Russia-Ukraine war: Israel balances condemning, mediating, helping

In a delicate balancing act, Jerusalem condemns the war, seeks to mediate a ceasefire, helps Kyiv with humanitarian aid and flies Jews to Israel.

 Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at a previous meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia. (photo credit: Sputnik/Kremlin/Reuters)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at a previous meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia.
(photo credit: Sputnik/Kremlin/Reuters)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

Along with the rest of the world, Israel has been forced to readjust quickly to the new world order created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

While utilizing its friendly ties with both sides to take on a potentially pivotal role in mediation efforts, Israel tried to maintain a delicate diplomatic balancing act of condemning the war in a way that would not overly antagonize Moscow. At the same time, the conflict raised the possibility of a mass aliyah of Ukrainian Jews, and preparations went into high gear to prepare, even as the first planeload of new immigrants arrived.

However, the first priority was to assist the thousands of Israelis who were stuck in the war-torn country when hostilities broke out on February 24. Despite repeated warnings earlier from Israeli leaders to leave while they could, most Israelis had stayed put, believing there would not be a full-scale war.

An estimated 3,000 Israelis fled during the first week of the conflict, but there were still about 4,000 to 5,000 remaining. Caught unawares, those Israelis who chose to leave once hostilities commenced were forced to join the flood of refugees making a dash for neighboring countries on Ukraine’s western border. The journey to safety was arduous and dangerous.

Roman Brodsky, 42, from Arad, became the first Israeli fatality in the war on February 28. Living with his wife and children in Kyiv for the past two years, he had been trying to leave the city in a convoy for Moldova when a member of the Ukrainian civil militia shot and killed him in a case of mistaken identity, believing the car belonged to pro-Russian Chechen fighters.

 Workers handle packages of Israeli humanitarian aid destined for Ukraine at Ben-Gurion Airport on March 1. (credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS) Workers handle packages of Israeli humanitarian aid destined for Ukraine at Ben-Gurion Airport on March 1. (credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)

Israel was one of the first countries to respond to the developing humanitarian crisis. It sent representatives to the border crossings with Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova, and flew hundreds of tons of aid to Poland that was transferred overland to Ukraine. Medicine, winter clothes, potable water and tents were among the items sent. Ukraine thanked Israel, but pleaded for protective helmets and vests that were desperately needed.

Israel’s Health and Foreign ministries, in collaboration with Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, announced plans to set up a field hospital in Lviv to provide medical aid to refugees who were pouring into the city fleeing the Russian assault.

But sending out humanitarian aid was the easy part. The diplomatic balancing act was more challenging.

On Day 10 of the fighting, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett became the first Western leader to meet with President Putin in the Kremlin since the conflict began, traveling secretly to Moscow on a private jet used by the Mossad. The Shabbat-observant prime minister violated the day but under the Jewish concept of pikuah nefesh, in which preservation of human life overrides all commandments (except three).

Accompanying him on the trip was Construction and Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin, born in Ukraine, who acted as interpreter. Elkin knows Putin well, having traveled with former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to his meetings with the Russian leader many times over the years.

Bennett informed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in advance of his meeting with Putin, and called him immediately after before departing Moscow. Bennett also coordinated his meeting with Washington, Paris and Berlin, and flew directly from Russia to Berlin for talks with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, whom he had met three days earlier in Jerusalem on Scholz’s first trip to Israel.

At the three-hour meeting in Moscow on bringing about a ceasefire, the two discussed efforts to secure humanitarian corridors for civilians to flee the fighting, the plight of Ukrainian Jews, the state of the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna, and Israel’s freedom of action in the skies over Syria.

The shuttle diplomacy certainly put Bennett at center stage in the efforts to end the biggest crisis facing Europe since World War II, although realistic chances of a diplomatic breakthrough were never high. There was also a risk factor, with Bennett not wanting to be seen as being used by the Russian leader to undermine the unity and resolve of the democratic nations.

Although Israel is considered, and considers itself, as part of the West, close with the US and Europe, it also has a critical understanding with Russia that allows the IDF to operate over Syria.

Hundreds of airstrikes against pro-Iranian targets across Syria have been attributed to Israel in recent years, and Jerusalem is wary of doing anything that may prompt Moscow to reconsider this arrangement.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said that Washington understood Israeli concerns. “Even our American allies realize we have to be careful because Russia is the significant military force in Syria,” he said. “Israel effectively has a security border with Russia, and our cooperation mechanism with them assists in our determined battle against Iranian entrenchment on our northern border.”

