Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky conveyed his frustration and exasperation with Israel’s perceived neutrality in Russia’s ongoing war on Ukraine and suggested a possible change in stance may be in the offing after Jerusalem finally agreed to supply the country with advanced communications systems, in an Israeli TV interview.
In a long, wide-ranging interview with investigative show “Uvda,” which aired on Monday night on Israel’s Channel 12, Zelensky said he couldn’t “understand” Israel’s position nor its refusal to supply Ukraine with air defense systems even as he lodged multiple requests for such weaponry over the past eight months with successive Israeli prime ministers.
The Ukrainian leader said his first ask of Israel at the beginning of the war back in late February was for radio systems, “because Israel produces [high] quality radio systems,” followed by requests for aerial defense weapons such as the Iron Dome. His latest appeal was for Israeli-developed drones, after Russia began using Iranian-made suicide drones across Ukraine with devastating effect.
Zelensky said he has even tried enlisting Washington’s help in pressing Israel to provide military aid to Ukraine, though he did not go into details.
“Yes, I asked,” Zelensky told hosts Ilana Dayan and Itai Anghel in response to a question about whether he asked the US to lobby Israel on Ukraine’s behalf.
The Ukrainian president told “Uvda” that only recently did Israel agree to provide the requested radio systems, though the specifics are unclear.
When the Iron Dome system came up, Zelensky said no Israeli leader was even open to such a discussion. “I was talking with three prime ministers of Israel already,” he said, indicating that he had also raised the issue before Russia invaded his country earlier this year. “I don’t understand Israel… I had meetings and I asked so many times, each of them to help us. It doesn’t mean just to give money or military. [It means] to choose the right side,” Zelensky said.
While providing humanitarian assistance, Israel has maintained a strict policy of not providing military aid to Ukraine since Russian troops invaded on February 24, including systems that could help it intercept Russian missile and drone attacks.
The reasoning behind the decision appears to be Israel’s strategic need to maintain freedom of operations in Syria, as part of its efforts to prevent Iranian entrenchment on its doorstep. To that end, Israel cooperates with the Russian military, which largely controls Syria’s airspace. Israeli officials have also expressed fear that advanced military technology could fall into enemy hands and cited production and supply limitations.
But Israel has expressed growing concern over military cooperation between Russia and Iran, with Prime Minister Yair Lapid telling Ukraine’s foreign minister earlier this month that it put “the whole world in danger.”
Zelensky suggested in the interview that Russia’s recent use of Iranian weapons in its assault on Ukraine could be the push Israel needed.
“We are fighting against [a] new big union, Russia and Iran, and now I hope that Israel will help us, and will strong[ly] react to this,” he said, adding that according to intelligence by Ukraine and other countries, Russia has acquired some 1,500 Iranian attack drones.
“Maybe, let’s think together how many they can use, not only on Ukraine…” Zelensky said, pointing to the wider threat posed by Russia and Iran.
Zelensky spoke to the interviewers in English in what the show said was the Ukrainian leader’s first interview with a foreign outlet in which he did not speak in Ukrainian.
“We are fighting against Iran each day, 400 attacks of Iranian drones on our people, civilians, infrastructure. We gave information to Israel and we said ‘help us with air defenses’…We can join against this evil on air defense. Israeli military infrastructure or institutions also have drones which also could help us in this attack, in this war,” said Zelensky.
In the interview, the Ukrainian president could not directly answer a question about whether he considered Israel a “partner” like the US and Britain, saying instead that it was a “difficult question.”
“It’s a pity that we don’t have relations [during this war] like I have with Poland, or England that I can, each day, tell [them] the problem and maybe they help, ‘let’s discuss.’ I can’t understand why we don’t have this kind of relations [with Israel],” he said.
Last week, the Ukrainian leader noted a “positive trend” in Kyiv’s relations with Israel after the two countries shared intelligence about Russia’s use of the Iranian drones
Ukraine doesn’t need a mediator
Ukraine, Zelensky said in the “Uvda” interview, doesn’t “need any mediators — we need partners, friends,” a reference to former prime minister Naftali Bennett’s early attempts back in March to liaise between Moscow and Kyiv.
“Russians don’t need mediators, they want someone to [buy] time and I think they saw in Bennett such [a person]. They used him [to buy time]. He wanted to make peace to stop the war but he couldn’t. He gave some medical equipment, he gave a [field] hospital,” Zelensky said, expressing his gratitude and describing Bennett as “young” and “with a lot of energy.”
He also acknowledged that Bennett and other officials were “angry at me for [criticizing Israel] publicly.”
Asked if Ukraine would be better served using a quieter approach toward Israel and not one where Kyiv officials criticize the country for its lack of sufficient support, Zelensky said there have been many avenues for dialogue with Israel, “official and unofficial because I needed results,” but none were successful.
Ukraine needs a “different kind of help,” said the Ukrainian president, calling for a clear Israeli stance: “We got some humanitarian donations, but are you on the side of Russians or are you on the side of Ukraine? All my respect to Israel, but you have to choose, you can’t be mediators in this war.”
Unlike countries that remained neutral or hesitant to respond to the rise of fascism in Europe before World War II, “Israel can’t be [among] the countries that stay away and look at this next wave of Nazism born this year,” he said.
Taking a stand
Zelensky said that while he understands that Israel has to think about its own security and its own interests, the issue was more “about the attitude toward [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, to his policy.”
Pressed by Dayan, Zelensky conceded that Israel’s actions were possibly driven partly by fear of Russia and its president.
Still, he said he remained baffled. Having known war and a costly fight for independence, Zelensky said multiple times in the interview that he just doesn’t understand why Israel could not take a more clear position and stand firmly in Ukraine’s corner amid Russia’s ongoing assault.
“I don’t understand Israel, I think that government and society have to be like one organism, and I can’t understand if [the] society supports Ukraine’s fight for freedom and independence, I can’t understand why in politicians’ circles, why they have another opinion.
“I know that Israel[is], the people in your country know a lot about war, they saw a lot of bad things. We understand and feel tragedy, what Israelis went through. I know the history… I was so many times in Israel. I had so many relatives,” he said.
A brief moment
In the early hours of February 24, as Russian tanks and troops were rolling into Ukraine, Zelensky said it crossed his mind that it may be the end for his country.
“It was only one moment, when they came to Kyiv and because everybody spoke about… this [40-mile long Russian] convoy.”
Zelensky said the first call he received was from US President Joe Biden, which he described as the “warm dialogue of [a] partner.” Biden offered to help Zelensky and his family escape Ukraine amid Russian threats of assassination. The Ukrainian president famously responded that he needed ammunition, “not a ride.”
Ukraine today, said Zelensky, has “already won the war.”
“Now only the world can lose this war, can lose Ukraine.”
If Russia uses nuclear weapons, as it has threatened to do, “it will be a loss for the world, that it didn’t give [Putin] a strong, straight, direct message. It will be a loss for those countries that wanted to be mediators.
“I don’t compromise with terrorists,” Zelensky said — borrowing a US stance — in response to a question about compromising with Moscow.
“If we will not stay, you will see another war. If we will not be strong, the world will get World War III,” he warned.