The questions that follow are mine. The answers are from Gil Troy, a distinsguished scholar of American politics who lives in Israel. In places, I have added my own observations and say so, or I have incorporated my thoughts into a joint answer, also indicated.
Watching Israel straddle positions in this brutal conflict has been, well, how would you describe them?
Geopolitical: Which includes the security of Israel.
Demographic: The ethnic composition of Israelis as the country approaches its seventy-fifth anniversary.
Personal: There are Jewish oligarchs, with Israeli passports, and they are generous.
Explain, Professor Troy
Israel needs to “make nice” to Putin for his assistance in targeting air strikes in Syria, and against Iranian and Hezbollah convoys. And Russia can stall progress in revival of the Iran nuclear accord, which it has already done.
Israel has almost two million citizens with ties – close ties – to Russia and Ukraine; Jewish immigrants from there over many decades. And some of these are only part-Jewish. They have families and friends in both countries. Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked has already raised the issue of how Israel can absorb Ukrainian refugees who are only partially Jewish or not Jewish at all, lest the country’s Jewish population be further diluted.
Oligarchs now under sanction have been pouring money into Israel over the years. Two, Mikhail Fridman and Pyotr Aven, sanctioned by the European Union are funders of the Genesis Prize, “the Jewish Nobel.” Recipients have included Michael Bloomberg, Steven Spielberg, Natan Sharansky, and Natalie Portman, who turned it down.
So, what is Prime Minister Naftali Bennett trying to do?
Triangulate (PO’s word).
As leader of an improbable Israeli government that goes from the far right to the left, he sees the possibility of being a conduit among the parties, recognizing that Israel has unique connections and interests in this conflict.
What about America’s position?
The United States provides Israel with almost $4 billion in military aid annually. And the Jewish population in the United States is about the same size as Israel’s, and many American Jews have ancestors and some relatives in Russia and Ukraine.
(PO) Plus, the U.S. and Israel have an intelligence sharing and cooperation agreement that is as close if not closer than any in the world.
So, what pressure can the United States apply to Israel?
Hard to judge. Israel did support the United Nations resolution condemning Russia for the invasion. Thirty-five nations abstained.
(PO) It would be fair to assume that a great deal of consultation between the U.S. and Israel is underway below the radar.
What could that mean?
(PO and GT) Putin is waging a nineteenth or twentieth century territorial war in the twenty-first century when drones, cyberattacks and SWAT teams play a major role as they did in the assassination of Osama bin Laden and ISIS leadership and the targeted killing of Qasem Soleimani, the top-ranking Iranian general. Planning for these is invisible and for Israel, deniable.
Why does Putin call Ukraine “fascist” and “neo-Nazi”when its president, Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish?
For Russians and many Jews of an older generation memories are long. In World War II, Ukraine and Poland were notable for the depth of their anti-Semitism despite the suffering both countries endured. When the Nazis came to Ukraine at war, there was some support among the population – at least they weren’t Russians.
And Putin’s reputation until now has been that compared to Russian leaders over the centuries, he has a “soft spot” for Jews. There is even a belief – not verified – that he bought an apartment in Tel Aviv for a woman who looked after him when he was a child.
What about the Jewish oligarchs?
This is especially complicated. For instance, Roman Abramovich, just sanctioned by the United Kingdom, where he was a major figure, owns at least three properties in Israel, a hotel and office building in Tel Aviv, and an estate in Herzliya. He pledged a $10 million donation to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial, but it was withdrawn. He has Israeli citizenship.
On Sunday evening, a Gulfstream G650 belonging to Abramovich landed in Israel. The plane had taken off from Moscow. It was not known who was on board.
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said on Monday that “Israel will not be a route to bypass sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States and other Western countries.” But he did not announce -- or was not quoted announcing — Israeli sanctions.
What happens now?
(PO and GT). No one really can say what is in Putin’s head as the endgame. Others may certainly try to mediate – and Israel is trying to do so. But only Putin can decide. And that is what makes the situation so dangerous.