Israel learns the hard way that Russia, China are not its friends
Former Trump deputy assistant secretary of state: ‘When you’re down, you find out who your true friends are. Democracies are standing by Israel’s side. Autocracies are supporting Israel’s enemies’
When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Israel found itself in a diplomatically delicate situation: It opposed the invasion and naturally sided with the West, but needed Russia’s support to be able to strike Iranian proxies in the Middle East. Israel pulled its punches against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s belligerence, providing humanitarian, but not military, aid to Ukraine, which drew criticism in the U.S.
In the risky world of realpolitik, Israel has also deepened its economic ties with China, reaping huge investments from the Chinese. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to visit Beijing this year was seen as a message to President Joe Biden, who at the time had not yet invited him to Washington.
If the Netanyahu government calculated that the strategic outreach to Russia and China — even in the face of consternation from allies — would bear diplomatic fruit when Israel needed it, the countries’ reactions to Oct. 7 proved to be a cold slap in the face. In the wake of Hamas’ terror rampage, in fact, Israel’s relations with Beijing and Moscow have worsened.
As Len Khodorkovsky, a deputy assistant secretary of state in the Trump administration who dealt with Iran sanctions and issues relating to China, put it: “Israel tried to have it both ways: reap the benefits of its friendships with the U.S. and the West while flirting with Russia and China.”
“But when you’re down, you find out who your true friends are. Democracies are standing by Israel’s side. Autocracies are supporting Israel’s enemies,” Khodorkovsky said.
Israel’s close alliance with the U.S., and the West more broadly, has proven its worth in recent weeks, with American aid arriving in Israel and aircraft carriers in the region, plus a long list of Western leaders visiting Israel to demonstrate solidarity. They have been treating the Jewish state like the new Ukraine, a symbol of Western unity and determination, and affirming that Israel is a close ally.
Not so Russia and China.
Following the Hamas massacre, Putin blamed “the failure of United States policy in the Middle East.” The Chinese Communist Party-affiliated Global Times accused the West and the U.S. of “fanning the flames” and “creat[ing] substantial obstacles to crisis resolution.”
Their anti-American and anti-Western stances came with an accusatory posture towards Israel while excusing, ignoring and even exculpating Hamas’ actions.
A day after Hamas perpetrated the worst atrocities committed against the Jewish people since the Holocaust, China’s Foreign Ministry had nothing to say on the matter in its statement “on the escalation of tensions between Palestine and Israel.” Beijing only expressed concern about “escalations of tension and violence,” called on “relevant parties to remain calm…[and] protect civilians” and advance a two-state solution.
Nearly two weeks later, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Israel’s response to the massacre went “beyond the scope of self-defense,” characterizing it as “collective punishment.” On the same day, a Bloomberg reporter asked China Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning why Beijing had yet to even say the word Hamas, let alone its attack on Israel, and in her response, she continued to avoid mentioning Hamas or its massacre.
China and Russia vetoed an American-proposed resolution in the U.N. Security Council to condemn Hamas last week while avoiding naming the terrorist organization. This time, Beijing did call for “the early release of hostages,” but said Israel was engaging in “indiscriminate and asymmetrical use of force” and continued to accuse Israel of attacking the Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza, without evidence.
Meanwhile, antisemitic messages abound on the otherwise heavily censored Chinese social media, portraying Israel as bloodthirsty and American Jews as having too much wealth and influence in the U.S., and Israel disappeared from the maps on major Chinese websites, raising questions about the messages China’s leadership is tacitly approving.
In Russia, the messaging was much less tacit. Within days of Hamas murdering over 1,000 Israelis and abducting over 230, Putin compared the Jewish state’s actions to those of Nazi Germany, saying that the Israeli naval blockade on Gaza was like the siege of Leningrad. Putin and Netanyahu, who were frequently in contact in the prime minister’s previous terms in office, only spoke a few days later, on Oct. 17.
Last week, a Hamas delegation led by Moussa Abu Marzouk visited Moscow to meet with Mikhail Bogdanov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister for the Middle East. Hamas praised Putin’s position on the war following the meeting.
Then, on Sunday, a mob in Dagestan, in southern Russia, raided an airport where a plane from Tel Aviv had landed, chanting calls to massacre Jews with seemingly minimal effort from the authorities to stop the potential lynch mob.
“We respond in the diplomatic world to offenses in the diplomatic world,” a diplomatic source involved in formulating some of Israel’s responses told Jewish Insider.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry summoned Russian Ambassador to Israel Anatoly Victorov for a reprimand over Russia hosting Hamas leaders. Deputy Director-General for Eurasia Simona Halperin also said that Israel views with severity the “lack of a one-sided and clear condemnation of the terrorist group Hamas from Moscow.” Russia’s behavior, she said according to a Foreign Ministry statement, “sends a message of legitimizing terror against Israelis.” The reprimand followed an earlier statement from Jerusalem on the Hamas visit to Moscow.
The Atlantic Council’s Ksenia Svetlova, a senior research nonresident fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank, told JI that Israel’s attempt to “satisfy both sides” during the Ukraine war was a failure.
It should be “totally clear that Israel and Russia are in totally different blocs,” she said, with Russia forming a bloc of “rejects” with Iran, North Korea and Belarus, as well as close ties with Hezbollah and Hamas.
