Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, Israel has found itself in a geopolitical status quo. It has been dealing with moral indecision in its intrinsic support of national sovereignty and having to strike a balance with its need to cooperate with Russia for regional stability.
This political ambiguity can be observed in its approach to arms exports, as it walks a diplomatic tightrope on which it is vying to position itself as a mediator. Since the invasion began, successive Israeli administrations have been firmly committed to Israeli neutrality.
One month after Russian forces had crossed the border and began trying to take Kyiv, Volodymyr Zelensky, himself Jewish, called on Israel to provide military support and help enforce international sanctions against Russia.
The then Naftali Bennett’s administration refused, despite an overtly anti-Semitic campaign against Zelensky by Russia and its egregious misuse of the term “denazification” to justify its illegal invasion.
Ukraine’s Call For Support; Israel’s Silence
Ukraine has kept calling for Israeli support, notably highlighting the apparent alliance between Russia and Iran, whose Shahed drones have been terrorizing the Ukrainian population and destroying civilian infrastructure since the autumn of 2022.
In the spring of 2023, it was widely reported that Israel would be exporting battalions of its Merkava main battle tanks, sparking rumors that Ukraine would be a direct or indirect recipient.
Indeed, since the outbreak of the war, data shows that Israeli arms exports significantly increased. Still, the Israeli government has been going to great lengths to ensure that its customers’ identities remain a secret.
Defense exports totaled a record US$12.5 billion in 2022, with new Arab partners under the US-sponsored 2020 Abraham Accords accounting for almost a quarter of the business and 29% to Europe.
Israel’s tight-lipped approach regarding arms exports results from its continued non-alignment in the Russia-Ukraine war.
Russia Is Key To Israel’s Actions Over Syria
Netanyahu, who came back to power in December 2022, has remained steadfast in his position, notably that Israel must retain bilateral relations with Russia due to the risk to Israel’s freedom of military action in Syria as it fights the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) there.
Israeli air force requires Russian consent to operate over Syrian territory, much of which remains under Russian control. “I think Israel is in a peculiar situation, different from, say, Poland or Germany or France or any of the Western countries that are assisting Ukraine,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, defending his country’s dull reaction to Ukrainian demands for support.
Therefore, protecting Israel’s regional geopolitical interests continues to take precedence over international dynamics, an approach reinforced by a significant community of Russian Jews in Israel.
Middle East Dynamics At Play
Subtle geopolitical dynamics in the Middle East are at play, and it remains to be seen if American pressure will sway Netanyahu. Israel’s approach has been similar to that of Turkey, maintaining neutrality while offering rhetorical and humanitarian support to the Ukrainians, although Turkey has sold weapons to Ukraine.
Another Israeli concern is that weapons sold to Ukraine will somehow end up in the hands of the Iranian-backed Shia militia, Hezbollah.
“The purpose of the Israeli army is to prevent the terrorist actions of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is located in Syria, and the transfer of weapons to another terrorist organization, Hezbollah, which is located in Lebanon,” said Arkady Mil-Man, the Head of the Russia Program at Tel-Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies and the former Israeli Ambassador to Russia, to the Kyiv Independent.
Netanyahu has even ruled out sending wholly defensive weapons systems owned by Israel, such as the Iron Dome, amid fears they could end up in Iranian hands.
“I think it’s important to understand that we’re also concerned with the possibility that systems that we would give to Ukraine would fall into Iranian hands and could be reversed engineered, and we would find ourselves facing Israeli systems used against Israel,” he said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, Netanyahu said, “We also have concerns that any systems we give to Ukraine would be used against us because they could fall into Iranian hands… and by the way, that’s not a theoretical possibility. It happened with the Western anti-tank weapons we now find at our borders. So, we have to be very careful here.”
A Firm Stance Against Supplying To Ukraine
The Israeli position regarding arms exports to Ukraine extends to Israeli-made hardware owned by other countries. The country refuses to allow Israeli weapons into Ukraine without its government’s authorization.
In June, it was reported that the Israeli government was blocking the United States from sending two Iron Dome batteries to Ukraine to boost its air defense against continued Russian drone and missile attacks.
“We can save more Ukrainian lives today if we transfer those batteries. However, due to serious concerns, the Government of Israel has blocked the United States from transferring these batteries,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen wrote in a letter to the leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
These concerns are underlined by PM Netanyahu’s comments above, and some analysts believe the Israeli approach is being exploited by some European countries keen to bolster their defenses without having to send their equipment “to the Eastern Front.”
This means that using the Israeli-made (Rafael) Trophy Active Protection System (APS) on German Leopard 2 and British Challenger tanks could prove problematic where tanks with these systems are proposed to be sent to Ukraine.
Guns To Denmark?
Indeed, the firm Israeli stance regarding weapons to Ukraine has opened the door to Defense Ministries aiming to rearm themselves after sending systems to the AFU.
Denmark, for example, sent its battalion of French-made CAESAR self-propelled howitzers to Ukraine, opening a procurement process that has led to political turmoil in a country generally known for its social liberalism and solid moral compass.
The Danish publication Altinget has spent the last few months investigating a suspicious deal involving the Danish Ministry of Defense and the Israeli firm Elbit Systems, whose tender for a battalion of ATMOS artillery systems to replace the Ukraine-bound CAESARs appears to have been hurried through the Danish parliament without due process and based on erroneous information.
Elbit Systems and the Danish Defense Materiel and Procurement Agency (FMI) worked on a deal as far back as 2015 when the Danish Ministry of Defense tested the ATMOS system.
But most of the Danish left were seriously opposed to the deal due to Elbit’s questionable human rights record, and it was canceled, despite calls by the Danish military to approve the system, which has passed the testing phase with positive reports.
There is an ongoing legal battle between Elbit and the Danish government regarding this deal, which some analysts believe led to the ATMOS deal in January 2023. The simultaneity of the agreements, as reported by the Danish website, is one of the many concerns that led the new Minister for Defence, Troels Lund Poulsen, to announce an impartial investigation, which may involve several ministries within the government.
Indeed, Elbit has a propensity for underhand tricks and dubious commercial activities, with eyebrows raised at the Danish Ministry of Defense’s procedural ineptitude and refusal to consider rival proposals from France and Korea properly.
It remains to be seen if American and Ukrainian pressure will lead to a rethink within Netanyahu’s government. Still, for now, the strict strategy for arms exports is causing a headache for several European countries.
War On Hamas Changes Export Dynamics
With the Hamas attacks on Israel on October 7-8, the arms export dynamics for Israel have changed and could come to a halt, at least for the time being. It would be difficult to predict when it can resume, as domestic needs have increased exponentially with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declaration of war on Hamas.
Already, Israel has sought help from the US to replenish its arms and ammunition, apart from seeking German approval to use the Heron TP armed drones sold to Berlin in its military operations against Hamas.
Though it is difficult to assess the quantum of export orders that Israel is servicing at this point, as Tel Aviv prefers to keep its customers anonymous and even arms contracts a secret, it can be assumed that being the 10th largest arms exporter of the world, it could be several billions of dollars.
- Georges Azour was born in Lebanon and has lived in Europe for 20 years. He is a keen observer of Israeli arms transfer to Europe. VIEWS PERSONAL
- He can be reached at georgAzour01(at)proton.me
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