Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative party
Theodor Herzl’s novel Altneuland, written in 1902, imagines a Jewish state like any other, with its full complement of aristocrats, and industrialists, beggars and prostitutes, heroes, villains, and everything in between.
Its very ordinariness is the point. Only in their own country will Jews be able to evolve into an ordinary nation, and live independently, not on the sufferance of a friendly monarch or in fear of a populist mob whipped up against them.
So it must be something of a vindication that it has contrived to appoint Eli Cohen as its foreign minister. Almost as soon as he was took office, Cohen saw fit say that Israel should stop criticising Russian aggression in Ukraine, ahead of a call with Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister .
It’s an idea so baffling because though Israel has interests in a reasonable relationship with Russia, its relationship with the West, and most obviously the United States, is far more critical.
Perhaps the gaffe at least allowed Binyamin Netanyahu to make his foreign minister (who betrayed inconvenient signs of independence by joining Likud breakaway party Kulanu, only to return to Likud after Kulanu’s drubbing at the polls) look a fool, and therefore less of a rival to Bibi himself.
If we set aside moral considerations, as one must in a government whose sole purpose is to enable its chief to escape prosecution for fraud, strategic and diplomatic realities should lead the minister to increase, not reduce condemnation of Russia, and even send weapons to Volodymyr Zelensky’s government.
There are two arguments for Israel to have separated itself from the overwhelming Western consensus in support of Ukraine, and they are not completely without merit.
First, Israel has a sizeable population of usually described as Russian in origin, who emigrated from the Soviet Union either from the 1980s under Helsinki accords, or after its collapse in the 1990s. Second, Israel needs the cooperation of the Russian air force to conduct air strikes in Syria against Hezbollah and Iranian arms shipments.
But there’s less to the Russian identity of the immigrants from the Soviet Union that meets the eye.
They speak Russian (but so do a lot of Ukrainians) and many, of course had lived in Russian, as opposed to other Soviet, cities. But at least as many, particularly those that emigrated before the Soviet collapse, were opponents of the Soviet system, in which the subjects of Soviet rule were assigned a nationality.
Jews were considered such a nationality, alongside Russians, Ukrainians, Georgians, and so on, albeit one that wasn’t assigned a Soviet Republic of its own to run: a Soviet Jew living in Moscow was classified as Jewish, not Russian, and official Soviet antisemitism limited their opportunities in the USSR.
Whether a Soviet Jewish citizen, born in, say, Kharkhiv considered themselves Russian or Ukrainian wasn’t a question with a simple answer. One might as well ask someone of Scottish parents born in Leeds whether they were English or Scottish. The answer would often depend on who was asking. A minister whose Likud party was founded by a native of Odesa could be expected to understand this complexity.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and, more importantly, its war crimes since February 24th last year, have induced a lot of people to reinterpret their identities. Where people once found it simplest to call themselves Russian, they now find it a good deal less shameful to describe themselves as something else. Soviet immigrant Natan Sharansky, for instance, insisted it was Israel’s ‘duty’ to supply Ukraine with weapons.
Then there is the Russian air force in Syria. While Israel’s air force is reportedly not in the best shape, Russia’s is in terrible condition. Though Russia could make it harder for Israel to strike Hezbollah targets in Syria, it barely risks its own aircraft against Ukrainians flying old Soviet airframes: would it really risk a confrontation with the far more technologically advanced IAF? (This Israeli ‘self-deterrence’ sits in a strategic tradition of which Moshe Dayan and Ariel Sharon are luminaries.)
Israel considers its main regional strategic threat to be Iran, and in particular Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon. To this end it has sought to normalise relations with Arab states from Morocco to the UAE, but it will struggle to deal with Iran without the America’s help.
Just last November Israel and the United States conducted joint military exercises, simulating a strike on distant enemy territory, and the US has deployed a further six jets to Israeli territory this week. Though Israel has a capable defence sector, it depends on US jets and the advanced bunker-busting bombs needed to threaten Iranian nuclear installations below ground.
The new Israeli government needs Western forbearance closer to home as well. Its coalition includes hard-line nationalists Itamar Ben-Gvir and Belazel Smotrich, both of whom have been given portfolios with power over the West Bank. The Army worries they’ll provoke violence, and bad relations with the West will severely limit their room for manoeuvre in dealing with the next escalation by Hamas, for which Israel’s own ministers will have provided a pretext.
The last time Netanyahu was in power, he dealt skilfully with Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, obtaining normalised relations with Morocco, the cancelation of the JCPOA nuclear deal with Iran, and workable de-confliction with Russia in Syria. But Trump is out of office and the Republicans are in chaos in the House of Representatives. Even Lindesy Graham, normally a strong supporter of Israel, has criticised Cohen.
Meanwhile Russia pummels Ukraine with Iranian drones and Israel refuses to supply Kyiv its Iron Dome (which it has sold to Azerbaijan) to intercept them. As Sharansky noted, no senior Israeli politician has visited Kyiv, not even a delegation from the Knesset.
Israel’s Jewish president will have recalled Herzl’s lesson from the Dreyfus affair, that the Jews needed their own state, because they could only rely on themselves for protection. It seems Herzl’s lesson applies to Ukrainians too.