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Bennett refrains from condemning Russia in first remarks since invasion of Ukraine

PM says ‘our hearts’ are with Ukrainians, pledges to offer humanitarian aid but doesn’t voice support for Kyiv, hours after Lapid blasts Moscow

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett addresses officer cadets on February 24, 2022. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett addresses officer cadets on February 24, 2022. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Thursday avoided condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine — or even mentioning Russia by name — in his first remarks since the incursion began.

“The world order as we know it is changing,” he said, speaking at an IDF officer graduation ceremony in southern Israel. “The world is much less stable, and our region too is changing every day.”

“These are difficult, tragic times,” said the prime minister. “Our hearts are with the civilians of eastern Ukraine who were caught up in this situation.”

The remarks were a stark contrast from Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s condemnation of Russia only hours before.

Lapid called the invasion “a grave violation of the international order,” in Jerusalem’s harshest and most direct condemnation of Moscow since the crisis in Eastern Europe began.

A diplomatic official said Bennett’s decision to avoid mentioning Russia in his remarks was deliberate and coordinated with Lapid.

“They have spoken multiple times today and are working together,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The softer tone of Bennett’s speech was meant to be complementary to Lapid’s more bellicose one, according to the official.

Traffic jams are seen as people leave the city of Kyiv, Ukraine, Feb. 24, 2022. (Emilio Morenatti/AP)

“These days teach us that war between armies is not, unfortunately, a feature of the past,” said Bennett in his address to the new IDF officers, calling Israel “an anchor of strength, stability, security, and hope in a dangerous region.”

He again urged Israelis in Ukraine to leave the country. “Leave now. Protect your lives. Our people are waiting to receive you at the border crossings in the western part of the country.

“Every Jew knows we are waiting for him here,” he continued, “that the door to the State of Israel is always open.”

He pledged that Israel would offer any humanitarian assistance Ukraine asked for.

President Isaac Herzog meets in Athens with Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou on February 24, 2022. (Tal Schneider)

Earlier Thursday, President Isaac Herzog also declined to condemn Russia directly during his state visit to Greece.

“Madam President, this is undoubtedly a historic moment, and a very complicated one,” said Herzog before a meeting with Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou. “Like you, I too feel great sorrow and concern about a humanitarian tragedy and, God forbid, injury to innocent civilians. Like many around the world I pray for peace to return between Russia and Ukraine. Israel, as our government has communicated, supports Ukraine’s territorial integrity.”

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman took a similar tack during an interview Thursday.

“The smartest thing we can do is keep a low profile,” he told the Ynet news site, stressing that Israel had to prioritize protecting Jews in both Russia and Ukraine.

Israel’s statement on Wednesday had not mentioned Russia by name. Israel had so far been careful in its comments on the conflict and has avoided criticizing Moscow publicly. This is believed to be at least partly due to its need to work with the Russian military presence in neighboring Syria.

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