Benjamin Netanyahu is returning as Israel’s prime minister at a time of worldwide geopolitical crisis. Prices are still rising. Currencies are depreciating. The permanent revolution of Iran’s Islamic Republic is facing the most serious threat to its existence since its foundation. Afghanistan is collapsing under the weight of Taliban cruelty and incompetence, amid a growing and savage Islamic State insurgency. Refugee crises mass at the borders of the world’s rich countries.
But most of all, the defining crisis of our age is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Politicians are judged by how they react to the challenges of their time. So far, Russia’s war is a test that both Netanyahu and Israel are failing.
Under Netanyahu, and since he left office in 2021, Israel has built a nervy but nonetheless real relationship with and reliance on Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The leaders of the two countries conspicuously met. Israel has seemed to defer to Russia on the future of Bashar Assad’s Syria. It has extensively coordinated with Russian expeditionary forces within Syria during Israel’s frequent raids on targets linked to Iran.
Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Israel has been conspicuously silent. Any criticisms its leader have offered have been muted and pro forma. The same went for Netanyahu as leader of the opposition. Unlike every one of its own allies, Israel has offered Ukraine no military aid.
Many Ukrainian leaders and military theorists look to Israel with admiration. They seek to emulate its capacity to survive amid hostile neighbours and thrive despite being in a constant state of warfare. The appreciation is not mutual.
Ukraine has a large and successful Jewish community. It has a Jewish president. Russian munitions have killed and displaced Holocaust survivors and destroyed monuments to Jewish suffering. This has not moved Israeli leaders in the slightest.
But for the rest of the democratic world, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine makes Israel’s and Netanyahu’s closeness and coordination with Russia look tenuous and unjustifiable. Russia’s single-handed returning of aggressive wars of imperial conquest to the European continent is an immense crime. It has shattered, maybe permanently, normal relations between Russia and many of its neighbors.
And not only that: Russia has been largely held off and humiliated in its war. Israel’s assumption of Russian strength – imagining a nation with whom its leaders can do business – appears to have been mistaken.
We face a new era. This is an era of Russian aggression and failure. Policymakers cannot treat Russia as a normal state and a legitimate one among international interlocutors. Israel cannot enjoy business as usual with Russia in these circumstances. But under Netanyahu, it seems, Israel will certainly try.
Israel and Netanyahu have for most of the past decade mounted a campaign of interference and excuse-making to defend diplomatic closeness with Russia. Netanyahu’s favorite justification is the idea that Israeli and Russian jets share Syria’s airspace in a kind of agreed-upon condominium. This despite the fact that Israeli planes, each time, enter Syria against the wishes of the titular government, and use their jaunts into Syria to attack Russia’s allies. And Russia reacts with histrionics directed at Israel whenever things go wrong.
Russia jammed Israeli radar, and has strengthened Iranian proxy air defenses – moves that risked Israeli aircraft and pilots.
Another classic is the false idea that because Iran is the real enemy – something Netanyahu has spent his career asserting – Russia and Iran can be separated by cosying up to Russia. This is despite the fact that as Russia and Iran attain pariah status, they only grow closer and more dependent on each other. And the fact that as Netanyahu himself admitted before a Knesset committee in 2018, Russia is neither willing nor able to help Israel ease Iran’s grip on Syria.
Nonetheless, as he said then and says now, Russia is a fact. It must be worked with. He and Putin have a good relationship. There will be no weapons shipments to Ukraine.
But this war has shown Russia to be unreliable, criminal, hostile to diplomacy, and – more than anything else – militarily weak.
The question can be asked: what other reasons can Netanyahu have to maintain his increasingly unreasonable attachment to Russia and to Putin? The answer, it seems, is vibes.
Netanyahu and Putin have similar domestic political postures. They pose as tough guys willing to kill the enemy even if it is not politically correct to do so. They alone claim to understand the realities of a cold, indifferent world. Both, it seems, are motivated by some of the same anti-‘woke’ logic which has American conservatives salivating at European dictators like Viktor Orban, because of their disapproval of gay rights and Soros-funded charities.
Netanyahu himself is secular, while Putin consecrates a kind of occult, mystic Christianity. But Netanyahu is willing to play along with the obsessions and bigotries of his religious and far-right coalition partners. It suits him to share their enemies. Like Putin, Netanyahu dislikes America’s Democrats far more than he does Republicans.
They are both aging tough-guys, almost the same age, who have held highest office for longer than anyone else in their respective countries, and who cannot give up the pursuit of political power into their seventies. Both Netanyahu and Putin are alleged to like money more than their official salaries allow. The difference is that Netanyahu is still, at least in theory, a supporter of democracy.
But if the vibes are all keeping Netanyahu and by extension Israel in Putin’s camp, now is the time for a change. The world has changed around us, and so far, Israel and its returning prime minister have not moved.
Russia has been shown to have a weaker armed force than ever imagined, and an even more incompetent, destructive and psychotic leadership than was thought possible. Israel should jump at this chance to change two decades of failed overtures to Moscow.
Israel should divest itself now from any joint Israeli-Russian projects relating to Syria and Iran. And it must prepare to get with the times, the postwar consensus, and the rest of the Western alliance, and support Ukraine.
This piece was originally published in Haaretz.