Reading Ukraine in Tehran and Tel Aviv

by Marsha B. Cohen

Israeli academics have recently provided a case study of how Israel and Iran may say and do much the same thing, but Iran alone will be criticized for it.

In their latest Iran Pulse piece, headlined “Iran and the Ukraine Crisis,” Prof. Meir Litvak, head of Tel Aviv University’s Alliance Center for Iranian Studies, and MA student Michelle Tabariai write, “As the crisis in the Ukraine unfolded since January 2014, Iran’s official position was cautious and seemingly neutral.”

Of course, the Israeli government was also uncharacteristically quiet about the crisis in Ukraine, and has been almost silent about Russia’s takeover of Crimea. Only under pressure from Secretary of State John Kerry did the Israeli government issue its first and only official statement about the Russian incursion into Crimea on March 5 that was terse and subdued. “Israel is following developments in Ukraine with great concern for the well-being of all its citizens, and hopes the situation does not deteriorate to the point of loss of life,” said a statement released by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s office. “Israel expects the crisis in Ukraine to be solved diplomatically and peacefully.”

“We have good and trusting relations with the Americans and the Russians, and our experience has been very positive with both sides,” Lieberman then told Israel’s Channel 9 TV. “So I don’t understand the idea that Israel has to get mired in this.”

Former Mossad Director Ephraim Halevy observes that “Israel’s most articulate spokespersons have sentenced themselves to complete silence over the issue, and this discipline is being kept in an unusually meticulous manner by the senior and less senior commentators in the Israeli media.”

The Iran Pulse analysis points out:

Iran did not participate in the UN General Assembly vote on March 27, which reaffirmed Ukraine’s territorial integrity and declared the Crimean referendum invalid. While seeking to preserve its alliance with Russia, it might have been wary of Russia’s unilateral measures in the Crimea.

Iran was indeed among two dozen states that did not vote in favor of the measure. So was Israel. Neither showed up for the vote.

Another excerpt from the Tel Aviv University critique:

…From the beginning of the protests in Kiev in January, the Iranian media adopted the Russian narrative, which described the movement as a product of Western plot.

Surprisingly, Litvak and Tabariai never mention Iranian rumors that Israeli operatives were involved in the ousting of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich in what appears to have been a rather curious game of propaganda poker between Israeli and Iranian press. On Feb. 16 Press TV cited unidentified Ukrainian sources who claimed a former Israeli army officer was “playing a leading role in the anti-government protests in the former Soviet Republic.” This unnamed Israeli was supposedly commanding 20 Ukrainian militants, and four other Israelis, who had served in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and “were recently reported to have taken part in opposition rallies in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev.” The Press TV report also claimed that “Ukrainian media said an Israeli tycoon provides financial support to the opposition in Ukraine, adding that Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency is one of the instigators of the unrest in the country.”

A week and a half later,Haaretz and The Times of Israel both published a Jewish Telegraphic Agency  interview with “Delta,” a skull-cap wearing commander of a brigade he called the “Blue Helmets of Maidan,” which was fighting in the streets of Kiev. The pseudonymous “Delta” explained he’d been born in Ukraine, emigrated to Israel during the 1990s and served in the Israel Defense Forces. He returned to Ukraine several years ago and joined the protesters in November. He had been using his IDF acquired skills “to rise through the ranks of Kiev’s street fighters,” including “several fellow IDF veterans” engaging “in violent clashes with government forces.” Completing the circle, Press TV picked up the storyon Mar. 1: “According to reports published by Haaretz and the Times of Israel on Friday, an Israeli army veteran identified as ‘Delta’ headed a street-fighting unit in Kiev.” There was no apparent glimmer of recognition that Press TV itself might have published the news that triggered the interview with “Delta.”

Write Litvak and Tabariai:

…Fars News, affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, denounced the ousting of the president Viktor Yanukovych on February 22 as a “neo-Nazi-spearheaded coup” The new Ukraine, it warned, was governed by some ten “oligarchs” who were buying up media outlets and politicians, while the vast majority of the population will face a bleak future, which will include more European-demanded “austerity” (Fars, Mar. 16, 2014).

