07.03.2023 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

The US Trying to ‘Get’ Israel against Russia is a Tricky Call

In a bid to expand the global alliance against Russia to defeat the latter in Ukraine and eventually bring a regime change in Moscow, the US is proactively seeking to enlist Israel’s support. Apparently, Washington has met some recent – although fragile – success. On February 23, the UN General Assembly passed a non-binding resolution demanding from Russia to end its military operation in Ukraine and withdraw its forces. Israel, which previously abstained from voting against Russia, joined its Western allies to vote for the resolution. Some people in Washington felt overjoyed, as Ukraine’s foreign minister also said the vote showed that the world doesn’t stand with Russia.

How did Israel’s support come about? In exchange for securing Israel’s support, Washington has been relentlessly trying to pre-emptively defeat an upcoming UN resolution against Israel’s plans to annex additional parts of the Palestinian territories of the West Bank for the past few weeks.

On February 18, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the Palestinian Authority President Mahmood Abbas to thwart a UN Security Council resolution demanding an immediate halt to Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank. On the same day, Blinken called Netanyahu in Israel to ‘update’ him on his diplomacy.

On February 20, reinforcing the Israeli ‘right’ to unilaterally annex Palestinian territories, the Palestinian Authority withdrew the resolution. The decision to drop the resolution and the vote came after the Biden administration resorted to its usual ‘carrot and stick’ policy i.e., offering incentives for dropping the resolution and threatening to block aid in case of going ahead with the vote. Israel reciprocated the US by voting against Russia in the UNGA.

Should we draw the conclusion that Israel now stands unquestionably with the US against Russia? Indeed, the answer to this question is much more complex than meets the eye. To begin with, why would Israel want to destabilise its ties with Russia when it understands that confronting Russia could lead the latter to arm Iran and/or prevent the Israeli ability to carry out strikes in Syria? Russian intervention in both of these cases can directly hurt Israel’s core security interests, as it will help its arch-rival in the region (e.g. Iran) to ultimately gain power vis-à-vis Jerusalem. Israel does not want that. There are, therefore, strong reasons for Israel not to expand its alliance with the US explicitly against Russia.

Russia, anticipating and responding to Israel’s anti-Russia move, has already sent a powerful message that would limit the extent to which Jerusalem can actually move against Russia. Moscow, in short, is expanding its military ties with Iran to help the latter maintain the balance of power in the post-Abraham Accords Middle East. There are reports that show new depths of military cooperation between Tehran and Moscow, with the latter expected to provide the former with fighter jets, radars, and even attack helicopters.

At the same time, Russia is also directly communicating with Israel. The Russian ambassador in Tel Aviv said, on February 18, that Russia has been appreciating Israel’s “balanced stance” ever since the start of the Ukraine crisis and that Moscow hopes that this position “will remain unchanged and there will be no weapon components provided by the Israeli authorities to Ukraine.” The ambassador added that “We make it clear to all the countries, including Israel, that any supply of weapons would be considered as an unfriendly move toward Russia.”

Part of what Israel is doing is also motivated by Tel Aviv’s hopes to use an American willingness to counter Iran’s power – which is receiving a direct boost from Moscow. But the question is: can the US help Israel against Iran? What is the realistic scenario?

Despite years of US geopolitical repression of Iran, the latter’s power and the ability to hit back at Israel is increasing. Its ‘Look East’ policy is deepening its ties not only with Russia but China as well, even as Tehran is already eyeing membership in the BRICS to reinforce the politics of a new, alternative global order away from the US unilateral influence.

Iran’s expansion in the East also means a fast-decreasing US ability to punish the former, as the latter’s economy will be integrated with a region that lies beyond the reach of US sanctions. How reasonable it would be for Israel to pin its hopes on Washington to cut Iran down to size, that is if it can at all?

For Israel, the best – and the most optimal – scenario would be to limit Iran’s power and influence with help from countries that actually can do this. Most certainly, neither the US nor the EU has that ability, as the history of the past few years shows quite clearly. On the contrary, Russia and China do have the ability to shape Iran’s policy vis-à-vis Israel in ways to minimise chances of an actual, or a wide-scale proxy, war between both countries.

To be able to use Russia’s ability to influence Iran, what sort of a policy Israel should adopt towards Ukraine? Certainly, a policy that does not involve the supply of arms to Ukraine to be used against Russia. Israeli support for Ukraine limited to humanitarian aid is unlikely to upset Moscow. In addition, an Israeli diplomatic effort to mediate between Ukraine and Russia and Russia and the US to end the crisis might help Tel Aviv much more than a decision to send weapons to Kyiv will do. Even if the effort fails, Israel will still be able to maintain a balance between its ties with Washington and Moscow. This, for Israel, is a win-win scenario; hence, the most optimal policy option too.

Israel is known as a country that aggressively – and almost exclusively – pursues its national interests. The best way for it to materialise its biggest national interest i.e., security against Iran, is possible via an alliance with Russia rather than an alliance against Russia. Were Tel Aviv to make this calculation – which is in line with its past behaviour vis-à-vis Russia throughout the Syrian crisis – Washington’s efforts to ‘get’ Russia are quite unlikely to succeed beyond securing Israeli support for non-binding UN resolutions.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.

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