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Israel’s Ukraine Dilemma

TEL AVIV – As if relations between Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government and US President Barack Obama’s administration were not strained enough, Israel has refused to join the United States and its other allies in condemning Russia’s annexation of Crimea. But that decision, though risky, is not altogether surprising: The US, after all, lacks an effective policy toward Russia’s presence in the Middle East, making it difficult for countries like Israel to stand up to the Kremlin.

The latest controversy emerged when a senior US official complained to the influential Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz about Israel’s refusal to condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine or to support Ukraine’s territorial integrity in the United Nations General Assembly. It makes no sense, the official declared, for a country that relies so heavily on US aid and diplomatic support to turn its back on its most important ally at such a critical moment.

Israel’s government responded by trying to placate the US. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, in a meeting with US National Security Adviser Susan Rice and others, explained that Israel could not antagonize Russia for fear that it would provide Syria with sophisticated weapons systems (primarily S-300 anti-aircraft missiles) – a move that would upend the status quo in Israel’s strategic environment.

Netanyahu, it should be noted, tried to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin not to complete precisely that arms deal last year. And Putin has already warned that intervention in Ukraine would have consequences in the Middle East. While a UN General Assembly vote can hardly be defined as intervention, Israel is not willing to take any chances.