Israel and the Russia-Ukraine Conflict: Acting or Just Reacting?

By Emma Vorchheimer

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett meets with Russian President Valdamir Putin in Sochi, Russia on October 22, 2021. Photo: Voanews.

Since Russia officially invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, leading world powers have been forced to respond to this conflict and their responses have varied significantly. Some major powers like China are supporting the Russian invasion, while others like the U.S. and much of Europe are backing Ukraine and heavily sanctioning Russia. And there are some countries who have not strongly supported one side, but are in favor of ending the war all together and willing to help reach an agreement. Israel is one such nation.

Israel has reacted to the conflict both politically through diplomacy, negotiations, and public statements, and pragmatically, by responding to the refugee crisis and doling out foreign aid.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett flew to Moscow on March 5, acting as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine in hopes of brokering a peace deal. His trip included a meeting with Russian President Vladamir Putin and speaking with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Bennett’s main objective was to help reach a cease-fire between Russia and Ukraine, and he has thus refrained from explicitly criticizing Russia for attacking Ukraine. Bennett explained that, “Israel took upon itself the difficult but noble mission of mediator in the search of peace and an end to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.” Israel has expressed some support for Ukraine in the political arena, but not to the same degree as the U.S. and other Western allies who have enforced strict sanctions on Russia and its oligarchs. In fact, Israel is among the only Western powers that have not enforced their own sanctions. Israel’s gray political position in this war is becoming a point of contention itself, as their neutrality is being condemned by Ukrainian officials and Israeli citizens alike. Specifically, critics claim that the Jewish State is not being assertive enough in its condemnation of Russia as the aggressor. Even Ukrainian Prime Minister Zelensky, himself Jewish, has expressed frustration with Israel’s lack of support for Ukrainian defense efforts, comparing the war to inaction during the Holocaust. Additionally, Israel’s murky stance could jeopardize its strong alliance with America, which is outwardly condemning and sanctioning Russia.

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has expressed disapproval of the Russian invasion, calling it a “grave violation of international order” in addition to stating that “Israel condemns the attack, and is ready and prepared to provide humanitarian assistance to the citizens of Ukraine.” Although Lapid expressed support for sanctions against Russia and its oligarchs, Israel is focusing on enforcing those existing sanctions from other Western powers, ensuring that Russian oligarchs don’t successfully use Israel as a means to bypass the sanctions.

Ukrainian Refugees arrive on an El Al (official Israeli airline) in Israel. Photo: Hadas Parush

Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who now serves as a People’s Deputy of Ukraine, has exaggerated Israel’s moderate support for Ukraine, by publicly thanking Israel for “declaring formal support,” though they have not. It appears that Ukraine views Israel more as a strong ally, even though Israel is publicly claiming neutrality and has not even strongly condemned Russia. Israel is intent on remaining neutral in this conflict for various reasons. First, PM Bennett is acting as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine, and in order to be a successful negotiator, he must remain largely impartial. Besides the obvious mitigation of hostilities between Russia and Ukraine, the benefit of an effective negotiation, led by Israeli efforts, will be a great morale booster back in Israel generating further support for Bennett and his coalition. If Bennett can pull off this negotiation, it will transform his image and mark his greatest accomplishment as prime minister yet. By involving himself in an international war, he is able to contribute to the negotiations without putting Israel at risk, and ultimately gain support back home.

Another reason Israel lacks incentive to fully condemn Russia is that Israel has a pre-existing agreement with Russia regarding the ongoing war in Syria. Cooperation is necessary to avoid conflict since Russia has sided with Syria and gained control of its airspace, while Israel has enforced attacks against Syria. Despite aligning with opposing sides of the Syrian conflict, Russia and Israel reached a military coordination to work practically at avoiding clashes in Syria. This work includes coordinating airstrikes, influxes of humanitarian aid, and even intelligence sharing. So, in order to maintain security coordination with Russia and keep the conflict outside of Israel’s borders, Bennett’s government has strategically chosen to remain neutral and act as the mediator.

Although Israel has chosen more of a passive response in the political arena by not explicitly choosing one side, their pragmatic response to the Russian-Ukrainian war has been much more proactive. Israel’s actions have included the allocation of 100 tons of humanitarian aid, sending Israeli medical teams into Ukraine, and allowing thousands of Ukrainian refugees into Israel both permanently and temporarily.

A field hospital named “Shining Star” is being set up in Ukraine. Photo: Construction team for Kohav Meir hospital

Most notably, Israel has absorbed thousands of Ukrainian Jewish refugees and accepted them as immediate citizens of Israel. This is made possible by the Law of Return, a law in Israel which states that anyone who is 1/16th Jewish can return to Israel as their rightful homeland and be granted immediate citizenship. In addition to allowing these refugees to flee to Israel, they have been alloted food, shelter, and even jobs. These Jewish Ukrainian refugees were airlifted into Israel and prioritized above other refugees in terms of evacuation and refugee status once in Israel. Jewish refugees are being given benefits like universal healthcare and permanent residency which are not guaranteed to non-Jewish Ukranians, who cannot attain this status with the limited tourist visa they are handed. Some have criticized Israel for this hierarchy favoring Jewish refugees over other religions, claiming that there should be no discrimination against Ukranians who lack Israeli or Jewish ties. Others have called for limits to refugee entry to maintain the Jewish composition of the nation. Meanwhile, Israel is continuing with this strategy for refugee absorption.

Beyond opening up its borders to Ukrainian refugees, Israel has been sending in humanitarian aid to Ukraine directly in the form of medicine, medical equipment, water purification systems, tents, blankets and more. They have even sent medical teams from Sheba Medical Center (Israel’s leading hospital) into Ukraine to set up a field hospital named “Shining Star”, or in Hebrew Kochav Meir.

While Israeli officials like Lapid may have publicly supported Ukraine and condemned the Russian invasion, there have been minimal actions by Israel and Prime Minister Bennett to uphold these statements. Despite its lack of political alignment in the war, Israel has been very active in negotiations, humanitarian aid allocation, and refugee crisis support. Perhaps Israel fears Russia too much to intervene and ruin the existing military coordination in Syria, and thus prefers to act as the broker of the peace treaty. Or perhaps Bennett wants to be the savior of this conflict to increase domestic support and create a name for himself. Either way, it doesn’t seem like Israel will be choosing a clear ally anytime soon and will likely continue to be criticized for this hesitant approach. Time will tell if this strategy will work to Israel’s benefit, bring peace between Russia and Ukraine, and allow Israel to be the savior.

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