AnalysisOren: Israel can't sit idly as Zelensky fights for liberty

As government walks Ukraine tightrope, opposition waits for a slip-up

Lawmakers on both sides of aisle have nothing to gain politically by wading into war in Europe, experts say — at least until US criticism gets louder

Carrie Keller-Lynn

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, February 27, 2022.  (Yoav Ari Dudkevitch/Pool)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, February 27, 2022. (Yoav Ari Dudkevitch/Pool)

Knesset opposition factions have been keeping relatively quiet about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, taking a wait-and-see approach.

“They have nothing to gain by saying anything,” said former Kulanu MK Michael Oren, who also served as ambassador to Washington under former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“They’re waiting for the government to mess up — but that’s what they’re always doing,” he said.

Netanyahu himself – who as premier warmed up Israel’s relationship with Russia – has notably not issued a public statement regarding the war.

Meanwhile, MK Yariv Levin, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, reportedly rejected a proposal by Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy to reinstate the Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs in order to address the possibility of an influx of Jewish Ukrainian refugees.

The immigration committee has not convened since the new government formed, due to an opposition protest against committee assignments.

Instead, the cabinet met on Sunday night to discuss the conflict, reportedly including preparations for an expected wave of Ukrainian immigrants.

Wary of damaging Israel’s good relations with both the Russians and the Ukrainians, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has sought to position Jerusalem as a quiet, moderating presence in the conflict. Responding to a Ukrainian request, Bennett called Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday and offered to negotiate between the warring parties.

The Russian readout of the call did not include Putin’s response to Bennett, though the Kan public broadcaster reported Sunday evening that he did not accept the offer.

The Russian president offered discussions to be held in Belarus, a close Moscow ally that served as a staging ground for Russia’s Thursday invasion of Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday agreed to send a negotiating team to the Belarusian border.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (L) meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia, October 22, 2021. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

While Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has explicitly condemned Russian aggression, Bennett has been telegraphing moderation and extreme caution in his statements on the conflict, opting not to name Russia in condemning the war and focusing his expression of concern on its humanitarian impact.

This is reportedly part of a tactic that the Foreign Ministry thinks will enable Israel to have a seat at the negotiating table, should its facilitation offer be accepted.

“There are things we continue to do and these things are done modestly,” Gary Koren, the head of the Eurasian desk at the Foreign Ministry, told Kan public radio on Sunday, explaining that Israel has left room to liaise between the warring parties.

Bennett reportedly told ministers on Sunday to keep a “low profile,” with Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked saying “Israel’s interest is to be quiet.”

The Jewish state straddles a difficult position, with strong community ties to both Ukraine and Russia, alongside Russian military involvement in Syria to Israel’s north.

But according to Oren, while the Russian specter in Syria looms large, there are strategic and moral reasons to actively support Ukraine.

“Yes, we have an interest in preserving our freedom of action in Syria. But our relationship with the US and Europe isn’t just nice diplomacy, it’s also strategic interest,” he said. “And we have to preserve that too.”

Then-deputy minister for diplomacy Michael Oren a meeting at the Knesset, June 27, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Oren maintained that censure from the United States about Israeli neutrality – including Israel’s refusal to co-sponsor a motion condemning the Russian invasion in the United Nations Security Council – is being underestimated in Jerusalem.

“Right now, we’re starting to get criticism from the US, and it’s only going to get louder,” he said. “No one is listening to Yair Lapid; they’re listening to the prime minister, and he didn’t come out and condemn it. People pay attention to that.

“And Israel is not just any state, Israel is the democratic Jewish state. As the democratic Jewish state, I do not believe we can sit by idly while a people led by a proud Zionist Jew [Zelensky] fight for their liberty with rifles and Molotov cocktails.”

Oren suggested additional humanitarian assistance and selective adoption of sanctions.

Israel is sending 100 tons of humanitarian aid to Ukraine in the coming days, including water purification systems, medical equipment, tents, blankets, and sleeping bags, Bennett said on Sunday.

But when it comes to military aid, which Western nations have been heaping on Ukraine, Bennett has stuck to his neutral stance, reportedly turning down an explicit request from Zelensky on Friday and assuring Putin on Sunday that a planeload of supplies slated to depart for the beleaguered country this week will include only humanitarian supplies.

Lazar Berman contributed to this report.

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