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Ukraine: Where Does Israel Stand?

February 28, 2022

by: Ilse Strauss

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The Ukrainian and Israel flags

Monday, 28 February 2022 | With the Russian invasion of Ukraine now in its fifth day, all eyes remain focused on Eastern Europe. Experts have warned of the global ramifications of the conflict rippling well beyond the borders of the two warring nations. But for Israel, the stakes are higher than most.

Jerusalem is in a uniquely precarious position, navigating a minefield of diplomatic, political and security realities, opportunities and threats—each with its own consequences, pitfalls and costs.

A Diplomatic Tightrope

Israel has made a dedicated effort to steer clear of the conflict. In his first remarks since Russian troops breached the Ukrainian border, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett last week sidestepped condemning Moscow outright and even avoided mentioning Russia by name.

Israel’s choice to remain impartial cannot come easily. The ties between Jerusalem and Kyiv run deep. For one thing, there’s a thriving trade relationship to consider, with Ukraine being the primary supplier of Israel’s wheat, amounting to almost half of the Jewish state’s wheat consumption.

On a more personal level, Israel boasts a significant population of Ukrainian Jews who have made aliyah (immigrated to Israel)with some 500,000 now calling Israel home. Moreover, as the nation state of the Jewish people, Israel feels accountable for the well-being of the more than 40,000 Jews living in Ukraine and some 200,000 Ukrainians with direct Jewish lineage qualifying for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. What the Jewish state says or does at this time directly influences their well-being.

Yet impartiality is apparently imperative. At yesterday morning’s cabinet meeting, Bennett expressed concern for Ukraine, but again stopped short of condemning Russia or even mentioning it by name. The prime minister also convened a security cabinet meeting last night to discuss “the implications of the situation for Israel.” According to Israeli media, he also instructed ministers that Jerusalem should “maintain a low profile” as the conflict plays out.

At the same time, the Jewish Agency said it expects a large percentage of the Jewish community in Ukraine to flee the fighting for a safe haven in Israel, which means a significant wave of immigration to Israel. To cope with the influx, the agency will open six processing stations at Ukrainian border crossings with four countries to help Jewish refugees start the immigration process and relocate to the Jewish state.

Bennett yesterday underscored the option of a homecoming: “Every Jew knows we are waiting for him here, that the door to the State of Israel is always open.”

Ongoing Cooperation

Given the close bonds between Israel and Ukraine, why does Jerusalem choose impartiality? The simple answer is Iran.

From a security perspective, it is crucial for Jerusalem to maintain flourishing ties with Moscow. Both Russia and Iran are close allies of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and both nations have a significant presence in the war-torn country. However, Moscow and Tehran have different agendas when it comes to Syria.

Russia backs Assad to ensure a strong, stable Syria indebted to Moscow. Iran, on the other hand, seeks to exploit the chaos of civil war in a bid for regional hegemony, entrenching on Israel’s doorstep and setting up a land corridor to smuggle weapons and fighters from Tehran to Beirut via Baghdad and Damascus.

Israel cannot allow the mullahs to fulfill their Syrian aspirations and has conducted numerous military actions—mostly by air—against Iranian fighters and weapons convoys in Syria. However, Israel’s operations in Syrian skies happen in close coordination with Russia.

In fact, in 2015, when Russia entered the Syrian war and sent its air force to Damascus to help prop up Assad, then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Russia to iron out the details of Israeli planes operating undisturbed in Syrian airspace.

The meeting bore fruit. Over the past seven years, Israel has waged an intensive campaign to dislodge Iran from Syria, all without interference from Russian air defense systems or a head-on collision with the Russians.

The bottom line? When it comes to Russia, Israel must choose its words and actions wisely, lest the Kremlin rethinks its agreement with Israel and terminates the cooperation, thus giving Iran free reign on Israel’s northern border.

A Shift in Focus

At the same time, Israel must work to guard against world powers rushing to ink an Iran deal in Vienna in order to tick it off the agenda and focus on Eastern Europe.

The Ukraine–Russia crisis has effectively dislodged the Iran deal from the top of the world agenda, as the prospect of a nuclear Iran made way for the seemingly more imminent prospect of the Red Threat on the warpath. The result may well be Western powers capitulating to a deal for the sake of a deal, settling for a weak, short-term agreement that lifts sanctions on the Islamic Republic and opens the cash coffers to the world’s largest state sponsor of terror to spend on its nuclear and hegemonic aspirations.

Tehran may also capitalize on the global tumult to push ahead with its nuclear and ballistics program while the world’s focus lies elsewhere.

Uniquely Positioned

Israel’s ties to both Ukraine and Russia also present a unique opportunity. During a phone call on Friday between Bennett and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the latter asked Israel to serve as a mediator between the two warring nations.

Ukraine’s Ambassador to Israel Yevgen Korniychuk explained his country’s choice to the New York Times: “We do believe that Israel is the only democratic state in the world that has great relations with both Ukraine and Russia.”

Israel took the suggestion seriously. Bennett proposed the idea to Russian President Vladimir Putin during a phone call on Sunday, the first communication between the two leaders since Russia’s invasion.

According to Israeli media, Putin balked, and delegations from Kyiv and Moscow are instead meeting on the Belarusian border for talks.

Israeli Aid

Although Israel has chosen to remain impartial, Jerusalem is coming to Kyiv’s aid. Bennett pledged yesterday to dispatch 100 tons of humanitarian equipment to Ukraine in the next 48 hours.

“In the next two days a plane will arrive in Ukraine with 100 tons of Israeli humanitarian equipment for civilians in the combat zones and those who are trying to leave,” Bennett said. “It will have water purification kits, medical equipment as well as drugs, tents, blankets, sleeping bags and additional equipment for civilians who are not in their homes in the cold winter weather.”

At the same time, a team of 15 volunteer medical personnel also left Israel on Saturday night on a humanitarian mission to treat Ukrainian refugees. The team touched down in Romania and then made their way over land to Moldova, where they will meet with the Ukrainian refugees.

Where to Now?

As the delegations from Kyiv and Moscow sit down on the Belarusian border in an attempt to reach a diplomatic solution to the worst fighting on European soil in nearly 80 years, the world will be watching closely. So will Israel. Navigating the minefield of diplomatic, political and security realities, opportunities and threats is proving increasingly precarious. And the security of the Jewish state hangs in the balance.

Posted on February 28, 2022

Source: (Bridges for Peace, February 28, 2022)

Photo Credit: Nicolas Raymond/Flickr.com and wisegie/Flickr.com

Photo License: flickr.com

Photo License: flickr.com

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