The eyes of the world are on Ukraine. Its borders have been overrun by a long-awaited Russian offensive, and its citizens are fighting for their freedom. Perhaps because the assault has been so brazen and proceeded so swiftly, even those who in the past might have been duped by the Kremlin’s specious claims that Russia is threatened by NATO enlargement or that an incursion is necessary to secure the rights of Ukrainian separatists (read: Russian agents) seem able to recognize that this is a conflict that pits a large and ruthless tyranny against a vulnerable pro-Western democracy.
While Israel has joined other countries in expressing sympathy for Ukraine and sending humanitarian aid, it is also one of many nations being criticized for not doing more. Last year, Kyiv reportedly requested access to its vaunted Iron Dome missile-defense system, which Israel has so far refused to share. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, for his part, has appeared reluctant to criticize Russian aggression. Some Westerners have reacted with outrage and looked with new eyes at Israel’s seemingly friendly attitude toward Russia over the last few years. (Back in 2016, the Washington Post spoke of Israel and Russia as “BFFs.”)
One such critic is Bruno Maçaes, a former Portuguese official and the acclaimed author of such books as History Has Begun and Geopolitics for the End Time. On February 24, within the first 24 hours of Russia’s full-scale invasion, he tweeted “Good day to remember this,” with “this” being Jerusalem’s reported refusal to provide Ukraine with the Iron Dome. A few hours later, Maçaes responded to a report that Bennett, in a speech to IDF cadets, had expressed “solidarity for the people of Ukraine” without actually condemning Russia by name. Maçaes’s comment? “Shameful. It too shall be remembered.”
In the midst of a war with world-historical implications, after the sustained reluctance of America’s European allies to impose economic consequences on Russia, and after the global shrug when Putin began his war on Ukraine in 2014, decrying the choices of the tiny Jewish state seems like an odd choice. But might Maçaes nonetheless have a point?
And Maçaes is not alone. National Review’s Jay Nordlinger, a genuine friend of Israel and the Jewish people, recently recalled seeing a giant poster during Israel’s 2021 election campaign featuring Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands with Vladimir Putin. While declaring that he “was a lifelong Netanyahu fan,” he wrote that that the image “nauseated” him. In an uncharacteristically tendentious 2019 essay, Robert Kagan used Netanyahu’s good relations with Putin (as well as his ability to work with Donald Trump) as evidence of his “authoritarian” turn. And Aaron David Miller—a former State Department official with a rare ability to learn from his mistakes—commented this week that the Jewish state is “hedging in [its] response to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. Israel is America’s closest Middle East ally. Biden [should] expect Bennett to act like it.”
Israel has indeed been hedging. And with good reasons, related to geopolitical factors that none of these comments acknowledge. To understand those factors, Americans must look back much further than the past week—and look in the mirror too.
There is a slow-burning war being waged in the Middle East. On one side stand Iran, its numerous Arab guerrilla proxies, Syria, Hamas, and Russia, whose air force allows for the rest to operate on the ground. On the other side are Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain. The first group has one thing in common: opposition to the United States and its influence in the Middle East. The second group is pro-American, though, as I will explain, it is not so pro-American as it might like to be.
Much like the cold war, the war taking place in the Middle East could easily be misunderstood as several disparate conflicts, each solvable by mediation and diplomacy. Take Yemen, a complicated country at war for a simple reason: Iran’s proxies, the Houthis, are trying to take over, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE are trying to stop them. If Tehran succeeds, its forces will be in a position to continue to launch attacks at the Saudis and Emiratis from Yemen, and to fire missiles at Israel as well. The Houthis can also severely restrict the global flow of energy and disrupt Western economic interests by closing the Bab el-Mandeb strait, a major chokepoint for maritime commerce. In other words, Iran’s ultimate targets aren’t anti-Houthi factions in Yemen, but the entire pro-U.S. alliance.
