TBILISI, Georgia (JTA) – In the war between Georgia and Russia, Israel faced a choice between a fair-weather ally and a friend by proxy.
When the conflict flared two weeks ago, first with Georgia’s shelling of the capital of South Ossetia and then with Russian tanks rumbling through the breakaway province into Georgia, Israel hedged its bets: It didn’t take either side.
Israeli Foreign Ministry officials signaled a drift away from Georgia – an ally to whom Israel sells arms – while staying mum on the actions of Russia, a global power with whom Israel has a complicated relationship.
The strategy didn’t quite work.
Early on, Russia singled out Israel for criticism for providing military support to Georgia, and this week a Russian army deputy chief of staff, Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, rebuked Israel for arming and training the Georgian forces.
Then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev opened his summer vacation home in Sochi to Syrian President Bashar Assad, who said he’d ask Russia for sophisticated new anti-aircraft missile systems.
This was precisely the sort of development Israel was trying to avert by not coming out strongly in favor of Georgia.
“If Israel intends to attack Iran, then such a system would be a problem,” said Professor Yiftah Shapir, an expert on arms control in the Middle East from Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.
Ultimately, Shapira said, Israel’s position on the Georgia-Russia conflict probably would have little bearing on Russia’s decision on whether or not to sell new weapons to Syria.
In Russia, Israel sees a go-between for contact with Arab states, but the Jewish state also is wary of Moscow selling weapons to regimes in Tehran and Damascus.
As for Georgia, Israel and the former Soviet republic have had a seven-year defense relationship in which Israel has provided defense and surveillance equipment, as well as training to its troops. Several of Georgia’s top officials also have close ties to Israel. Georgia also is an ally of the United States, making it a friend of Israel by proxy.
While Israel’s complicated relationship with Russia kept Jerusalem from overtly taking sides in the conflict, Israeli public opinion surged in favor of Georgia. With sizable Russian and Georgian communities in Israel, plenty of Soviet-born Israelis followed the conflict closely from the Jewish state.
The Georgian community long has been plagued by political infighting and internecine squabbles in Israel, but after Russia’s invasion of Georgia, the community came together and held two demonstrations in Israel in the course of one week, noted Amnon Sela, an Israeli expert on Russian affairs at Herzliya’s Interdisciplinary Center.
By contrast, Russian Jews in Israel were lukewarm in their support for Russia, with most either showing solidarity with Georgia or staying quiet, Sela said. The Russian community in Israel contains many expatriates with little or no affection for the Russian government.
In the Caucasus, however, Jews on opposite sides of the conflict have thrown their support behind their respective countries, with Jewish community leaders in Georgia and Russia accusing the other side of war crimes, imperialism or fascist tendencies.
Evgeny Satanovsky, a vice president of the Russian Jewish Congress and head of a Middle East think tank, drew parallels between Georgia’s actions and the actions of Saddam Hussein in Kurdistan or Syria in the Golan Heights.
“We look at Israel, we look at America and Sept. 11 or Turkey and Kurdistan: If you kill the soldiers and officers of a country, even if a small country does it, there must be an answer,” Satanovsky said.
Israel’s position has not played well with the Russian people, including Jews, whose patriotism has swelled since the conflict began.
Mark Petrushansky, the chairman of the Vladikavkaz Jewish community, near the Ossetian border, said he was embarrassed by Israel. Petrushansky said fellow Russians were asking him, “What sort of wrong did we ever do to Israel that they would help Georgia?”
The questions, he said, came after Russian media outlets reported that Georgian Defense Minister David Kezerashvili and Minister for Reintegration Temur Yakobashvili had close ties to Israel.
Matters worsened when Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, responding to a question by an Israeli reporter, attributed his army’s strengths in the war to Israeli ingenuity. Saakashvili also spoke of Kezerashvili and Yakobashvili.
“We have two Israeli cabinet ministers, one deals with war and the other with negotiations, and that is the Israeli involvement here,” Saakashvili told reporters. “Both war and peace are in the hands of Israeli Jews.”
In fact, though both Kezerashvili and Yakobashvili are Jewish and have extensive ties to Israel, only Kezerashvili holds Israeli citizenship.
With Jewish communities in both Georgia and Russia, and Israeli interests in both countries, balancing competing interests can be a delicate exercise.
“We obviously have to be concerned about where Russia stands on a number of issues that impact the Jews living in Russia, let alone the State of Israel,” said Mark Levin, the executive director of NCSJ, an advocacy group for Jews in the former Soviet Union. “At the same time, we have a country like Georgia that has always very welcoming and open to its Jewish citizens. It can be a balancing act.”