Bennett implores Israelis in Ukraine to ‘come home’ before it’s too late

‘Take responsibility for your lives,’ says PM, as 32 flights to Israel are scheduled to leave embattled Eastern European nation within a week: Lapid: ‘Get on the flights’

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, Feb. 13, 2022. (Menahem Kahana/Pool via AP)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, Feb. 13, 2022. (Menahem Kahana/Pool via AP)

As Israel ramps up efforts to fly its citizens out of Ukraine, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called urgently on Sunday for Israeli citizens in the Eastern European country to “come home” while they still can.

“Like the rest of the world, we are hoping that the tension will end without an escalation,” he said at the outset of the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. “But our first responsibility is to take care of our citizens, Israeli citizens.”

“Come home,” Bennett continued. “Don’t take unnecessary risks. Don’t wait till you badly want to come home but it has become impossible. Take responsibility for your lives. Leave Ukraine as fast as possible and come home.”

Bennett made his remarks in Hebrew while sitting beside Mathias Cormann, secretary general of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, who is visiting Israel to speak with officials about the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rising cost of living, and tax reform.

Earlier in the morning, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid took part in a situational assessment alongside representatives from the Transportation Ministry, Education Ministry, Israel Airports Authority, and the Jewish Agency.

The meeting focused on Israel’s diplomatic and consular plans for a range of developments in Ukraine.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid participates in situational assessment on evacuating Israelis and Jews from Ukraine, February 13, 2022 (Yogev Cohen/MFA)

Lapid said after the meeting that there are 32 civilian flights planned from Ukraine to Israel in the coming week, 10 of them in the next 48 hours.

“I call on Israeli citizens to get on these flights,” Lapid urged.

Israeli officials believe the window for evacuating citizens from Ukraine is closing fast, and may be shut by Wednesday morning.

Israeli airlines have started to increase flights to Ukraine to aid the evacuation. Israel’s El Al, Israir and Arkia airlines are offering rescue flights.

The Foreign Ministry estimates that there are 10,000-15,000 Israelis in Ukraine, which includes dual citizens.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Saturday that he has instructed the Israel Defense Forces to prepare for the possibility of helping evacuate Israelis from Ukraine.

Ukrainian servicemen check their equipment during an exercise in the Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, February 10, 2022. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

The Biden administration warned Israel late last week that Russia could invade Ukraine within days.

Bennett has reportedly instructed government ministers not to publicly weigh in on Russia’s actions. Israel has a sensitive relationship with Russia due to Moscow’s alliance with Syria, where Israel has for years been carrying out strikes on Iran-linked targets.

Israel’s ramped up evacuation plans came as Biden warned Putin in a 62-minute phone call on Saturday that the United States “will respond decisively and impose swift and severe costs on Russia” should it invade Ukraine.

According to a readout from the White House, Biden stressed that “while the United States remains prepared to engage in diplomacy, in full coordination with our Allies and partners, we are equally prepared for other scenarios.”

Tanks and armored vehicles during the Belarusian and Russian joint military drills at Brestsky firing range, Belarus, February 4, 2022. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP, File)

A senior US official said the call brought no major change in the standoff.

The Kremlin denounced Washington’s “peak hysteria” surrounding the conflict after the call, but said Biden and Putin had agreed to continue dialogue.

Russia and Ukraine have been locked in a bitter conflict since 2014, when Ukraine’s Kremlin-friendly leader was driven from office by a popular uprising. Moscow responded by annexing the Crimean Peninsula and then backing a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine, where fighting has killed over 14,000 people.

A 2015 peace deal brokered by France and Germany helped halt large-scale battles, but regular skirmishes have continued, and efforts to reach a political settlement have stalled.

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