There has been no shortage of concerns expressed in the Israeli media about the widespread presence of neo-Nazis in Svoboda, the largest party in the Ukrainian opposition that brought down Yanukovych, or an equal number challenging such a claim. Israel’s official position is silence.

Mention “oligarchs” and Israelis get very nervous. A disproportionate percentage of both Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs are Jewish. Several fund the various Jewish organizations and foundations operating in Ukraine and Russia. One of them, the founder of what once was the Yukos oil empire, Mikhail Khordokovsky — once Russia’s richest man who lost the bulk of his wealth and spent a decade in prison due to his political rival, Vladimir Putin — joined the Ukrainian protestors in March, calling for the Russian people to overthrow Putin. A Ukrainian Jewish business tycoon, Vadim Rabinovich, recently announced his candidacy for president of Ukraine in the May elections. Rabinovich, founder of the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress, is the owner and co-founder of Jewish News One and co-chair of the European Jewish Parliament. These developments, along with the calls from members of the US Congress, who are among Israel’s most energetic supporters, to arm Ukraine and sanction prominent Russian oligarchs are putting Israel in a very awkward position.

The Iran Pulse report notes that Iranian reformist media outlets “showed greater concern from a renewed outbreak of the Cold War and the repercussions of Russian use of force,” while hardliners focused more on the significance of the American failure vis-à-vis Russia”:

The reformist Sharq maintained that Russian military presence in the Crimea reveals the vulnerability and fragility of the international community in ensuring global security…(Sharq, March 3, 2014). Conversely, the conservative Khorasan  asked rhetorically why Putin should respect international law while others fail to do so?…(Khorasan, March 3, 2014)

…More important, however, was the unanimous conclusion of the Iranian media that Western reactions to Russia’s measures exposed the weakness of the Western bloc and particularly the US’ declining power. Kayhan  noted with satisfaction that “Putin’s agile reaction paralyzed Western response,” adding that “Western preference for economic sanctions and NATO’s contentment with issuing statements rather than acting against Russia’s military action show that the West is in a passive mode” (Kayhan, March 6, 2014).

On this point, right-wing Israelis have the most in common with their Iranian counterparts. Writing in the Sheldon Adelson-owned daily, Israel Today, Haim Shine argues for Israeli self-reliance, broadly hinting that the lesson of Ukraine for Israel is to never give up its nuclear weapons in exchange for pathetic promises of American protection.

Israel’s citizens know from their experience during the run-up to the Six-Day War what the Ukrainians are learning now — you cannot rely on Western nations. Treaties, agreements, promises and worthy guarantees are as flimsy as garlic skins just when you need them. The West is tired and weary. Its last strength rests on its lips alone…So how could Israel, in light of the circumstances, relinquish the very foundations of its security?!

This seems to be the predominant perspective in Israel, according to a head-shaking and somewhat dispirited opinion piece headlined “Israel Striking Obama, Rooting for Putin” by former Mossad head Ephraim Halevy in Y-Net on March 28:

Israel is not limiting its mocking criticism against Washington and its Middle Eastern policy: While Russia is described as a resolved, brave country engaging in a smart, shrewd and winning policy — the US is presented as hesitant, afraid, powerless, and therefore defeated.

The US president must envy his Russian rival for the respect he receives in Israel as opposed to the daily dose of scorn and alienation served to our “ally” time and again.

The Iranians can take pleasure in seeing America’s ally declare on a daily basis with hysterical cries of despair that Washington is going from bad to worse.

At least Iranian and Israeli hardliners can agree on something…

Photo: Delta, the nom de guerre of the Jewish commander of a Ukrainian street-fighting unit, is pictured in Kiev in late February 2014.

Marsha B. Cohen

Marsha B. Cohen is an analyst specializing in Israeli-Iranian relations and US foreign policy towards Iran and Israel. Her articles have been published by PBS/Frontline's Tehran Bureau. IPS, Alternet, Payvand and Global Dialogue. She earned her PhD in International Relations from Florida International University, and her BA in Political Philosophy from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.



