The war in Ukraine forces Israel into a delicate balancing act

TEL AVIV — On the day Russia invaded Ukraine, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett did not mention Russia once. Bennett said he prayed for peace, called for dialogue and pledged support for Ukrainian citizens. But he did not allude to Moscow’s involvement, let alone condemn it – and it was, as expected, left to Mr Bennett’s Foreign Secretary Yair Lapid to criticize Moscow in a separate statement that day.

The couple’s careful double act embodied the bond, in which the war in Ukraine placed Israel.

Israel is a key partner of the United States, and many Israelis value longstanding cultural ties with Ukraine, which for several months in 2019 was the only country other than their own with both a Jewish president — Volodymyr Zelensky – and a Jewish prime minister. . But Russia is a critical player in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, Israel’s northeast neighbor and enemy, and the Israeli government believes it cannot risk losing favor with Moscow.

For much of the past decade, the Israeli Air Force has struck Iranian, Syrian and Lebanese military targets in Syria without interference, trying to stem the flow of weapons Iran is sending to its proxies in Syria and Lebanon and to limit a military build-up on its northern border.

Israel also wants to leave enough room for itself to play the role of intermediary in the conflict. After Ukrainian demands, Mr Bennett has offered to mediate between Russia and Ukraine at least twice, most recently on Sunday – when Mr Bennett abruptly rushed from a cabinet meeting to speak with the Russian President Vladimir V. Putin for 40 minutes. And Israeli officials, including Mr. Bennett, shuttled between their Russian, Ukrainian and American counterparts on Sunday afternoon, two senior Israeli officials said, a mediation that may have helped Ukraine’s decision to meet Russian officials at the Belarusian-Ukrainian border.

Israel, which often asks its allies to back it unconditionally, finds itself in the uncomfortable position of appearing to refuse to publicly criticize Russia, even when other countries with seemingly more stakes have condemned Mr. Putin’s war.

It’s a “delicate situation for Israel”, said Ehud Olmert, a former Israeli prime minister who often dealt with Mr Putin during his tenure.

“On the one hand, Israel is an ally of the United States and part of the West, and there’s no question about that,” Olmert said in a phone interview. “On the other hand, the Russians are present in Syria, we have delicate military and security issues in Syria – and that requires some freedom for the Israeli military to operate in Syria.”

Israel also wants to avoid any action that could stoke anti-Semitism against the hundreds of thousands of Jews in Ukraine and Russia.

And Israeli officials must simultaneously take into account the responses of Israel’s large Russian-speaking population, which forms about 12% of its electorate. About 1.2 million Russian speakers have arrived in Israel from the former Soviet Union over the past three decades, about a third of them from Russia and about as many from Ukraine, according to government data.

Some of the latter have even returned to Ukraine to defend their original homeland.

“Yes, I love Israel, but I have two countries and I have to defend them both,” said Mykhailo Baikov, 25, an Israeli-Ukrainian digital marketer currently fighting in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv.

“Here is a war,” Mr. Baikov said in a telephone interview on Sunday afternoon. “I have to do my job.”

Israel’s main concern is to maintain its ability to act in Syria with virtual impunity and without Russian interference.

But Russia also maintains a significant presence in Syria, and Israel needs Moscow’s goodwill to continue operating there with ease. Israeli officials are currently notifying their Russian counterparts of impending strikes, and vice versa, using a special encrypted communication line between the Israeli Air Force’s underground bunker, located under a military base in Tel Aviv, and the base. air force of Khmeimim in western Syria, a senior Israeli defense official. the official said.

Any change in this relationship could complicate both Israeli and Russian strategies in Syria. In September 2018, Syrian anti-aircraft missiles firing at Israeli planes hit a Russian plane that was passing through the area by coincidence. It crashed and all 15 Russian soldiers on board were killed.

Russian planes have been more active around Syria’s borders in recent weeks, both on the western border with Israel and in eastern Syria where US planes frequently operate, the senior Israeli defense official said. . The rise may have been a show of force meant to send a signal about the growing Ukraine crisis, the official added.

Realizing the need to appease Russia, Israel in recent months has rejected several requests to send military and intelligence equipment to Ukraine, three Israeli officials and a Ukrainian official said. The most recent request was rejected by Mr. Bennett during Friday’s call, the Ukrainian official said.

Even after approving the sale of Pegasus, an Israeli-made spyware program, to dozens of other countries, Israel has refused to sell it to Ukraine – rejecting a request last August from a Ukrainian delegation that s traveled to Israel to discuss buying spyware, according to an Israeli official and two people familiar with the matter. And Ukraine never officially asked Israel to use its legendary air defense system, known as the Iron Dome, precisely because it knew Israel would never agree to provide it, he said. the Ukrainian official.

Instead, Israel allowed private Israeli companies to sell Ukrainian military communications equipment and robotics, and on Sunday announced a delivery of 100 tons of humanitarian and medical supplies to Ukrainian civilians.

Within Israel, the war in Ukraine has divided Russian speakers along political lines, but not necessarily along national lines.

Eduard Shtrasner, a teacher and businessman who moved to Israel in 1990 from an area that was then part of Moldova, has distanced himself from some friends of Moldovan descent for expressing a less critical attitude to Mr. Putin.

“I am not in favor of war at all,” said Mr. Shtrasner, 48. “But I can justify what Putin is doing. I read, I listen, I gather information and, if I were him, I would do the same.

He admitted, however, that in Israel his position was “not popular at all”. The invasion was a unifying moment for Russian speakers, with those who once supported Mr Putin increasingly turning against him, community activists said.

On Thursday, as Russia began its invasion, the Russian-born owners of the Putin Pub, a bar popular with Russian-speaking Israelis in Jerusalem, removed the gold letters “PUTIN” from its facade and announced they were looking for a new one. name for their bar.

“It was our initiative,” said Yulia Kaplan, one of the bar’s three owners, who moved to Israel from St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1991. “Because we are against war.”

In 2014, during the Russian invasion of Crimea, there was a much more stormy debate on social media between the opposing camps of Russian-speaking Israelis, said Ksenia Svetlova, a journalist, academic and former member of the Israeli parliament who moved to Israel from Moscow in 1991.

“But then there wasn’t the violence and bloodshed that there is now,” Ms Svetlova said.

Even among older Russian speakers here who tend to rely on Russian news media and have admired strong leadership in the past, there seems to be little sympathy for Mr Putin this time around.

“There’s a sense of shock – people my parents’ age say it’s shameful,” said Pola Barkan, a community activist who moved to Israel as a baby in the early 1990s. with his family from Ukraine. “They say their grandparents fought side by side against the Nazis, and the grandsons are now fighting each other.”

Russian speakers in Israel are also preparing for a new wave of Jewish immigration from Ukraine; anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent can apply for Israeli citizenship.

The Jewish Agency, a global Jewish organization that operates in coordination with the Israeli government and helps Jews interested in immigrating to Israel, said it was opening six processing stations for potential immigrants at Ukrainian border crossings with Poland, Moldova, Romania and Hungary.

The Israeli Ministry of Immigration and Absorption has planned a new wave of immigration and developed contingency plans, including for temporary housing.

“I feel like we’re back in the 90s,” said Ukrainian-born poet and activist Alex Rif. “All these questions, like how many will come.”

Patrick Kingley and Ronen Bergman reported from Tel Aviv, and Isabelle Kershner of Jerusalem. Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting from Tel Aviv, Myra Noveck of Jerusalem and Rawan Sheikh Ahmad from Haifa, Israel.

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