Israelis should be proud of their country’s generosity to Ukraine, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Monday, defending Jerusalem’s approach the day after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky sharply criticized it but softened his tone later.
“Israel has been stretching out its hand to aid in the crisis in Ukraine for several weeks, from the first minute, in different, varied channels,” Bennett said. “We are managing this unfortunate crisis sensitively, generously, and responsibly, while balancing the different considerations – and they are complex.”
Bennett made the remarks at a ceremony sending off the staff of an Israeli field hospital, the first such facility any country has built in Ukraine.
“Today, I want to say clearly: Israel and the Israeli public can be proud of the aid and contribution of the State of Israel to the citizens of Ukraine. Be proud of the actions Israel has taken…There are not many countries who have done as much,” he stated.
Zelensky said he appreciates Israel’s efforts to mediate between Kyiv and Moscow on Sunday night, hours after he compared Ukraine’s plight to the Holocaust, called for Israel to send arms to his country and to sanction Russia, and criticized “mediation without choosing a side.”
“Apathy kills, calculations kill. You can mediate between countries but not between good and evil,” Zelensky said.
Yet, hours later, in a video message on his Telegram channel, Zelensky said: "Of course, Israel has its interests, strategy to protect its citizens. We understand all of it.”
"The prime minister of Israel, Mr. Bennett is trying to find a way of holding talks, and we are grateful for this,” Zelensky said. “We are grateful for his efforts so that sooner or later we will begin to have talks with Russia, possibly in Jerusalem. That's the right place to find peace. If possible.”
Bennett pointed to Zelensky’s praise overnight and said at a Yediot Aharonot conference that “in recent weeks there were some advances between the sides, but the gaps in a number of fundamental topics are big.”
The prime minister said the advances are that the Russians are no longer trying to depose Zelensky and fully demilitarize Ukraine, while Ukraine has backed down from trying to join NATO.
“We are trying to mediate together with our friends in the world, but there is a long way ahead,” he said.
“We positioned Israel in a way that allows us continuous communications with both sides that is honest and open and can bring achievements” in the mediation,Bennett stated.
As for whether Russian President Vladimir Putin is insane or has Parkinson’s, as some have theorized, Bennett said he saw no indication of either in their meeting earlier this month.
Asked about Zelensky comparing the war to the Holocaust, saying that Russia is planning a “final solution” for Ukraine, which was widely criticized in Israel, Bennett refrained from criticizing him, saying “he is a leader fighting for the life of his country.”
“I personally believe that you cannot compare the Holocaust to anything,” Bennett said. “It is a unique event in the history of the world, the industrial killing of a nation in gas chambers.”
Israel is not giving Ukraine an Iron Dome battery, Bennett said, because he is balancing “generosity and sensitivity to the great distress of the Ukrainian people together with…my responsibility to the existence of the State of Israel and its citizens.”
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid also responded to Zelensky’s criticism by touting Israel’s humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
Lapid said at the ceremony for the field hospital’s staff that Israelis “must know that Israel is not standing silent. In a place where there is suffering and horror, we will stretch out a comforting hand and do everything to help.”
“We are sending with this hospital not only the best medical staff in the world, but our hearts, our support, and our identification. This is a cruel and unnecessary war, and it must stop,” he said.
The war in Ukraine is a reminder to Israel “that we must always be strong and be able to defend ourselves at any moment and under any conditions,” the foreign minister added.
Israel began constructing the “Shining Star” field hospital in Mostyska, Ukraine over the weekend, and it is expected to open on Tuesday, with 60 staff members from Sheba Medical Center and the Schneider Children’s Hospital. The field hospital, which includes a pediatric ward, a maternity ward, an emergency room, a telemedicine facility, and more, was funded by the Health and Foreign Ministries, along with the Schustermann Family Foundation and Joint Distribution Committee.