Diplomatic insights into Ukraine from former Israeli ambassador to Australia Yuval Rotem

March 13, 2022 by Features Desk
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To examine the topic “2022 – Year of difficulty or opportunity for Israel?”, the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council’s Live Online webinar series featured Ambassador Yuval Rotem, Israel’s former Ambassador to Australia and former Director General of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

He warned that to keep a degree of world order, discontinuation of the Ukraine war is essential, or the architecture of Europe will be different, and there will be extremely difficult days ahead. The conflict is not about a political misunderstanding, or security concerns, but a historical, psychological need of Russians to control Ukraine, because the Russian nation emerged from Kyiv.

Calling the war the most important strategic historical event since the Cold War, he said it isn’t going as Putin planned.

Israel sees it with a degree of uncertainty, he explained. US projection of power has been undermined in the Middle East including by the Afghanistan withdrawal and US passivity, and the Ukraine crisis “doesn’t contradict this direction.” He added that there are consequences for Israel every time the US is challenged.

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Because the West is trying to resolve this through economic and diplomatic means instead of considering hard power, he added, small countries will draw the lesson that if large countries want to take them over, they will need to rely on their own resources, especially considering this is happening on the doorstep of Europe. Therefore, they will find new alliances or enter into arms races. He expects many countries will now quickly increase their defence budgets.

He noted that the US took three weeks to take Iraq in 2003, and Iraqis didn’t have the determination of Ukrainians, and Ukraine is far larger. However, he believes the fate of the Ukrainian military has already been decided and predicts there ultimately will be an election from which will emerge a more pro-Russian regime, which will call for Russian troops to stay to protect Ukraine, while Russia may gain Ukrainian territory to connect it to Crimea.

Israel, he said, now has a dilemma over the war, with Russia on its northern border, the US its closest ally, which it relies on for so much, and large Jewish communities in Russia and Ukraine.

He noted that Israel has tried to contribute to finding an accommodation, but there is always a question over whether a small country should intervene. Because Israel is not part of Western Europe, it can be an intermediary, but this also entails risk, because one side may end up unhappy with Israel’s role. If the US has no reservations about Israeli involvement, Jerusalem may extend its mediation efforts, Rotem said.

He also advised that for Israel to step into mediation with a superpower like Russia, the most important virtue is for it to stay humble. It is small enough to not be seen as part of a bloc, so it has the ability to provide that type of service, but must make sure it is welcome by both sides.

He is concerned there will be a resurgence of nationalism, making multi-lateral cooperation on matters that require it, such as the way a COVID vaccine was found within a year, more difficult to achieve.

Turning to the JCPOA Iran nuclear deal, he said leaks suggest the new deal will be pretty bad from Israel’s perspective. He added, “America is not going to live up to what they have claimed the deal is going to be. The deal is not going to be better because it’s… not going to be longer and stronger as they have promised. My view is that the deal… will be rather shorter and weaker and…it’s almost a complete capitulation to the demands from Iran, to the extent that Iran can shorten its breakout time to a mere handful of months.”

He stated that Israel had tried to engage the Obama Administration publicly and openly in the lead up to the initial deal in 2015, but didn’t get a fair hearing, so this time Israel tried dialogue but got the same outcome.

He continued, “Iran I think may… discontinue enrichment according to the deal but it is less important in 2022 since they were able to gain the knowledge and to procure the equipment to enrich the uranium at … higher speed for almost non-existent concessions from Iran. American negotiators are willing to give everything, unfreezing billions of dollars from the banking accounts, exploring exporting oil and energy and elimination of sanctions [with] no engagement at all with the other stages of Iranian military nuclear capabilities.”

He noted that a member of the US negotiating team had even resigned, citing “exaggerated American concessions”, adding that the return of the deal will mean that “within a few years all the restrictions…will expire beginning next year and Iran will have no restriction whatsoever in the near future to produce nuclear capabilities.” He said this would be bad news not just for Israel, but for the whole region, and, as happened after the 2015 deal, “there will be no more stability in the region once the deal is signed,” as Israel correctly warned at the time.

It may, he said, lead to more opportunities for the realignment of forces, as the JCPOA led to the Abraham Accords. Iran is now even more of a threat, with precision missiles and better drone capabilities. The Houthis tested these capabilities with attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and suffered no real consequences. That was during negotiations, so Iran and its proxies will be even more dangerous after negotiations conclude, especially with billions more in unfrozen accounts and oil exports.

If the Iran nuclear deal goes ahead, Israel, he said, must demand inspections be fully implemented. It will have a few short years to decide what to do next, with possibilities including more regional alignments, or more steps to provide future options. The likelihood of this deal is very worrying to every country in the region that has been threatened by Ian.

Israeli President Herzog’s visit to Turkey, he said, is part of Turkish efforts to reconcile with countries with which its relations are poor, and there will be more examples of this as countries now realise what is at stake and who they want on their side. There is a lot that the two countries can cooperate on, but Greece and Cyprus are Israel’s strategic partners, and it is significant that Herzog visited both of them on his way to Turkey. More supply of energy from the eastern Mediterranean could be an important development and could improve Israel’s landscape, including with Turkey.

If Russia wins in Ukraine, Syria’s regime may try to take control of more Syrian land, but many countries – Russia, Turkey, Iran, the US, Israel – have conflicting interests there. Assad could gain legitimacy by helping Russia roll back Iran from Syria, but Rotem doesn’t see that happening.

China, he said, is not yet very active in the region, but has a solid interest in energy and is engaging with many countries there. If Russia decides to expand its strategy into the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, it will be interesting to see how it engages with China’s interests there, he added. Currently, Russia needs China to get around the sanctions, which will consolidate Russia as China’s junior partner.

He said US engagement in the Middle East is critical for stability there. It doesn’t have to be boots on the ground. Yet without US engagement, he warned, many countries may make miscalculations in relation to other countries there. He wants the US to be strong because then the region is strong.

Rotem also said direct flights between Israel and Australia are feasible and would improve and enhance the relationship between the two countries. The use of hubs in Dubai and Abu Dhabi will also shorten flights.

Israel, he said, did “magnificently” in 2021, with economic growth around eight percent and an almost half a trillion US dollar economy, the world’s 28th or 29th largest, so there is a lot of scope for cooperation between Australia and Israel. There is around a billion dollars in trade between the two, and potential to increase that to far more. Israel can seek new alignments politically, militarily and also commercially, especially with the world changing and clouds gathering, he concluded.


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