image Photo: Reuters

Israel avoids criticism of Russia in Ukraine crisis

Jerusalem is urging a peaceful resolution and expressing deep concern over Israeli nationals and the large Jewish community in the East European nation, but seeking to preserve important strategic ties with Moscow.  

By Erin Viner

While Foreign Affairs Minister and Alternate Premier Yair Lapid declared that Israel condemns the Russian attack on Ukraine as a “serious violation of the international order,” he stopped short of condemning Moscow or its leadership, underscoring that “Israel has deep, long-lasting, and good relations with Russia and with Ukraine.”

“Israel is a country that has experienced wars, and war is not the way to resolve conflicts. The first hours and days of any war are also the last time you can still stop and return to the negotiating table, mediated by world powers, to settle disputes peacefully,” said Israel’s top diplomat.

The Israeli Foreign Minister stressed that the “security and safety” of “tens of thousands of Israelis” and “hundreds of thousands of Jews” in both countries “is at the top of our considerations.”

About 500 of the 6,000-8,000 Israelis estimated to be in Ukraine have left over the past 24 hours, said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) today, which estimates the size of the Ukrainian Jewish community as 120,000-150,000. Meanwhile, a Ukrainian injunction preventing exit by all men aged 18-60 will be applicable to dual Israeli-Ukrainian citizens.

“Israel shares international concern over the steps in eastern Ukraine and the severe escalation in the situation (and) hopes that a diplomatic solution will be found,” underscored a statement from the MFA , adding that it supports “the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine” but offered no comment on Russia’s actions in ordering troops into two breakaway regions in the east of the country.

The carefully-worded statement reflects the balance Israel has long maintained over Russia, with which it maintains a coordination mechanism to avoid unintentional clashes in neighboring Syria, where Russian forces have been present since 2015.

Jerusalem leaders have also issued repeated offers to shelter members of Ukraine’s Jewish community who flee the country as the threat of fighting has grown, while simultaneously averting any direct criticism of Moscow or even mention of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Israeli stance is in striking contrast with that of its main ally the United States, which has imposed sanctions on Russia; but a Jerusalem official said the posture has been coordinated with Washington.

“There is full understanding between us and the United States,” Simona Halperin, head of the MFA’s Eurasia desk, told Army Radio. Stressing that Israel is maintaining dialogue with all parties, she stressed, “What is important here is that Israel has no side in this conflict.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett held an assessment on the escalation between Russia and Ukraine last night with Foreign Minister Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, as well as the country’s National Security Advisor and Director of the National Security Council, the Prime Minister’s Office Director General, the Foreign Ministry Director General and the Finance Ministry Director General, in addition to representatives from the IDF, MFA, Defense Ministry and National Information Directorate.

According to a statement from the Premier’s Foreign Media Advisor obtained by TV7, the discussion focused on “the consequences of the crisis, in its diplomatic, economic and security aspects.”

Agreement on the “main points of the directive on Israel’s conduct during the crisis” by the “political echelon” include continued efforts to evacuate Israelis from the area, aid to the Ukrainian Jewish community while preparing for a surge in immigration, organization of rendering of humanitarian assistance as necessary, and maintenance of “regular discussions and assessments of the situation to evaluate future consequences (to the extent that there any) for Israel,” said the statement.

Foreign Minister Lapid has also been holding a flurry of telephone conversations with his international counterparts. This morning he spoke this morning with German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock to discuss “the situation in Ukraine and the resulting global consequences,” said the MFA.

That phrase was repeated by the MFA to describe Lapid’s call with Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “The two discussed the situation in Ukraine and the resulting global consequences,” said the statement, adding that, “Minister Lapid expressed concern for the safety of Israelis trying to leave Ukraine and updated the Secretary of State about Israel’s offer of humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. The Secretary of State updated the Foreign Minister on the steps the United States is taking at this stage and the two agreed to continue speaking in the coming days.”

Washington, however, portrayed the Lapid-Blinken call in far more condemnatory terms. The two leaders “discussed the premeditated, unprovoked, and unjustified attack by Russia’s military forces on Ukraine and its people,” said State Department Spokesperson Ned Price.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog has also been circumspect in his public comments about the crisis, which erupted during his state visit to Greece.

“This is undoubtedly a very complex historic moment. Like you, I too feel great sorrow and concern about a humanitarian tragedy and, God forbid, injury to innocent civilians, and I pray, as many do worldwide, that peace will return in this conflict between Russia and Ukraine,” said the Israeli leader ahead of a diplomatic working meeting with Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou.

“Israel, as was conveyed by our government, supports the complete territorial sovereignty of Ukraine and I would like to take this opportunity to reiterate the call on Israeli citizens who are in Ukraine to return immediately to Israel. At this stage, via the land crossings. We are of course also monitoring amid concerns for the future of the Jewish community in Ukraine, and we will offer any humanitarian assistance possible to the Ukrainian government, together with additional partners,” he added.   

Meanwhile in related developments,  the United Hatzalah in Israel volunteer paramedic organization announced that it is “currently preparing to send a delegation of 30 emergency medical volunteers and members of the Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit to Moldova in order to receive and assist Ukrainian refugees who are fleeing from the war currently engulfing their country.”

According to a statement TV7 obtained from the organization, the delegation was formed at the request of the Chief Rabbi of Moldova Rabbi Pinchas Zaltzman in partnership with the MFA.

“The relief delegation will include paramedics and EMTs as well as members of the Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit who will be taking with them medical and humanitarian supplies in order to provide relief to those who are crossing the border from Ukraine. Our team will be working in tandem with the larger Israeli team that is being sent to assist in Moldova,” said United Hatzalah President and Founder Eli Beer, adding that the organization’s “volunteers inside Ukraine will be continuing to assist their communities and those harmed by the conflict and will be continuing to provide first aid and medical coverage to those who need it.”