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As Russia invades Ukraine, Israel walks a diplomatic tightrope

When Russian troops crossed the Ukrainian border on February 24th, Israel found itself in a dilemma. Faced with western pressure to pick sides, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid stressed that they had to act to preserve their freedom of action in Syria. The Israeli Air Force has long carried out airstrikes against Iranian and Hezbollah targets with the tacit permission of Russian forces stationed in the country.

July 14, 2022 - Sam Sokol - Hot TopicsIssue 4 2022Magazine

Photo courtesy of Sam Sokol

With its western allies mobilising to provide Kyiv with diplomatic, military and financial support, Israel sought to balance its relations with both sides of the conflict, endorsing Ukraine’s territorial integrity without explicitly calling out or condemning Russia. It would largely maintain this approach until the emergence of the first reports of atrocities in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha.

Despite repeated entreaties, Israel declined to send Ukraine any weapons, instead offering humanitarian supplies and setting up a field hospital near the Polish border. It would eventually send several hundred protective helmets and vests for use by civilian first responders but nothing in the way of lethal aid.

Bennett, who had positioned himself as a mediator, explained that any such assistance could endanger his attempts to bring about a negotiated solution, one which thus far has not been forthcoming.

Ukrainian outrage at Israel was also fueled by Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked’s decision to restrict the entry of Ukrainian refugees by imposing a quota and even, at one point, requiring Israeli relatives of the displaced to post a bond before granting them entrance — a policy vocally opposed by multiple members of the government. This approach angered many liberal Israelis, as well as members of the country’s large Russian-speaking population, many of whom are originally from Ukraine.

“Israel is mumbling [when faced with] such a clear moral situation of a fight of good against evil, and tries to be on good terms with all sides,” former Soviet dissident and Israeli human rights icon Natan Sharansky told me in an interview for Haaretz in April. “Our prime minister is afraid to call out Putin, who is behind these crimes, by name.”

Aside from strategic concerns in Syria, Israeli leaders have also repeatedly invoked the security of the large Jewish communities in both Russia and Ukraine, stating that taking sides could endanger both. However, some Ukrainian Jews have expressed consternation at such claims, noting that their communities are being destroyed by the war. Aliyah, or immigration to Israel, has been on the rise from both countries since the war started, with thousands arriving every month.

Jerusalem’s silence was even more perplexing to many given that Russia’s stated justification for its aggression was the “denazification” of Ukraine. Moscow has used various similar pretexts for years, claiming that it has had to intervene in Ukraine to protect ethnic Russians, Jews and other minorities. During the first phase of the war from 2014-16, Russian officials and state media outlets repeatedly shared fabricated tales of antisemitism and were frequently accused of staging anti-Jewish provocations by local community leaders.

But while Moscow said it was battling Nazis, it was the one destroying Jewish life in Eastern Ukraine, bombing Jewish institutions such as synagogues, Holocaust memorials and a student house belonging to the Hillel group. What did elicit condemnations, however, were Ukrainian officials’ comparisons of Russian war crimes to those of the Nazis.

When Ukraine’s Jewish President Volodymyr Zelenskyy accused Russians of using the “language of the final solution” while remotely addressing the Knesset this March, Bennett said that while he understands that Zelenskyy is “a leader who is fighting for the life of his country”, he “personally believe[d] that it is forbidden to equate the Holocaust to anything”.

Aside from speaking out about Bucha, Jerusalem largely maintained its silence until early May, when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov publicly defended calling Zelenskyy a Nazi. He asserted that Adolf Hitler also “had Jewish blood” and “the most ardent antisemites are usually Jews.”

The ensuing diplomatic spat was quickly resolved, however, with Bennett’s office announcing that Vladimir Putin had personally apologised. Interestingly, the Kremlin’s readout of their call made no mention of any backtracking on the part of the Russian president. Realpolitik appeared to have won out again.

Sam Sokol is a reporter for Haaretz, Israel’s newspaper of record, and the author of Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews: Antisemitism, Propaganda, and the Displacement of Ukrainian Jewry. He was previously a correspondent for the Jerusalem Post and Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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