Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said Sunday evening that there is “an especially small window” to evacuate Israelis from Ukraine, as fears grow of an imminent Russian invasion.
The assessment is based on foreign intelligence and diplomatic sources, primarily American, Lapid said during a press conference at the Foreign Ministry.
“Come back to Israel before things get complicated,” Lapid said to the thousands of Israelis still in the Eastern European nation.
“We are still hoping that the crisis is solved through diplomatic means, but we also have a responsibility as a country toward Israeli citizens there, as well as toward the Jews,” he stressed.
Israel is preparing for the possibility that Ukraine’s skies will be closed, said Lapid, though it does not consider that a likely possibility. If needed, Israel is prepared to evacuate Jews and Israelis by vehicle through Poland, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, and Slovakia, he said.
Noting the sensitivity of Israeli comments, Lapid said Israel had to be more cautious than other countries in its public statements because there are large Jewish populations in both Ukraine and Russia.
“Part of our task is to protect them, and that requires us to be more cautious in such a conflict,” Lapid said. “But Israel’s position, like that of the West, is clear: We must do everything in order to avoid armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine.”
During Lapid’s meeting with Ukraine’s First Deputy Foreign Minister Emine Dzhaparova in Jerusalem earlier Sunday, the Ukrainian diplomat invited the foreign minister and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to Kyiv. Lapid said Israel would weigh the invitation and make a decision depending on developments.
Lapid also said that the tensions in Eastern Europe reduce the world’s attention to nuclear talks with Iran in Vienna, which is not in Israel’s interest.
Lapid said he did not see any linkage between tensions on the Ukrainian-Russian border and Russia’s actions in Syria. “Israel operates in cooperation with — there’s a good mechanism with — the Russians in Syria. Israel, as usual, will operate as it sees fit to protect its security in all theaters, and will not accept long-term Iranian presence on its northern border.”
The minister also underscored that Israel is the only country that not only did not evacuate its diplomatic staff, but sent more staff in to help Israelis in the country.
Israel could open a second consular office in Lviv if needed, he said.
Also Sunday evening, Tourism Minister Yoel Razvozov, who was born in Russia, met with Russia’s ambassador to Israel, Anatoly Viktorov, to discuss the situation.
Lapid said that 6,050 Israelis have so far signed up through the Israeli embassy’s website to receive updates and emergency information. They will receive WhatsApp or SMS messages in the coming hours to verify that Israeli authorities are able to reach them, he said.
There are around 2,000 students in Ukraine, mostly Israeli Arabs, he added.
Lapid said that the Foreign Ministry is in touch with the local Jewish community through its leadership.
Civilian flights leaving Ukraine to Israel are not full, Foreign Ministry officials said Sunday, in the wake of urgent calls by officials for Israelis to leave the country, due to predictions of a potential Russian invasion later this week.
Israeli airlines are ready to add additional flights, but the demand is not there right now, the officials said.
Thirty-two flights are scheduled to leave Ukraine for Israel in the coming week, including 10 in the next 48 hours. Airlines are still flying to Ukraine from Ben Gurion Airport.
Yet sources in the aviation industry confirmed to Kan news that there are hardly any Israelis leaving Ukraine, with low occupancy on each flight out to Israel.
The Foreign Ministry estimates that there are 10,000-15,000 Israelis in Ukraine, which includes dual citizens.
Speaking to the broadcaster, Deputy Foreign Minister Idan Roll said the ministry preferred to be over-cautious, rather than run the risk of not doing enough while it is still able to.
“We are reinforcing the embassy in Kyiv in order to better address the needs of citizens of Israel and the Jewish community in Ukraine if necessary,” Roll said.
Israel did, however, begin to repatriate some 150 family members of diplomatic staff and embassy staff, many of whom were arriving back in Israel on Sunday.
Roll added that the need to attend to the safety of Israeli citizens was now top priority, rather than the diplomatic matter of ties with Ukraine or Russia.
Earlier, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett urged 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.”
Meanwhile, Lapid met with Ukraine’s First Deputy Foreign Minister Emine Dzhaparova in Jerusalem on Sunday. Lapid expressed his concerns over the situation and updated Dzhaparova on Israel’s travel warning to its citizens.
He also expressed his hopes that the situation will deescalate as the result of ongoing diplomatic effort.
Israeli officials believe the window for evacuating citizens from Ukraine is closing fast, and may be shut by Wednesday morning. The Biden administration warned Israel late last week that Russia could invade within days.
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.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.