Why Israel maintains neutrality vis-à-vis Russia's war against Ukraine

Our colleague Shimon Briman, an Israeli historian and journalist, has given numerous interviews on Ukrainian television explaining Israel’s stance regarding Russia’s unprovoked war against Ukraine. We share one such interview with our readers to help them better understand the difference between official Israel and Israeli society vis-à-vis the war. The interview took place on 5 April 2022. (With English transcript)

English Transcript

J.: Shimon, good afternoon! 

Sh.B.: Good evening! 

J.: Mr. Briman, as President Zelenskyy spoke before Israel's Knesset, he compared Russia's actions against Ukraine with those of Nazis against the Jewish people. And we know that on March 1, Russian troops bombed the Jewish tombs in Babyn Yar in Kyiv. Could you tell us why Israel didn't side with Ukraine from the very beginning? Why does it maintain neutrality? 

Sh.B.: The Israeli government indeed believes neutrality to be desirable because relations with Moscow are very important for us with regard to Syria. There is a Russian contingent there. There are air forces there: aircraft and antiaircraft systems. And there is a military partnership between the General Staff of the Israeli army and this Russian military base in Syria, in the city of Khmeimim. There is partnership and cooperation regarding the territory of Syria. It is crucial for Israel because Russia closes its eyes and allows Israel and Israeli air forces to destroy Iran's arms depots and convoys that move into Syria's territory to carry out terrorist activities against Israel. There is this situation — it's like returning the favor to Russia for closing its eyes. The Israeli government has adopted a neutral stance on Russia's war against Ukraine.

I'd like to emphasize that this is the government's position. We have a 100% different position from the Israeli people. There is mass support for Ukraine, and many volunteer organizations collect money and medical supplies, sending all this to Ukraine. I also contribute to these activities through the Israeli Friends of Ukraine organization.

J.: Shimon, first of all, you speak very good Ukrainian. Viktoria was not given advance notice about your command of Ukrainian. You speak very well. Now, a question for you. There is this topic bandied about, an ephemeral one, it should be said. Some people have voiced this idea: in addition to international tribunals over war criminals, Ukraine may need to think about creating an analogue to Mossad in order to guarantee revenge, so to speak. In your opinion, can it work in Ukraine's situation? I am asking for your opinion as a political scientist.

Sh.B.: It may work, but Mossad's main objective and activities are not about revenge — it's collecting intelligence abroad. What you say about revenge was a one-time operation after the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Golda Meir, the then prime minister and a native of Kyiv, pronounced her famous phrase: "Send forth the boys." This was an order to send Mossad agents to inflict revenge on those Arab terrorists who hid in different cities of the world. All of them were killed within several years. It took time, but all of them were murdered. There was one mistake made: a non-involved person who looked like one of the terrorists was killed. However, all other terrorists were punished this way. You can indeed use it as some kind of example, but as far as revenge is concerned, it requires a cool head.

J.: This dish is best served cold. Shimon Briman, thank you very much for your Ukrainian, your position, and your interesting thoughts on revenge. 

Sh.B.: I am very thankful to my teacher of the Ukrainian language and literature in Kharkiv. 

J.: We will pass on greetings from you. This city is fighting against Russian invaders today and has been heroically doing so for 40 days now. Thank you.