One of the first signs that Israel was making a mistake was on Sunday, shortly after Prime Minister Naftali Bennett finished a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The official statement put out by the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office was short and concise. The two leaders, it said, spoke on the phone and discussed the “situation” in Ukraine.
The situation? As the PMO put out the statement, Russian missiles were raining down on Kyiv, Kharkiv and other parts of the embattled European country. A convoy dozens of miles long was making its way into Ukraine, aimed at the capital, and Israel’s leader had a call with the Russian invader about the situation?
In public comments since, Bennett has expressed sympathy with the people of Ukraine, who have been killed and displaced due to indiscriminate Russian attacks. He says he prays for peace and urges dialogue. A condemnation of Russia? That you won’t hear from Israel’s prime minister.
Who will you hear some words of censure from? Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. Last week, hours after the invasion, Lapid called the Russian attack a “serious violation of the international order” and said that “Israel condemns the attack.” But a few days later, after missiles struck near the Babyn Yar Holocaust memorial in Kyiv, Lapid was more careful. He said that Israel condemns the strike and calls for the memorial to be respected. Who attacked? Why they attacked? That, Lapid did not mention.
Government officials admit that the two heads of the coalition are playing something of a good cop/bad cop routine with Russia. When there is no alternative, Lapid is tough, while Bennett, who is responsible for direct ties with Putin, never mentions Russia.
Even though it is factually true that Israel officially condemned Russia in Lapid’s original statement when war erupted and at the United Nations General Assembly, that narrative is not sticking.
There are a number of reasons why. The first is that Israel has been stammering about the Russian invasion of Ukraine since before it began. This applies to Bennett, Lapid and even President Isaac Herzog.
Government officials are frightened to talk about Russia even on the phone, they start speaking in hushed tones if you ask about Russia, as if a foreign intelligence agency, which might already be eavesdropping, won’t hear.
This incoherent policy was evident last Friday when the United States asked its allies to sign on to a Security Council resolution to condemn Russia – Israel refused. It later voted in the UN General Assembly to condemn Moscow, but the image of a country unwilling to stand with the West had already been made.
Even at the General Assembly debate, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN, Gilad Erdan, was missing. Instead, the deputy ambassador represented Israel. Erdan’s absence raised eyebrows.
In Jerusalem, diplomatic officials explained that it had to do with a concern that he would not stick to the government’s message. To the world though, it looked like Israel had downgraded the messenger to soften the blow to Russia.
IN DIPLOMACY, appearances mean a lot. On Tuesday, Rep. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who said of himself that there is “no bigger fan of Israel than Lindsey Graham,” that he will get on the phone with Israel to urge the country to get serious about Ukraine and to even provide weapons.
Later that day, CNN interviewed former secretary of defense William Cohen who also expressed his deep disappointment with Israel’s position.
“Now it comes down to are you with the Russians or are you with the United States and the West? They do have to make a decision here,” Cohen said about Israel.
Now, you could legitimately ask why was Cohen even asked about Israel in an interview about the Russian invasion of Ukraine? Why is Israel even brought up? The reason is twofold: There is an obsession with Israel in the media – that we already know. Additionally, it is the Bennett government’s fault that it failed to be clear on Israel’s position from the get go.
I understand the counterargument: Israel needs to look after itself and stay on good terms with Russia so the Air Force can retain operational freedom over Syria whose airspace is controlled by Moscow. As well, if Israel condemns Moscow, officials fear Putin will put that coordination to an end.
But the situation in Syria is what is called an interest. It is an important one – possibly very important – but that is what it is, an interest. It is not a value nor an ideology. It is an interest.
It is also an interest that can be called into question. Even if Russia was to get upset at Israel for standing with the western world - with which there should be no doubt Israel is aligned - would it shut down coordination in Syria? Isn’t it obvious that Israel belongs with the West?
Even if Russia did do that, Israel can find other ways to safeguard its interests. After all, for nearly 70 years and up until Russia entered the country, Israel knew how to regularly operate against Syria even when it had a larger military than the IDF, including an arsenal of long-range Scud missiles and massive stockpiles of chemical weapons. Was it easy? Of course not, but Israel knew how to get done what it needed.
Israel’s wavering when it comes to Ukraine touches on a far deeper question: What does Israel stand for? Is the country just about interests or is there an ideology and set of values that lead it? Unfortunately, based on the management of the Israeli position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, that does not seem to be the case.
That should concern us because if all we are is a state driven by interests then what are we? Doesn’t a nation need a moral compass? A foundation based on values and principles that lead it even when those values clash with interests? Doesn’t Israel need to stand for something?
The way Bennett and Lapid have managed this situation so far is reminiscent of the old stories of the leaders of the Jewish shtetl in the Pale of Settlement. They would travel to the Russian czar, bearing gifts and blessings to stay on his good side, while trying to be careful not to upset the other leader on the other side of the country.
This is not the Israel way. As seen by the outpouring of funds, resources and volunteers in Poland, Moldova and elsewhere, Israel is a nation made up of people who know how to stand for something. Its people believe in what’s right and are willing to risk their lives to save others, even when it takes them across the world.
This government though is something else and seems to be too focused on interests. To an extent, it makes sense. This whole coalition is based on interests. There is very little ideology common to Bennett and Meretz or Avigdor Liberman and Mansour Abbas. But they share a common interest: Keep Likud out of the government, and help advance Israel out of COVID-19 and back into economic prosperity.
These might be important interests, but a coalition also needs to stand for ideals. Therefore, it is no surprise that when it comes to Ukraine, this government came up short.
There is little doubt that Israel stands for freedom and democracy, and is against ruthless and merciless dictators. It is time that everyone hears that loud and clear.