GOP senator pans new government’s plan to ‘stay quiet’ on Russia’s war in Ukraine

After Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, set to speak to Moscow counterpart, says Israel will talk less in public about invasion, Lindsey Graham warns that such an approach won’t age well

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

US Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham speaks to journalists in Jerusalem during his visit to Israel, June 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)
US Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham speaks to journalists in Jerusalem during his visit to Israel, June 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Republican US Senator Lindsey Graham on Monday criticized new Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, who indicated Israel would avoid denouncing Russia publicly over its invasion of Ukraine.

Graham, an outspoken Republican voice in support of aiding Ukraine, has criticized Jerusalem in the past over its policies regarding the war, but Monday’s comments marked the first time he expressed his frustration since his longtime ally Benjamin Netanyahu returned to the premiership.

He also appeared to be the first Republican to publicly criticize the new hardline coalition in Jerusalem.

“The idea that Israel should speak less about Russia’s criminal invasion of Ukraine is a bit unnerving,” Graham said in a tweet.

The South Carolina lawmaker was responding to a speech by Cohen to Israeli diplomats delivered hours earlier in which he announced that he would be talking to his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on Tuesday. Cohen said Israel’s humanitarian aid to Ukraine would continue, but noted that while additional details of Israel’s policy on the matter were still being crafted, “one thing for certain is that we will talk less about it in public.”

The previous government had refused Ukrainian requests for weapons, but former prime minister Yair Lapid spoke out repeatedly against the Russian invasion, accusing the Kremlin of carrying out war crimes. The comments won praise in the West but stoked tensions with Moscow, even as Jerusalem attempted to maintain a semblance of neutrality.

“I’m glad to see Mr. Cohen… is prioritizing the US-Israel strategic relationship and supports continued humanitarian aid to Ukraine,” responded Graham, an ardent critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I hope Mr. Cohen understands that when he speaks to Russia’s Lavrov, he’s speaking to a representative of a war criminal regime that commits war crimes on an industrial scale every day. To stay quiet about Russia’s criminal behavior will not age well,” he added.

New Foreign Minister Eli Cohen speaks at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, January 2, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Cohen did not immediately respond to Graham’s comments, which were posted overnight in Israel.

Last March, Graham criticized the previous Israeli government led by then-prime minister Naftali Bennett Israel for declining to sell Ukraine weapons to fend off the ongoing Russian invasion.

Kyiv has said it needs Israel’s help in air defense technology to counter Russia’s ongoing strikes on its civilian infrastructure.

“They asked Israel… for stinger [missiles], and apparently Israel said no. So I’ll get on the phone to Israel. You know, we stand up for Israel with the Iron Dome,” Graham told Fox News, referencing longstanding US military aid, which helped the development of air defense systems sought by Ukraine.

“Putin is a thug. He’s a war criminal. He’s destroying a sovereign nation called Ukraine. And if we don’t get Ukraine and Russia right, the Chinese are going to move on Taiwan and the Iranians gonna break out toward a bomb. So it’s in everybody’s interest” for Ukraine to be able to defend itself, Graham argued then.

During his previous terms in office, Netanyahu touted his close relationship with Putin and insisted that it was critical to maintaining the IDF’s ability to operate freely from the Russian-controlled skies over Syria in order to prevent the entrenchment of Iranian forces on Israel’s northern border. He initially criticized the previous government for neglecting ties to Russia as Jerusalem took several limited steps in support of Ukraine following the invasion by Putin’s forces in February.

However, Netanyahu has changed his tune more recently. In an interview ahead of the November election, he characterized the Bennett-Lapid government’s Ukraine policy — which has seen Israel supply humanitarian aid, operate a field hospital in Ukraine and take in a limited number of largely Jewish refugees while stopping short of Kyiv-requested military aid — as “pragmatic.”

Netanyahu even said he would consider arming Ukraine if he returns to the premiership.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meets with then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Kremlin in Moscow on January 30, 2020. (Maxim Shemtov/Pool/AFP)

“I think [Putin is] guided by his vision of reconstituting a great Russian realm, and I hope he’s having second thoughts about it,” Netanyahu told USA Today at the time.

He also revealed that he was asked to mediate between Russia and Ukraine after the war broke out. “I said, ‘Well, I think I’ll leave that to the sitting prime minister to decide.”

Bennett sought to mediate between Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, traveling to Moscow and holding a handful of phone calls with both leaders. But he failed to make headway after several weeks and eventually put aside the effort to focus on political turmoil back home.

Netanyahu said in the October interview that the mediation offer “presumably would come up again” if he is returned to power.

Netanyahu and Putin spoke last week in a congratulatory call that the Israeli prime minister agreed to take while Zelensky was giving an address to a joint session of US Congress in which he implored for additional American aid to push back the Russian invasion.

Netanyahu and Zelensky spoke by phone on Friday. According to a report, Netanyahu pressed the Ukrainian leader to vote against an upcoming UN resolution, but would not commit to any steps when asked about a quid-pro-quo involving transferring defensive aid to intercept Russian strikes.

Cohen spoke to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier Monday, but Ukraine was not among the topics discussed, according to readouts of the phone call from Jerusalem and Washington.

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