accepted the invitation assuming that it would be asked to play a small part in arming Ukraine with advanced weapons that would enable Kyiv to hold off and push back the invaders. But after the conference, Austin told journalists that the goal of the Ramstein alliance would be to weaken Russia in a way that would prevent it from using military force against its neighbors. In other words, to reduce Russia from a superpower to a more minor status. The Ramstein Group would be meeting once a month, moreover, a sign America is anticipating a long war.
Russia replied by signaling that it wouldn’t accept the sort of total defeat that the U.S. and its partners had in mind. Putin made it clear that Russia would, if necessary, use nuclear weapons to prevent such an outcome.
The government of Israel didn’t tell the public in advance that it had decided to join a wartime alliance that in theory could lead to a nuclear war. And it has yet to react to the Russian threat. But going to Ramstein was a defining decision. There is no off-ramp.
Military alliances are new to Israel. In the 1991 Gulf War its efforts to join the U.S.-led coalition were rebuffed by Arab members. It isn’t a NATO nation, which means that it has no mutual security guarantee. It also has no formal defense treaty with the U.S. Israel is a country accustomed to fighting neighborhood battles on its own. Signing up for a prolonged conflict against Russia in Ukraine, perhaps a wider war in Europe or even Armageddon isn’t something Israel appears to have thought about deeply.
Most of the Ramstein countries don’t have Russian troops on their borders. Israel does, in Syria. In recent years, Israel and Russia have coordinated military efforts that allowed Israel to wage a shadow war against Iran and its proxies. An antagonized Russia will be much less likely to prevent Iran from supplying its proxy army in Lebanon or moving its own Islamic Republic army closer to Israel’s frontier. It’s clear that ties between Russia and Israel are already fraying. On Monday, Israel denounced recent comments by Russia’s foreign minister saying he believed Hitler had Jewish roots.
As the war in Ukraine evolves, Jerusalem will do what Washington asks, up to clear red lines. No presently conceivable Israeli government would send large combat forces to fight in Ukraine. There is also little chance Israel will ship heavy military gear there. NATO countries have more than enough advanced weapons to go around, especially now that the U.S. is ramping up domestic arms production. Israel also will refrain from sharing its closely held military secrets with coalition allies (although there are very few that the U.S. isn’t privy to).
What, then, does Israel have to offer? It is one of the world’s five leading cyber powers (the U.S., Russia, China and Britain are the others), and it has very advanced offensive and defensive military capabilities. Its intelligence units are highly skilled and battle-tested. It has some military technology that could come in handy. Israel also has a large pool of Russian and Ukrainian-speaking combat soldiers and reservists capable of training troops (outside of Ukraine) in their native languages. And, as it has already demonstrated in western Ukraine, it is good at setting up first-class field hospitals.
What will Israel seek in return? It wants a longer and stronger nuclear agreement with Iran. It wants the U.S. to keep Iran’s Revolutionary Guards on its registry of terror organizations, along with Iranian proxies Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad. It wants the U.S. to supply Israel with certain munitions that will enable it to destroy nuclear targets in the Islamic Republic.
Israel will also want to fight Iran by fortifying and expanding the Abraham Accord countries. That means, first and foremost, helping to convince the Saudis to come off the fence. It also wants to prevent the opening of a U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem. That the Palestinian leadership both in Gaza and the West Bank are openly supporting Russia might add some weight to that effort.
But in the end, Israel didn’t join the U.S.-led alliance to achieve these specific policy aims. Nor was its decision compelled by moral revulsion at the Russian way of war or a brotherly concern for the future of Europe.
Instead, Israel’s overriding war aim is to maintain its relationship with America. For that it is risking strategic independence, tactical advantage over Iran and its hard-won national agency. No Israeli government has ever put its security so decisively in the hands of others.
Such a significant policy evolution should have been debated openly and acknowledged outright, rather than ambled into. But even if Israel had given it more thought, it would have arrived at the only plausible conclusion — that aligning itself with the U.S. during this crisis was the best of its bad options.
More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
Putin Is Losing So Here’s How He’ll Make the War Worse: Andreas Kluth
Our Fear of Escalation in Ukraine Has Made It More Likely: Therese Raphael
The U.S. and Saudi Arabia Can’t Remain at Odds Forever: Bobby Ghosh
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.
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