Feb 28, 2022 | AIJAC staff
Israel’s initially cautious stance in the Ukraine crisis toughens up
Amidst the, by and large, unified Western condemnation and imposition of sanctions in response to the Russian recognition of two puppet entities in eastern Ukraine, and the start of what looks like a large-scale invasion to occupy Ukraine and oust its democratically-elected Government, the Israeli Government initially took a cautious, almost neutral, position.
The carefully crafted statement released by Israel’s Foreign Ministry on Feb. 23 said Israel “supports the territorial integrity and the sovereignty of Ukraine.”
It went on to say, “Israel shares the concern of the international community regarding the steps taken in eastern Ukraine and the serious escalation in the situation… Israel hopes for a diplomatic solution which will lead to calm, and is willing to help if asked.”
The Israeli statement also expressed concern for Israeli citizens and the Jewish community in the affected regions, offered to supply humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and promised that Israel would “engage in dialogue with its partners on ways to get the diplomatic efforts back on track.”
What was notably missing from the statement was any direct condemnation of Russia, which was not mentioned by name.
By the following day, as Russia’s actions against Ukraine intensified, this stance became untenable, and Jerusalem did condemn Russia. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid issued a statement calling the Russian attack “a grave violation of the international order” and also said, “The Russian attack all across Ukraine is a serious violation and Israel condemns it. Israel has known conflicts and war is not the way to resolve them. One can still stop and settle the disputes.”
Israel’s initially cautious and low-key approach to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine was guided by two overarching factors – as explained by former Israeli Ambassador to Australia Mark Sofer: Russia’s role in Syria and the large Jewish communities in both Russia and Ukraine.
Another factor Israel has to take into account is the family ties Jews from the former Soviet Union living in Israel have with people in both Russia and the Ukraine, he also noted.
“Israel is caught frankly between a rock and a hard place,” Sofer told Indian English-language outlet WION on Feb. 22. “On the one hand, we are very, very much part of the Western ideology and the Western approach to the international arena. But on the other hand, we have extremely important vital national interests both with Ukraine but also not less importantly… with Russia, which is an enormous player in the Middle East, especially in Syria, where it’s the only sort of ‘responsible adult’.”
He noted the only alternatives to Russia in Syria were “terrorist movements”, “Assad, who has been butchering his own people” and “Iranian troops with boots on the ground.”
Sofer explained that Israel has “vested interests with both sides” of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, including “the Jewish communities, both in Ukraine and in Russia, and the families, the millions of Russian and Ukrainian Jews living in Israel.”
For the aforementioned reasons, Israel has “adopted and will continue to adopt, as much as possible, a middle path here,” Sofer said. “We’re not a player in the Ukraine-Russia dispute by any means, but we have a lot to lose. You know there’s a well-known saying: when two elephants fight, the grass always suffers. And here we are clearly the grass.”
Israel was hoping that international diplomatic efforts to resolve the standoff without any further escalation would pay off, he said, because “we’re going to be collateral damage here if a conflict breaks out.”
As a result of the considerations noted by Sofer, Israeli officials were initially circumspect when it came to Russia. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett reportedly barred ministers and officials from commenting about the crisis publicly.
Before the extent of Russia’s invasion became clear, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid also cited the Jewish communities in Ukraine and Russia as well as the Russian presence in Syria as reasons for caution, saying he had to be “more careful than any other foreign minister in the world.”
“Our border with Syria is, for all intents and purposes, a border with Russia,” Lapid noted.
Lapid also insisted the US understood Israel’s predicament. “This is where the special relationship [with the US] comes into play. They understand this because they understand us. We have a mutual vocabulary, a language that we share.”
Prior to the invasion, Lapid said Israel “will have to consider” going along with sanctions.
Other Israeli officials, including Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee chairman Ram Ben Barak, had also expressed hopes that Israel would not be forced to take a position – but the clear underlying assumption was that, if the current crisis continued, Israel would have to support US-led sanctions, while trying to do so discreetly to minimise the chance of provoking Russia.
“In the end, if we ever have to choose a side, we will pick the American side,” said Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai, commenting on Lapid’s initial remarks before the extent of the Russian invasion was clear. He added, “It is clear that in this story, our heart is with one side, with the Americans. We are trying, and I think we are doing it well, to manoeuvre between all the forces involved without taking a clear public stance, with the hope that the crisis will end without fire, without casualties and without a military confrontation.”
Israel does have a long-standing diplomatic tradition of caution and attempting to remain uninvolved in international disputes involving Russia, dating back to even before Russia’s intervention in Syria in 2015. In 2014, for instance, Israel abstained from a US-led resolution to condemn Russia’s annexation of Crimea at the UN. In 2018, Israel declined to join a unified Western response against Russia over the attempt to assassinate Sergei Skripal in the UK. Indeed, former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was one of only two leaders to attend Russia’s Victory Day parade in Moscow later that year.
There is also the issue of Russian political influence in Israel, with an entire party within the current governing coalition, Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, dedicated to Jews from the former Soviet Union, among whom are several senior current and former Israeli officials and public figures.
Meanwhile some Russian Jewish oligarchs, such as Roman Abramovich, have been giving lavishly to Jewish and Israeli causes and institutions, from Yad Vashem and settler groups, to hospitals, universities, and arts-related projects, including funding Israel’s Genesis Prize. Abramovich was even granted Israeli citizenship and lived in Tel Aviv.
Ram Ben Barak and Defence Minister Benny Gantz previously worked with a US-sanctioned Russian oligarch, Viktor Vekselberg, to establish a security and technology startup called Fifth Dimension. This ultimately failed, reportedly in part due to sanctions.
Overall, while Israel had understandable reasons for its initially cautious stance regarding Russia, and attempting to minimise any Russia blowback while quietly supporting Western sanctions, it is highly unlikely that any aspect of that stance can remain viable now that Russia has launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.