Hamas is not on Russia’s list of terrorist organizations and there have been close relations between them since 2006. As such, Svetlova said, “Don’t be surprised that they watched the terrible massacre and refused to condemn it.”
In addition, Russian officers fought alongside Hezbollah terrorists in Syria.
“What did we think, that the coordination would stop?” Svetlova said.
When it comes to the current war with Hamas, Israel is “very disappointed” and sent “sharp messages” to Moscow in public and through diplomatic channels, the diplomatic source said.
“We expect Russia, a country that has dealt with terrorism, to recognize Israel’s right to defend itself in a war with a terrorist organization that must be totally erased and lose its governing and military capabilities. Hamas is not a partner for dialogue. This message was sent very clearly to Russia,” she said.
As for any attempt by Russia to mediate an agreement to release any of the 238 hostages held by Hamas in Gaza, the diplomatic source said that “in light of Russia’s stances at the moment it doesn’t look like they have a place and a constructive role.”
Though Russia is proud of having relations with all sides in the Middle East, it is not taking part in mediating a hostage deal or trying to bring calm over Israel’s northern border, Svetlova pointed out.
“Everything is more extreme because of the Ukraine war. Russia can’t even [mediate] if they wanted to, because there is a clear division into blocs,” she argued.
The interests in Moscow and Jerusalem in relation to the war are counter to each other, Svetlova said.
“Russia wants less American influence and we [Israelis] need as much American influence as possible — it’s a matter of survival for us,” Svetlova said. “There are people in the [Russian] Foreign Ministry who understand what is happening…but it’s irrelevant because their broader interest is to send a clear message to everyone who opposes America in the region… Instead, they play the anti-American card and say ‘We are more balanced because we are not afraid to accuse Israel of war crimes.’ Their goal is to push America out of the Middle East. Their interest is for everything to be on fire.”
The diplomatic source viewed the war and the anti-Israel demonstrations around the world as bringing Israel and its allies closer together. They are “a wake-up call to some of the leadership in the West…that Palestinian terror threatens their way of life, the life of liberal, Western democracies.” She pointed to European governments banning pro-Palestinian protests and threatening to deport migrants.
“Israel is part of the Western, democratic, liberal world,” the diplomatic source insisted. “It is important to say that our values, being part of the Western camp, cannot be in doubt.”
The Israeli Embassy in Beijing spoke out publicly against China’s position repeatedly since the war began, including on Sunday, in a post on X (formerly Twitter). “We expect China to officially voice out in its official briefings, that Hamas is a terrorist organization that committed a brutal massacre of innocent civilians on October 7th and should therefore be harshly condemned. China, as an important player in the global scene and a permanent member of the security council, should do all it can to secure the safe and unconditional return of the 230 hostages, and to prevent the escalation of tension in the region. We trust that China supports Israel’s legitimate right, to provide full security to its citizens and to defend its territorial integrity when unilaterally attacked.”
Carice Witte, executive director of SIGNAL Group, an Israeli policy and organization specializing in China-Israel affairs, lamented to JI that experts are not formulating Jerusalem’s policy towards Beijing.
“Without understanding China’s thinking, it is impossible to deal with it effectively,” she said. “We now see that in neon lights with the way China is addressing this issue.”
“Israel has shied away from formulating an official policy on China. Something as narrow as economic growth is not really a policy. Everyone wants good economic development with China, even America.”
Yet, it’s not only Israel that does not understand China; Witte said there is a “deep-seated misunderstanding by the policy makers” in Beijing about the current conflict.
“Their policy is pro-Palestinian, but you can do that without supporting Hamas. There is a real lack of understanding of what Hamas is…Hamas would be anathema to China and the Chinese people. They do not endorse such behavior,” she said.
Witte cited Saudi and other investments in China, saying that “as far as they’re concerned, the support of Arab countries help with their own domestic challenges.”
However, Witte said, “There seems to be a lack of awareness in China that Hamas is not welcomed by all of the Arab countries. If China wants the support of Arab countries, it should differentiate between Palestinians and Hamas instead of just calling them all Palestinians.”
Witte cited an article by one of China’s top Middle East experts, Professor Wu Bingbing of Peking University, as a reflection of Beijing’s thinking. Beijing seeks a “new security architecture for the Middle East, which seeks to involve all actors in the region, including Hamas, Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad,” he wrote. Bingbing blames Israel for “marginalizing” the Palestinian issue, leading the international community to neglect it “at a time when tensions were so evidently rising.” The Abraham Accords, he argued, “fueled the conflict further.”
The core of China’s policy in the Middle East is great-power rivalry with the U.S., Witte said. If Operation Swords of Iron results in the scuttling of Saudi-Israel normalization, that would be a positive for Beijing, because it wants America out of the Middle East, leaving a vacuum that China could fill.
“China is beyond aware that Israel is on America’s side,” she said. “If anyone had any doubt, they can look at the two aircraft carriers.”
Looking ahead, Witte pointed out that China is set to hold the U.N. Security Council presidency starting on Nov. 1.
“Unless the Israeli government takes action, it is very possible that things will get even more problematic. If nothing else, the fires of antisemitism in the Chinese population will be fanned,” she warned.