Peacemaker in a yarmulka? How not to come into conflict with Moscow and help Ukrainian Jews. Jerusalem’s dilemmas

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine inconvenienced Israel a lot. The Jewish state has to take into consideration the co-operation with Russia in Syria, the Iran question and numerous Russian oligarchs whom she granted citizenship. On the other hand there is affiliation to the Western World, the alliance with the US and good relations with the Ukrainian president of Jewish origin.

Israel has the ambition to mediate between Ukraine and Russia and, inter alia, that’s why she didn’t join to the sanctions imposed on Russia by the EU , US, UK and a number of other states. The Israeli government refused to align to 81 countries who have signed the UN’s resolution condemning the Russian invasion. It repeatedly declined military help solicited by Zelenskyy. But at the same time it is sending a considerable humanitarian aid and has condemned the Russian invasion at the United Nations General Assembly.

On Sunday, March 20 Zelenskyy was to give a speech – naturally online – to the members of the Knesset. As soon as the Israeli media reported that, the Russian ambassador to Israel, Anatoliy Victorov asked for an encounter with the speaker of parliament, Mickey Levy. It is extremely important for Moscow that Israel keeps the hitherto policy: even if she condemns invasion of Ukraine, she doesn’t participate in imposing sanctions. Either against Russia herself nor against Russian oligarchs, many of whom bear Israeli passports – the “Times of Israel” confirmed March 15, referring to high-rank Israel’s officials.
The Jewish state is not willing to impose sanctions on Russia because it doesn’t want a confrontation with Russia. Moscow is too important for Israel in terms of crucial security issues: in Syria and regarding Iran Jerusalem desires to maintain her co-operation channels with Russia untouched for they make way for relatively secure airstrikes on targets is Syria. The situation is furthermore complicated as hundreds of thousands Jews abide in the war zone as well as in Russia and Belarus. Therefore we must act responsibly and take balanced steps – that’s how people around Prime Minister Nafatli Bennett account for the hitherto policy of Israel.

Good cop, bad cop

While analysing those few weeks of the war and Israel’s attitude towards it, it is hard to resist the impression that the Israel chose to play, in a sense, good cop, bad cop. The minister of foreign affairs, Yair Lapid is strongly denouncing Russia and is serving as the main (actually the sole in Israel) critic of the aggression against Ukraine. Wheras Prime Minister Bennett often contacts with the Kremlin and was the first and, for the time being, the only head of Western government to meet Vladimir Putin in Moscow after the outbreak of the war, on March 5.

Both parties didn’t officially announced any details of the three-hour meeting. Unofficially though everybody knows that both leaders were discussing not only the war in Ukraine but also the ongoing talks between world powers, Russia and Iran about reviving the nuclear agreement form 2015. After his trip to Moscow Bennett headed for Berlin where he met Olaf Scholz.
Jewish fugitives from Ukraine celebrate Purim on March 16, 2022 while waiting for a flight to Israel in Chisinau, Moldova. Photo by Andreea Campeanu/Getty Images
It is worth reminding the sequence of events that proceeded Lapid’s visit at Putin’s. The German chancellor paid a moment earlier, on March 3, a rapid visit to Israel and his meeting with Israel’s Prime Minister resulted – as it is claimed by PM Lapid’s associates – in an idea of mediation. “After having analysed the situation, the gentleman came to the conclusion that of all the world leaders Bennett has the best access to both parties” – writes the Al-Monitor website. After his encounter with Scholz, Bennett promptly convened a council with his closest associates, including the national security advisor Eyal Hulata, a former high-ranking Mossad official as well as with an influential advisor for international policy, Shimrit Meir. This small team decided “to do something”. Two days later Israeli PM flied to Moscow.

Not everybody around the Prime Minister was enthusiastic about this idea. His right-wing associates who have accompanied him throughout the years of his political career believe that Bennett’s official involvement in a European conflict is pointless and risky. So far though, it has been for such advisors as Hulata or Meir – maintaining that even if Bennett’s mediation efforts don’t bear fruit yet, they are not harmful either – to have the upper hand. They have convinced Bennett that mediation activity in Russia’s war against Ukraine will increase his recognisability and help in coming out from under the shadow of his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, well-known for not being internationally inactive.

Phone diplomacy

As of now, mediation attempts have had no effect whatsoever. But already on March 6 Bennett and Putin spoke again, this time over the phone. Addressing his ministers later on that day, during a weekly sitting of the cabinet, Bennett stated that Israel’s moral duty was to mediate in peace talks between Russia and Ukraine even if the success was unlikely.

On his return from Moscow and Berlin, the minister of foreign affairs, Yair Lapid made an unplanned trip to Riga in order to meet the US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken. He is supposed to have shared with him detailed information and impressions from Bennett’s appointment in Moscow. After the encounter in the Latvian capital, Lapid announced that Israel condemned Russia but she would try to mediate between Moscow and Kyiv, along with Germany and France.

On March 14, Prime Minster Bennett spoke to Putin over the phone again, this time for 1,5 hours. Then, he called Zelenskyy. He offered mediation to which Kyiv doesn’t say no. It wasn’t until next day that the first phone call between Ukrainian and Israeli heads of diplomacy took place. Yair Lapir asserted one more time that Israel wouldn’t serve as a by-pass for sanctions imposed on Russia. Earlier on, Dmytro Kuleba wouldn’t answer Lapid’s phone because after the Russian assault on Ukraine the latter called Sergey Lavrov first, only then did he attempt to reach his Ukrainian counterpart.

