Israel needs to speak with one moral voice on Bucha - analysis

Instead of the message from Jerusalem being that Israel is unequivocally horrified by the atrocities and condemns them without reservation, there are multiple voices heard.

Israel's Knesset building (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Israel's Knesset building

What does US Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen think about the alleged Russian atrocities committed in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha? Or British Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak? Or German Finance Minister Christian Lindner? If you don’t know, then you are in good company, as most people don’t know, since those three ministers keep their comments on the war in Ukraine within the realm of their jurisdiction: meaning treasury-related issues. If you want to know what the US, Britain or Germany think about the war and the atrocities being committed in Ukraine, you don’t tune in to Yellen, Sunak or Lindner.

Since the war began, Yellen has called for stiffer sanctions against Russia, something well within her bailiwick, since the Treasury is responsible for sanctions enforcement. Germany’s finance minister has said the EU should end economic ties with Russia, but acknowledged that the union cannot do without Russian gas – all economic issues he is mandated to deal with.

And in Britain, Sunak has said the tough sanctions on Russia will have an impact on the cost of living in his country.

In Israel, however, the whole country – and anyone listening abroad – knows what Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman thinks about developments in Ukraine. In an Army Radio interview on Monday, he stepped back from condemning Russia for war crimes in Bucha, saying instead, “There are mutual accusations here: Ukraine blames Russia, and Russia blames Ukraine.”

  Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman at the Jerusalem Post London Conference, March 20, 2022.  (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman at the Jerusalem Post London Conference, March 20, 2022. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

But why should Liberman be the government’s spokesman on Ukraine? In orderly states, if you want to know the country’s position on a matter, you listen to what the head of government or the foreign minister or ministry has to say. And if both are talking about the same matter, generally the messages are coordinated and they are saying the same things.

Here, however, you have the finance minister commenting on diplomatic issues, the culture and sport minister speaking about religious ones, and the diaspora affairs minister talking about Palestinian issues. Nobody sticks to the matters that touch on their ministries, and nobody sticks to the government talking points (if there are any).

In his ill-advised comments to Army Radio, Liberman said: “We need to understand that it is a bloody war there, and we need to maintain Israel’s moral position - and, at the same time, our interests.”

Granted, interests are important, but so is taking a moral stance. And in the case of the horrors that have emerged from Bucha – where up to 300 civilians were reportedly killed, some with their hands bound and gunshot wounds in the head – Israel needs to take a moral position: This is horrific and needs to be condemned in the harshest terms.

In another few weeks, Israel will be marking Holocaust Remembrance Day, and Israel’s leaders will – as they should – bewail the world’s silence when Jews were being mass murdered. Now innocent Ukrainians are being murdered – not in a Holocaust, not in a systemic effort to wipe out the Ukrainian people from the face of the earth – but in apparent acts of war crimes by retreating Russian soldiers. This time the world is not silent, and the Jewish state must add its voice to that chorus condemning these unconscionable acts.

And it has.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said on Sunday that “it is impossible to remain indifferent in the face of the horrific images from the city of Bucha near Kyiv, from after the Russian Army left. Intentionally harming a civilian population is a war crime, and I strongly condemn it.”

And Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Tuesday, somewhat belatedly, “We are shocked by what we see in Bucha, horrible images, and we condemn them. The photos are very harsh. The suffering of Ukrainian citizens is huge and we are doing all we can to help.”

Some will argue that none of this went far enough; that neither Lapid nor Bennett said that Russian President Vladimir Putin was responsible or should be brought up on war crimes charges. Yet they both condemned the massacres in no uncertain terms. As to Bennett’s failure to mention Russia in his comments, does anyone really have any doubt about which soldiers he feels are responsible for “what we see in Bucha?”

This, then, is Israel’s position, the one articulated by Bennett and Lapid. The problem is that when other ministers, such as Liberman, speak off cue, they muffle the message.

Instead of the message from Jerusalem being that Israel is unequivocally horrified by the atrocities and condemns them without reservation, the message heard is a multiple one, with the foreign minister condemning; the prime minister also condemning, though a bit late; the health minister, visiting an Israel field hospital in Ukraine, condemning most forcefully; and the finance minister saying both sides are blaming each other for doing bad things.

Israel needs to speak here with one voice, and it needs to condemn unreservedly the atrocities being committed by Russian forces in Ukraine. Yes, Jerusalem has interests it needs to preserve with Moscow. However, condemning Russia and its actions in Ukraine need not necessarily compromise those interests.

As Russia’s Ambassador to Israel Anatoly Viktorov said a month ago, “It is in the common interest of Russia and Israel to continue the coordination mechanism in Syria.”

In other words, keeping the deconfliction mechanism in place in Syria so that Israeli and Russian forces do not accidentally clash over Syrian skies is a Russian interest just as it is an Israeli one, and not one Moscow would readily sacrifice in a fit of anger at a sharp Israeli condemnation.

Even if there may be some fallout with Russia following a condemnation, it is also an Israeli interest to project a clear moral voice to the world in the face of atrocities like those in Bucha, especially since the Jewish state has justifiably accused the world of an accursed silence when Jews were the victims of such atrocities – and worse – in the past.