Or take the more straightforward example of Iraq. Iran-backed forces have been at war with the American military there since it invaded in 2003, killing hundreds of coalition troops and many thousands of Iraqis. Iran wants to be in Iraq in part because of the Sunni-Shiite rivalry and the bitter legacy of the war between the two countries. It also wants to be there because, as Saddam Hussein demonstrated during the first Gulf War, Iraq is a good place for launching missiles at Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Yet another theater of the broader Middle East war has been active in Lebanon since the 1980s, when Hizballah put itself on the map by blowing up American marines and kidnapping and torturing a CIA officer. After then-President Reagan beat an ignominious retreat, Hizballah focused its attentions on Israel, leading to the war of 2006. But Iran and Hizballah have also killed Americans in Saudi Arabia, and tried, so far unsuccessfully, to attack Americans in America. Here too, these are not isolated disputes, but different fronts of a single conflict with Iran on one side and the U.S. and its allies on the other.
What does Russia have to do with this? There are two answers: Syria and Vienna. In Syria, Moscow and Tehran are fighting in tandem to prop up the reign of Bashar al-Assad, a longtime client of both and a patron of Hamas and Hizballah. Russia and Iran see the war as an opportunity to establish a controlling military presence in that country. For Iran, this presence makes it possible for its proxies to launch rockets at Israel. To protect itself, the Jewish state wants Assad and Iran to lose, and has to that end aided Syrian rebels and attacked Syrian and Iranian positions.
Besides these local conflicts, Iran also wants nuclear weapons, and that’s where Vienna comes in. Since 2006, it has been involved in a back-and-forth with the so-called P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, which include Russia, plus Germany) over its nuclear programs. Negotiations with the P5+1 in Vienna led to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, in which the Islamic Republic promised to wait fifteen years before building atomic bombs, while keeping the equipment it needs to make them. Donald Trump then pulled out of the deal, and the P5+1 are now back in Vienna trying to restore it, with Russia acting as an intermediary between Washington and Tehran. Moscow has generally taken the Islamic Republic’s side in the negotiations, while showing itself especially eager to sell Iran arms—arms that the latter will use against America and Israel.
Now, unlike Iran, Russia doesn’t see Israel’s destruction as a primary policy goal, or even an especially good outcome. It doesn’t mind the occasional Israeli airstrike against Iranian forces, which remind Iran that it’s the junior partner in the Moscow-Tehran alliance. And the Kremlin would rather avoid friction with the IDF, the region’s most effective military. It may also believe that direct confrontation with Jerusalem would provoke greater direct involvement from the United States.
But none of this should be mistaken for actual good relations. Putin supports Israel’s enemies with diplomatic cover, weapons, and boots on the ground at every turn. His soldiers fight side by side with Hizballah and Iran’s Quds Force. Moscow hasn’t yet started arming Hamas directly, but its relationship with the terrorist group is a cozy one. And it makes strategic sense that Russia and Israel would be on opposite sides. After all, Putin’s overarching goal is to upend the American-led international rules-based order, wonk-speak for saying that he wants to reverse the USSR’s loss in the cold war and hurt the U.S. wherever he can. In the Middle East, the cold war pitted U.S.-backed Israel against Soviet-backed Egypt and Syria. A return to that situation would not bode well for the Jewish state.
Why, then, if Russia aids and abets the enemies of Israel, do relations between the two countries seem so good? What about the numerous visits of Israeli leaders to Moscow, a kippah-clad Putin’s 2012 visit to the Western Wall, and the Iron Dome? Is Israel simply unaware of its own interests, as some well-meaning and intelligent critics of its handling of Russia have argued?
Unlikely. The Jewish state is a regional, not a global, power. Its entire population is less than that of Moscow. Russia, by contrast, is the world’s largest country and an ex-superpower with tremendous natural resources, a vast military machine, and a gigantic nuclear arsenal. It also has a sizable military presence on Israel’s northern border, where it controls the airspace. With relative ease, it could make it very difficult for the IDF to carry any strikes against Iranian positions in Syria at all. It could probably do the same in Lebanon. It could give Israel’s adversaries even more dangerous weapons. It’s impossible to know how many operations the IDF didn’t carry out in Syria because it feared provoking the Kremlin, or because Russian diplomats expressly told it not to. Last month, Russian jets began conducting joint patrols with the Syrian air force over the Golan Heights, further limiting Jerusalem’s freedom to maneuver. Even the reluctance of Israel’s most intelligent and perceptive security commentators to make anti-Russian statements might be the product of a similar rationale: they are patriots with close ties to the military and the government, and Russians read what they write.
