In the 19th century, Prussian field marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder said something to the effect of “no plan survives first contact with the enemy”. In war as in life, you need a plan B, several alternatives in case your preferred strategy doesn’t work out. It appears that Russia is learning this lesson today in Ukraine, where their invasion is stalled as they face stiff resistance.
While we in the west are happy to see Russia stumble in its act of aggression towards its neighbor, I fear that plan B will be even worse for the Ukrainian people. Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin, may have wanted a quick resolution to the invasion, but that is clearly not going to happen. The alternative is either to deescalate, which doesn’t seem likely, or to press on with a harsher, plodding war that will be more destructive and harmful to civilians.
It is not only in war that one must be flexible. Diplomacy is also a field where a country needs options. Israel too seemed to have counted on a short war in Ukraine which would allow it to thread the needle of neutrality as it maintains good relations with both countries. As the conflict drags on, however, that position is becoming less and less viable.
It seems that the Israeli government’s heart is with Ukraine, while its head is leery of offending Russia. Clearly the natural position would be for Israel to support a fellow democracy with a Jewish president defending itself against a much larger authoritarian opponent. In addition, many Israelis trace their ancestry to Ukraine, and Israel has always maintained a special relationship with the United States and seen itself as a part of the western world.
On the other hand, Israel is worried about Iran’s presence on its northern border with Syria. The Israeli air force has conducted air strikes to prevent the Iranians from gaining a foothold so close to the Jewish state, but it is only able to do so with the consent of Russia, which controls Syria’s airspace. Israel sees a vital strategic interest in being able to conduct these raids, while supporting Ukraine is something it would like to do but is not crucial for its survival.
In a sense, Israel’s dilemma is similar to the that of the United States and other western nations. We can wave Ukrainian flags and say that we stand with the Ukrainian people. NATO may even be willing to send military aid, but we are not willing to risk World War III to directly intervene. Nonetheless, the US is growing impatient with Israel’s neutrality in the conflict. At some point as the war drags on with more and more civilian deaths, it will have to pivot from plan A.
Some observers think Israel has only one choice, to side with its most important ally in the United States. This may be true, but one could argue the opposite as well. From the Israeli perspective the US-Israel special relationship is so rock-solid that it can survive a difficult period. After all, Israel’s support for Ukraine is not vital. But Israeli officials might look at the relationship with Russia as much more fragile. If Jerusalem breaks with Moscow, there may be no going back to a friendly situation on the Syrian border.
Plan B sometimes present even better opportunities than the original strategy, but sometimes it pays to stick with the original idea. Naftali Bennet, the prime minister of Israel, is one of the few western leaders who is still talking to the leaders of both Ukraine and Russia. He has already offered to broker talks between the two countries and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine has agreed. Perhaps the practiced and nuanced neutrality cultivated by Israel may in the end help bring about peace.