  1. Interesting post. Seems the right wingers are spreading their collective opinions of the U.S., even going so far as saying they will not give up their Nuclear bombs. Seems this was planned quite awhile ago, as I recall that there was a call from someone in the Ukraine for Israeli farmers to help modernize the Agriculture or farmers to farmers if you may. Stirring the pot, oh my goodness.

    I don’t think Israel can take to the bank, the resumption of knocking “O” as a weakling, for posturing or perhaps realizing the option that the U.S. may just payback the continued apartheid stance between it & the Palestinians. They just may have overplayed their position. What ever the reaction “O” takes, that daylight between the U.S. & Israel may just become as wide as the separation of the two countries geographically speaking, regardless of how AIPAC/the Congress beat their chests. There is just too much at stake here, both in the Ukraine/Russia/Iran, for the world will be affected by what ever happens, far outweighing what the politicians bleat about.

  2. Israel is understandably quiet. It has everything wired, e.g., with its people imbedded in the new Government, and powerful oligarchs such as Israeli-Ukrainian Igor Kolomoysky, and, of course, through our neocons. It would also like to control Ukraine’s pipeline system and sell the natural gas it is now producing to Ukraine and the rest of Europe, though that would require a pipeline to Turkey (e.g. through Cyprus’ EEZ) and access to the Ukraine system that egresses in Slovakia. So, why attract attention to itself?

    As for Iran, it doesn’t need to rock the boat and make itself more of a target. In real terms, it is already poised to do much more oil and other business with Russia, while on the issue of Crimea it has been more ambiguous. See, for example, the alternative positions articulated by two professors of international law and/or regional studies, with one tending to endorse, and on the other disagreeing with Russia’s actions in Crimea and saying what the U.S. would probably like to hear. See, for example:

  3. Another point worth mentioning is that Igor Kolomoisky was one of the main beneficiaries of the February coup when he was given control of the eastern city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.

    But as we speak Donetsk and other cities in the largely pro-Russian parts of Ukraine are in open rebellion.

    I wonder if there has been much historical perspective in the Israeli press on Ukraine. Normally, during a crisis, media outlets will devote a portion of their resources to uncovering how the recent past is shaping the current events.

    I’m sure Israeli readers will be shocked to learn how beginning in July 1941, when the Germans entered Ukraine, “ultra-nationalistic” Ukrainians went on a rampage, killing as many as one million Jews in hundreds of villages.

    They will be doubly shocked to learn that the perpetrators of this genocide are openly idolized today in Ukraine and have streets renamed after them. There must be a Yiddish proverb along the lines about the “apple not falling very far from the tree.”

  4. Very interesting piece. Bravo. We might remember that Iran was supportive of Georgia during that country’s brief war with Russia in 2008.

  5. Hunter says:

    April 10, 2014 at 1:34 am


    At stake for the West generally regarding the ‘Island of Crimea’ is the fading strength of the taboo based on WW II: ‘Invading and annexing your neighbor’s territory is forbidden by common consensus based on the memory of the horrors they led to!’

    That taboo is codified as international law. But even together they are weak. Finding a way to bolster them is clearly a joint European/American interest. The barriers are the nation state, it’s doctrine of sovereignty and the idiotic right wing hatred of international institutions as enemies of both.

    There is no other American interest in Crimea. And there is nothing we can do to reverse the annexation militarily or in terms of sanctions without running prohibitive risks of several kinds. President Obama has made the required gesture. But there is little chance that Czar Vlad I is going to retreat soon.

    So I’ll get to the point. It’s about Israel’s contemptuous behavior toward its involuntary patron state and ‘great ally’:

    “Iran was indeed among two dozen states that did not vote in favor of the measure. So was Israel. Neither showed up for the vote.”

    We have protected Israel in public fora on demand dozens of times. Every time we did it we spent our capital, our credibility as a world leader, not hers. What better an opportunity than this and the failure of the negotiations to simply stop self-defeating behaviors?

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