Israel holds fire amid mounting pressure from Ukraine

Israel is rejecting desperate calls from Ukraine to supply advanced air defense systems to counter Russia’s use of Iranian kamikaze drones, intent on maintaining strategic ties between Jerusalem and Moscow.

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Wednesday said that Israel “will not provide weapon systems,” but said that Jerusalem will continue to side with Western support for Kyiv. 

“We have asked the Ukrainians to share information regarding their needs and offered to assist in developing a life-saving early-warning system,” he reportedly said in remarks to ambassadors from the European Union. 

Israel has sent humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, publicly condemned Russia’s invasion and is reportedly sharing intelligence with Kyiv. 

But it has held back on strategic military aid, hoping to preserve its Moscow ties. 

Those ties include Israeli communication with Russia in Syria to target Iranian weapons transfers through the country, and Israeli concerns for the Jewish diaspora in Russia. 

Gantz’s rejection of military assistance came after the Ukrainian Embassy in Israel officially appealed for air defense systems following two weeks of devastating attacks by Russia using the Iranian drones. 

The Shahed-136, nicknamed the kamikaze drones, have killed civilians in their homes and on the street, and destroyed critical infrastructure that threatens the country’s electricity and water supplies as winter temperatures begin to take hold. 

The Ukrainian Embassy in Israel, in a letter sent Tuesday, asked the Israeli government to enter into “mutual cooperation in the field of air/missile defense,” warning that Iran’s battlefield experience for its weapons systems is a direct threat to the Middle East. 

“The request of the Ukrainian side to the Israeli side to support above mentioned proposals is based on the consideration that positive experience gained by Iran of using the above-mentioned weapons in Ukraine will lead to further improvement of Iranian systems,” the letter read, and reported by Axios

The letter asks for Israel’s Iron Dome system, which last had a 97 percent success rate at intercepting nearly 600 missiles shot from the Gaza Strip over the course of a few days in August. 

“We are a country at war ourselves, I don’t think we can afford emptying our warehouses,” said Uzi Rubin, founder and first director of the Israel Missile Defense Organization in the Israel Ministry of Defense and a fellow with the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. 

“We export weapons. We are one of the 10 largest exporters. But that means if you want an Israeli system, you have to contract for it and wait for it to be manufactured.”

Other air defense systems Ukraine requested in its letter are the Barak-8, David’s Sling and Arrow Interceptor — advanced and layered air defenses that can intercept medium- to long-range rockets and missiles, and are increasingly used to intercept drones. 

Other requests, like the Iron Beam — a high energy laser weapon system developed by Israeli weapons manufacturer Rafael — are not operational. And while the Ukrainians appeared to request a Patriot Missile Defense System from the Israelis, that system is made by the U.S. and is deployed in Saudi Arabia for missile and drone defense. 

While the U.S. Army has possession of two Iron Dome batteries, the administration has not sent any signals it’s looking to send those to Ukraine. 

Becca Wasser, senior fellow for the defense program at the Center for New American Security, said one reason the U.S. may not send its own Iron Dome is that it only has two, and only one is operational in Guam.

“A few years ago the [House Armed Services Committee] was talking about the U.S. sending one of its Iron Dome batteries to Ukraine, long before the recent events took place with Russia’s invasion,” she said. 

“But at the end of the day … the United States does not have that many Iron Dome systems.”

But she added there has been a recent U.S. push “to have other allies and partners step up in providing air defenses to Ukraine.”

Seth Frantzman, author of “Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machines, Artificial Intelligence, and the Battle for the Future,” said that early detection is more critical than expensive air defense systems, adding the Iranian-made kamikaze drone is slow-moving and “sounds like a kind of flying lawn mower.”

“Ukraine needs the right kind of radars to detect the drones,” he said, giving them time to decide how to shoot them down with war planes, shoulder-launch rockets or small arm fire.

Germany, Spain, NATO and the U.S. have sent, and are sending, more air defense systems to Ukraine, but Kyiv is pleading for more. 

“Iranian drones that attack Ukraine were probably produced to attack Israel,” tweeted Anton Gerashchenko, adviser to the Minister of Internal Affairs of Ukraine. “Israel knows better than anyone what it’s like to fight terrorists. We ask Israel to give us air defense systems and defensive weapons – they are critically important when dealing with terrorists.”

Frantzman said Israel is familiar with the ways Russia appears to be using Iranian drones.

“It’s actually being used by the Russians just to bludgeon and murder the civilian population and terrorize people. Israel has faced similar types of indiscriminate rocket fire and now a bit of drone fire, that’s why it built systems like Iron Dome,” he said. “So from Israel’s perspective, it’s like Israel’s already seen this.” 

While the Biden administration has quietly pushed for Jerusalem to more firmly stand up for Ukraine against Russia’s aggression, it has held back from public calls that Israel provide critical military defense to Kyiv.

“We’ve said that we’ve been — pleased is maybe the wrong word — but we’ve been fine with Israel’s complicated relationship [with Russia],” U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides said in an interview with The Hill in September. 

“It’s a little complicated for Israel obviously, but we push them every day,” he added. 

A few isolated voices in Israel have said Iran’s drone sales and expected missile sales to Russia are reason enough to justify military deliveries. 

“This morning it was reported that Iran is transferring ballistic missiles to Russia. There is no longer any doubt where Israel should stand in this bloody conflict,” Israel’s Minister for Diaspora Affairs Nachman Shai tweeted on Sunday. “The time has come for Ukraine to receive military aid as well, just as the USA and NATO countries provide.” 

Rubin said for Israel, Russia’s use of Iranian drones could present an intelligence-gathering opportunity for future conflicts with Tehran. 

“Of course [the Iranians] learn more — the conflict in Ukraine is a very high-intensity conflict, they learn from that. But at same time we also learn from how they’re being combatted, we see what’s happening and we learn from that too.”

And Russia has issued stark warnings of severing relations with Israel if Jerusalem shifts its position. 

“It seems Israel will supply weapons to the Kyiv regime. A very reckless move. It will destroy all diplomatic relations between our countries,” Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Security Council of Russia and a key Putin ally, wrote on Telegram. 

Rubin said that Medvedev’s threats resonated in Israel. 

“Israel declared neutrality because we have relations with Russia. It’s something I don’t think we can easily give up,” he said.

Israel is set to go to elections in November, and there’s little public pressure for the government to more robustly support Ukraine. Polling data from March found that only 22 percent of Israelis supported sending military assistance to Ukraine, and that voters are largely focused on the rising cost of living

“I, as an Israeli would like to keep our channels to Russia open, but I am a citizen, just a taxpayer and a voter, I’m not making the decisions,” Rubin said. 

Tags Benny Gantz Iranian drones Russia-Ukraine war

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