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Why Israel Won’t Supply the Iron Dome to Ukraine

Many Western observers seem to think that the Ukrainians, armed with an indomitable spirit and a charismatic president, have a fighting chance to defeat the Russian army. This is not the view of most Israeli military strategists.

Israelis assume that without western air support or the intervention of NATO forces, Ukraine will not hold out very much longer. They largely agree that Russian forces have not performed brilliantly or, in some cases, competently. But they also believe that the Russians have yet to unloose major air strikes and naval bombardments, attacks for which the Ukrainian army has no real answer. Sheer firepower, these strategists say, will overcome heroic resistance.

This is a clinically professional opinion. Most generals here, like the majority of all Israelis, are rooting for Ukraine. Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a Jewish fighter punching way above his weight class, evokes ethnic pride and admiration. But there are limits. The Israel Defense Forces is planning to build and staff a full field hospital in Ukraine, and has sent in humanitarian aid. But, at least so far, it has not been willing to sell Kyiv the Iron Dome anti-rocket systems or other military gear that it has been publicly begging for.

The main reason is pragmatic. Russia is the de facto ruler of neighboring Syria. A good working relationship with the Kremlin has long been seen as an essential component of Israeli national security. The IDF flies over Syria’s airspace to prevent Iran from extending its power into Lebanon by arming its proxy, Hezbollah, with advanced weapons. Targets include Iranian command and control in Syria, weapons depots and factories, and anti-aircraft defence systems. IDF and Russian commanders in Syria use a deconfliction mechanism that coordinates IDF activity and allows Israel to operate without endangering Russian assets.

This is well understood by Israelis. A poll published this week shows 67% of the public supports the government’s cautious approach to the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and favors not taking a firm stance against Russia. Only 21% disagree.

This could be a short-sighted view. Some Western analysts argue that Ukraine may lose the military stage of the war but will win the occupation against an impoverished and degraded Russia. Israeli analysts do not necessarily disagree. They note that Ukraine is the size of Texas, so holding it, especially the big cities, would be extremely difficult. Russia would have to garrison its own troops. Some observers here anticipate a long civil war that pits Russian-Ukrainians in the east of the country against anti-Russian Ukrainians in the west and which would end in a formal or de facto division of the country.

There is, of course, the possibility that Putin will himself be replaced. But that could be a long wait. He’s only 69, a young man compared to Biden and in firm control of his military and security apparatus. It’s hard to imagine Russians themselves mounting a resistance, given the blackout of accurate information and the high levels of support Putin has enjoyed.

The policy of punishing Russia with draconian economic sanctions, isolation and international pariah status is not a problem for Israel, which has comparatively little bilateral trade. And many Israelis are skeptical that Europe, the U.S. and the U.K. will follow through by cutting off Russian energy imports.

Israelis also look at the big-power dynamic between Russia and China and see an out for Putin if things get worse. Only a few days after Biden announced his plan to turn Russia into a bankrupt, isolated international villain, the foreign minister of China, Wang Yi, publicly declared Russia to be his country’s “most important strategic partner.” The partnership, he said, is one of the most crucial bilateral relationships in the world.”

On the same day of the Wang Yi declaration, Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid met Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in Riga. Both sides blasted Russia’s “unprovoked and unjustified attack on Ukraine,” and Blinken reiterated the longstanding American promise that Iran will never be allowed to get nuclear weapons. But Lapid did not thank Blinken for the reassurance. He pointed out that the U.S. is on the verge of signing a nuclear agreement with Iran that Israel considers to be an existential threat.

If anything, the Ukraine war has brought Israel back to first principles. Lapid echoed the opinion of Israel’s government and military leaders. “This war is a reminder to the State of Israel: We have friends and we have allies, but our security always needs to be in our hands. What keeps us alive in a dangerous world is the fact we have an army.”  

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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