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So far Israel has remained neutral although she knows that in the long run it is impossible to hold such a stance. According to PM Bennett’s associates every trip and talk is being consulted with relevant sides, including the US. Apparently, Bennett is meticulously reporting his impressions on Putin and his position on the war to the Western leaders.

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During his visit to Bucharest, March 13, minister Lapid said: “Alike Romania, Israel condemns the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It is unjustified and we call on Russia to stop the shelling and attacks as well as to solve the conflict by the negotiation table. Israel will do all her best to help reach a peaceful way out. We are collaborating with our Ally, the US, and with our European partners trying to put an end to this brutal tragedy as soon as possible”. Next day, in Bratislava, he reaffirmed that in spite of Israel’s not imposing sanctions herself, she wouldn’t be a route to circumvent sanctions imposed on Russia.

Some experts say that the Jewish state simply doesn’t have legal instruments allowing it to impose sanctions along Western lines. Contrary to other countries Israel didn’t implement changes to her legislation after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 that would now make it possible for her to impose sanctions promptly.

Jerusalem however has changed its monetary policy in accordance with OECD standards, thus hindering the oligarchs from moving banking operations to Israel. Except that is not yet known if it intends to tighten control over such accounts. The government has also apparently decided to discreetly supervise the traffic of private jets and yachts belonging to Russian oligarchs – Israeli media report. Also Lapid warned his ministers on February 28 not to render assistance to Jewish billionaires from Russia that had been subject to sanctions. “You have to be extremely careful for those people have contacts and may call you know and ask for different things” – his statement was quoted in the media.

Russian oligarchs who have collaborated with the Putin regime and hold an Israeli passport include, among others, Roman Abramovich, Mikhail Fridman, Pyotr Aven and Viktor Vekselberg. Abramovich acquired Israeli citizenship in 2018 when his British visa wasn’t renewed. On March 14, Roman Abarmovich appeared at the Ben Gurion Int’l Airport in Tel Aviv. Only for a while. For he embarked on a private jet flying to Constantinople. Just because of the tightened Israeli policy. The media there report that according to restrictions placed by the government, Russian billionaires’ private jets cannot stop over for longer than 24 hours on the territory of Israel.
According to representatives of local authorities, the flags of Russia and Ukraine displayed on March 13, 2022 on the walls of the Old Town in Jerusalem are to mean a call for dialogue between these countries. Photo AMMAR AWAD / Reuters / Forum
Money, money, money!

Surely, the Russian oligarchs have brought big money to Israel for many years. But even that cannot balance economic losses to be brought about by the war. The Jewish state is deeply concerned about the economic losses it may suffer as a result of the conflict between two of its important trading partners: Russia and Ukraine.

How important are these partners? Let us take a look on the data quoted by the Al-Monitor website. According to the Ministry of Economy and Industry’s data, the Israeli export of goods and services to Russia amounts to $1 billion per annum, whereas the import form this country – $2,5 billion. The majority of Israeli import constitutes fuels, minerals and precious stones, diamonds in the first place. The main goods exported from Israel to Russia are agricultural products (26%), machinery, medical as well as optical equipment (41%) and chemicals. Half of the wheat imported by Israel comes from Russia, another 30% - from Ukraine.

Russia also provides Israel with a significant share of coal used to power electric plants. The Israeli receive this coal at a relatively low price. The Israeli-Ukrainian trade is much inferior to that, it accounts for $800 million a year. About 80% of this sum is imports from Ukraine, above all – wheat and other farm products.

Yet, that’s not everything. Work was completely halted at Ukrainian branches of Israeli companies, directly affecting some 20,000 workers on the ground, mostly programmers. Companies are committed to help their employees in Ukraine. In some cases advances were made to help them survive the time of hardship.

For instance in Kharkiv, having suffered bombardment since the outbreak of the war, there are several branches of Israeli companies as well as independent programmers who work for Israeli companies through service centres. In case of invasion those companies had already planned to completely cease operations in Ukraine. Among them there is Plarium dealing with computer games, many of whose 800 programmers live in Kharkiv. Similarly, outsourcing companies such as Aman or Cellcom have their development centres in Eastern Ukraine too.

Helping Ukraine, helping the diaspora

Israel, as it has been mentioned before, offers her mediation, condemns Russia’s aggression but doesn’t do anything else that could infuriate Moscow. The minister of defence, Benny Gantz refused to send to Ukraine any equipment signed “IDF” (Israeli Armed Forces, i.e. Army of Israel). However, he discreetly asked his officials on March 7 to figure out if it was possible to provide Ukraine with armament directly from warehouses, before it was labelled “IDF”. The “Jerusalem Post” announces that Israel is considering handing over the helmets and bulletproof vests that Israel solicited already after the invasion had started. On March 14, the Knesset adopted a plan to set up a $6,4 million field hospital in Western Ukraine.

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Israeli authorities cannot afford a clash with Moscow also for domestic, political reasons. Above all they would risk harsh criticism from the opposition. The previous long-time PM Benyamin Netanyahu, known for his close relations with Putin, accuses the present government of paying too much attention to the Russian-Ukrainian war while it should more active in preventing an agreement between Iran and the West being a threat to Israel.

Meanwhile, over 1,5 million Russian-speaking citizens, maybe more, call Israel their home today. It’s about 15% of the country’s population. Most of them come from Russia, but many from Ukraine. Now, apart from Moscow-Kyiv mediation attempts, Israel is focusing mostly on evacuating a few thousand of her citizens from Ukraine and on providing humanitarian aid to this country, including a 200 thousand-strong Jewish diaspora there. They can emigrate to Israel under the Law of Return.

– Grzegorz Kuczyński
– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki
Main photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in Sochi in October 20021. Photo: SPUTNIK / Reuters / Forum
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