Despite the paramount importance of maintaining this freedom of action, Israel took a calculated risk and joined almost the entire international community by voting in favor of the UN General Assembly resolution on March 2 condemning the Russian invasion. Lapid defended the decision.

“Israel was and will be on the right side of history,” he said. “These are our values. Our alliance is with the United States.”

Lapid also warned ministers not to help Russian oligarchs of Jewish extraction who are either the target of international sanctions, or are liable to become targets.

Bennett said that Israel has worked from the start of the conflict to help where it can, while also protecting its interests.

“The State of Israel has taken a measured and responsible line from the start, which allows us to not only safeguard our interests but also to help,” he said, “to be one of the few that can communicate directly with both parties and assist where requested. And we do help, quietly.”

Bennett rejected repeated calls from Zelensky to supply weapons to Kyiv, and the Ukrainian leader voiced criticism of Jerusalem’s position.

“I saw a beautiful picture today,” he said at a news conference in Kyiv. “Jews wrapped in Ukrainian flags by the Western Wall in Jerusalem. They prayed and I thank them for it.”

But, he said, “I spoke with the Israeli leadership. We don’t have bad relations, but these things are tested in times of crisis. I don’t feel the Israeli prime minister has wrapped himself in the Ukrainian flag.”

Israel revised entry requirements for refugees from Ukraine after its ambassador to Israel, Yevgen Kornichuk, complained that Israel had turned away dozens of refugees who had arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport seeking a safe haven.

“We believe that you remember the times of the Second World War, when Ukrainians were saving the lives of Jews during the Holocaust,” he said. “And while we saved Jewish lives in that time, we are asking you to help the Ukrainians to overcome this tragedy now.”

Under the new criteria, first-degree relatives of Israeli citizens were granted entry to Israel even if they were not Jewish, on the condition that they return to Ukraine after the war.

Zelensky released a statement in Hebrew calling for Jews around the world to speak out against the attacks on Ukraine. He noted the Jewish sites struck by Russia in its assault on Ukraine, particularly Uman and the site of the Babi Yar memorial to the massacre of Jews in Kyiv.

“I am now addressing the Jews of the world: don’t you see what is happening?” Zelensky asked. “That is why it is very important that millions of Jews around the world do not remain silent now. Nazism is born in silence, so shout about the killing of civilians, of Ukrainians.”

The mood of the Israeli public was overwhelmingly sympathetic to Ukraine. Thousands of Israelis together with Ukrainian immigrants took to the streets in a series of demonstrations, chanting “No to War, Yes to Democratic Ukraine,” as well as singing the Ukraine national anthem.

Many of the demonstrators criticized the government’s response to the Russian invasion, calling it “weak” and “lackluster,” and called for stronger action in support of the beleaguered Ukrainian people.

In the first five days of fighting alone, more than 5,000 Ukrainian Jews requested to move to Israel. Thousands of others made inquiries. The Jewish Agency, which handles Jewish immigration, was quick to respond, setting up six processing stations on Ukraine’s border. Among the problems emissaries dealt with were families separated due to the fighting, and lack of documentation due to the speedy evacuation.

The would-be immigrants were housed in hotels and apartments in Poland while they waited for flights to Ben-Gurion.

The Agency also set up emergency hotlines to answer questions about the immigration process.

“Our initial estimate was that the first wave of aliyah would be approximately 3,000 people, and now we think it could be much higher, maybe 10,000,” said Roman Polonsky, the Agency’s regional director for the former Soviet Union.

Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata said Israel is preparing for a large influx of immigrants from Ukraine.

“We now have 12,000 beds ready to receive immigrants,” she said. “Heads of local councils and the hotels association are on board.”

Israel also decided to recognize immigrants coming from Ukraine as refugees fleeing the area of fighting, an emergency entitling them to receive a onetime grant: every individual about NIS 6,000, a couple NIS 11,000, and a family NIS 15,000.

The immigration of Jews from around the world has always been a central tenet of Zionism. Historically, mass aliyah has often been from countries where the Jewish population felt threatened.

Today there are 200,000 Ukrainians eligible to immigrate under Israel’s Law of Return, which requires a person to have at least one Jewish grandparent in order to receive Israeli citizenship.

More than 50,000 Ukrainian Jews immigrated to Israel in the past decade, 13,000 in the past three years.

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, himself an immigrant from Moldova, called on Ukrainian Jews to emigrate. “We will make available any budget needed to absorb new immigrants from Ukraine,” he promised. “Don’t be afraid to come.”  ■