Israel’s leaders are, in other words, being careful, not delusional. They must mind what they do, as well as what they say. The same, by the way, goes for Israel’s new Gulf allies, which have also been conspicuously silent this week.
But if Americans like Miller and Europeans like Maçaes want their friends in the Middle East to speak up, they might reflect on the ways they’ve contributed to the circumstances on the ground. Russia’s increased presence in the Middle East has been enabled and even encouraged by the U.S., which has been preoccupied with domestic affairs and guided by a bipartisan desire to disengage from the region. In too many cases, America has of late shown itself to be an inconstant friend and a less than formidable foe.
The American absence goes back to Barack Obama’s first term as president, when he attempted a “reset” with Russia. The White House then began nuclear negotiations with Iran and pulled American troops from Iraq—effectively ceding the latter country to the former—with the overarching goal of repositioning the U.S. as a neutral party, uninvolved in the struggle between the pro-Iranian and pro-American alliances. Then came a decisive step back when, in 2013, Bashar al-Assad’s forces used chemical weapons on Syrian rebels, crossing the “red line” Obama had laid down a year before. Rather than respond with force to the violation, he allowed his secretary of state, John Kerry, to work out a deal whereby Russia took charge of disposing of Assad’s chemical-weapons stocks. Russia’s support for Assad soon grew into all-out intervention, and the U.S. surrendered Syria west of the Euphrates River to Moscow and Tehran. The next year, an emboldened Putin invaded Ukraine, seized Crimea and some of its eastern provinces, and learned that he could get away with it.
The Trump administration rectified some of these missteps, but mostly on the margins. By demonstrating strong support for Israel and the Gulf Allies, withdrawing from the Iran deal, killing the Iranian generalissimo Qassem Suleimani, and conducting limited airstrikes in Syria, the U.S. showed some willingness to push back against the pro-Russia coalition. In Syria, American troops destroyed an Assad-aligned unit that crossed the deconfliction line, killing Russian soldiers as well as Iranian proxies. But such actions did not set back the Tehran-Moscow axis in an enduring way. And to make things worse, Trump repeatedly shied away from public confrontation with Moscow. In 2017, asked by Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly about Putin’s brutality, Trump parried with the obtuse Chomskyite quip, “You think our country’s so innocent?”
Enter the Biden administration. The president’s commitment to restoring the Iran deal (via Russian mediation), his continuation of the Obama administration’s Syria policy, his failure to send arms to Ukraine before the fighting started, and his unfortunate remark about allowing for Putin to undertake without cost a “minor incursion” into Ukraine all suggest an unwillingness to stand up to Russia or its Middle Eastern allies in any significant way. On top of this, last summer’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan made America look weak and incompetent. Still, there have been enough encouraging signs—unexpected strength and pushback—in the past few days that one can still hope for a change of direction.
But until such a change is applied in the Middle East on a long-term basis, expect Israel to manage proximate threats to protect its citizens. It could have been otherwise. If the U.S. had since 2012 showed its willingness to stand up to Russia and Iran—by condemning their crimes, battering their economies with sanctions, arming their enemies, and employing the judicious use of force—it could then make demands on Jerusalem like those recommended by Aaron David Miller. If it had installed a no-fly zone in Syria early on in that country’s civil war, tens of thousands of lives might have been saved, and Moscow wouldn’t have established a presence there. In this hypothetical scenario, Israel might have had enough breathing room from Russia to sell Ukraine the Iron Dome and speak up more forcefully on its behalf. The Gulf states might likewise have had room to deploy their energy resources to ease the repercussions on the West of sanctions on Russia.
Instead, America has shown its Middle Eastern allies that they must fend for themselves against Moscow and Tehran. Of course, had America acted differently over the past decade, Iran wouldn’t be entrenched in Syria, Israel could have been coordinating airstrikes on Hizballah with CENTCOM rather than Moscow—and Vladimir Putin, knowing the costs of assailing an American ally, would be acting far more timidly in Ukraine.