TEL AVIV: Like in the rest of the world, the Israeli defense establishment is watching the Ukraine situation closely, and working hard to figure out what a potential conflict between Moscow and Kyiv, and Washington’s response, might mean for Israel’s interests.
More than many nations, Israel could find itself in an awkward spot. On the one hand, the US is Israel’s biggest ally and longstanding patron. At the same time, Jerusalem has to keep up good relations with Moscow, in order to keep the ability to launch military strikes against Iranian interests in Syria, where Russia largely controls the airspace.
If the US were to call for wide sanctions against Russia, for example, Jerusalem would have to weigh carefully any major steps forward; any actions against Russia could result in Israeli operations being blocked in Syria — potentially putting military personnel at risk if they conduct operations Jerusalem views as vital for its own national security.
In particular, a senior defense source said that Israel is currently underway with a series of strikes against shipments of Iranian-made rockets on their way to Lebanon, including one as recently as Tuesday Washington time. This operation needs continued coordination between Tel Aviv and Moscow to avoid harming Russian troops in Syria, which would cross a red line for Moscow and endanger the ability to do further operations.
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Concerns about what could happen to Syrian operations should relations with Russia shift were “brought up recently in some high-level defense meetings, in which the top decision-makers were present,” the defense source told Breaking Defense.
Giora Eiland, a retired major general and former head of the Israeli National Security Council, said that if Washington asks Israel to participate in sanctions against Russia Jerusalem will be in a very “impossible” situation.
Even light sanctions could harm Israel’s standing with Russia, and potentially, its technology industry. While Russia has not purchased Israeli-made weapons since 2015, non-military technologies are routinely sold to Russian firms.
Israel is also watching the Ukrainian situation as a potential distraction for Washington, as Jerusalem makes its plans for how to react to a new nuclear agreement with Iran. Officials this week involved in the negotiations have signaled to the press that the question of a new deal with Iran are coming to a head. While Israel has made clear it is not in favor of any such deal, but has been relatively quiet about it so as to not anger Washington.
In a new paper this week, Efraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, noted that Iran is also watching the Russia situation and seeing how distracted Washington is by it. It is possible, Inbar wrote, that Iran will try to push for a harder deal during the Vienna negotiations knowing the Biden team could desperately use a geopolitical win.
While defense sources tell Breaking Defense that Israel is not planning to directly attack any Iranian nuclear sites should a new agreement be signed, there are plans underway for increased sabotage efforts that would seek to damage nuclear sites and centrifuges in Iran. Those operations would begin should an agreement be reached that Israel judges allows Iran to successfully create a nuclear weapon.
As a second source put it, the current plans “will take the shadow war to new heights.” And if that happens, intelligence and defense planners here are operating under the assumption that Iranian proxies will step up attacks against Israeli targets in retaliation.
Moredchai Kedar, one of Israel’s top experts on middle Eastern Issues, told Breaking Defense that “Washington will try to restrain Israel from continuing the shadow war against Iran. This is reason for a major concern in Jerusalem, and may create friction between the US and Israel.”
And Eiland, the former National Security Council official, said that regional powers in the Middle East are looking to see how the US ultimately supports Ukraine.
“They see what has happened in Afghanistan and how the Americans do not react to attacks on their forces in Iraq,” Eiland said. “This brings especially the Saudis to think that one option for them is to improve their relations with Iran.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism