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Op-ed

If PM can’t say it, we Israelis must: Zelensky, we’re with you; Putin, stop the war

Damagingly and ultimately untenably for Israel, Bennett believes he dare not alienate Russia by publicly condemning it. Even so, there’s more he should be doing now to help Ukraine

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Times of Israel's editor David Horovitz interviews Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky at his presidential office in Kyiv, January 18, 2020 (Press service of the Office of the President of Ukraine)
Times of Israel's editor David Horovitz interviews Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky at his presidential office in Kyiv, January 18, 2020 (Press service of the Office of the President of Ukraine)

We know Israel has genuine security concerns, and is realistically wary of becoming an adversary of Vladimir Putin — now that the United States is much less influential in Syria, and Russia much more so.

We realize that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett believes he simply cannot afford to alienate the Russian presidential bully over his war on Ukraine, when Israel may need him as it faces down our own potentially existential foe, Iran.

We understand that Bennett truly thinks he might be uniquely placed to help mediate a resolution to the Russian invasion that brings a faster conclusion, with less loss of life.

And we recognize that Israel’s leadership has tried to square the impossible circle by having Foreign Minister Yair Lapid do the condemning of Russia while Bennett refrains from pointing the direct finger of blame.

But such considerations and maneuverings become more untenable with every passing day of bloodshed.

If Bennett feels he cannot safely do so, then it must fall to the rest of us Israelis to say it:

Putin’s assault on Ukraine is intolerable and cannot be condoned. Every fresh bombardment, every new targeting of civilians, renders it increasingly despicable.

Israel should and surely does recognize this with particular clarity, as the belatedly revived nation-state of a Jewish people that had nowhere to turn in Europe eight decades ago, when the Nazis sought to exterminate us and made uniquely horrifying progress toward that goal. The very fact that Putin’s onslaught is unfolding in the heart of those World War II killing fields only reinforces the memory and the obligation.

The fact that he is claiming to be “denazifying” a nation with a Jewish president, who lost relatives in the Holocaust, only underlines the abuse of truth.

And the fact that he is seeking to quash a nation that he claims does not really exist only emphasizes the parallel with Iran’s ambition to exterminate Israel, and the imperative for the widest international solidarity to thwart mass-murdering regional despots.

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

I hope Israel’s leaders will very soon internalize that there is a lot more we need to do at this moment of historical challenge and judgment — a lot more to do in order to live up to our obligation as a would-be Light unto the Nations.

Right now, without any risk of antagonizing the man in the Kremlin, the government can stop haggling over funding and get that planned Sheba Medical Center field hospital up and running in Ukraine as soon as possible, along with all and any further humanitarian assistance we can usefully provide to Ukraine.

However circumscribed Bennett may feel himself to be, there is nothing that requires him to continue to talk solely about Israel’s “sacred task” of saving our fellow Jews from this war, rather than the sacred duty to save our fellow human beings.

It can raise the unconscionably stringent limit our ministers have set on the number of Ukrainian refugees to whom we open our doors, and make sure they are treated with respect and sensitivity when they arrive.

However circumscribed Bennett may feel himself to be, there is also nothing that requires him to continue to talk solely about Israel’s “sacred task” of saving our fellow Jews from this war, rather than the sacred duty to save our fellow human beings.

As the free world attempts to use economic pressure to stop Putin, the very least Israel can do is put in place the necessary measures to ensure global sanctions against the Russian leadership and financial clique are not circumvented here. Yad Vashem’s recognition that it dishonors its cause by taking money today from Roman Abramovich should be resonating for all other Israeli organizations cooperating with Putin-allied oligarchs.

And need Bennett truly worry that his Moscow ties will be deeply harmed if Israel accedes to Volodymyr Zelensky’s pleas for defensive aid — for helmets and flak jackets?

Unforgivably, the prime minister’s neutral posture has already led Israel to snub Zelensky by initially refusing to let a president pleading for help to save his country address the Knesset — with the speaker of the House risibly explaining that, oh, sorry, parliament is going into recess and, oh, such a shame, but there is renovation work being done in the building– before changing tack and arranging an invitation.

Dismally, it has seen Israel snub our most important ally by declining to co-sponsor the UN Security Council resolution condemning Putin’s invasion on February 25, with the disingenuous excuse that the resolution was destined to fail anyhow given Russia’s veto power.

Some in the corridors of Israeli power assert that the various global leaders trying to bring this crisis to a halt and prevent a drift into World War III do not merely indulge Bennett’s mediation efforts but encourage them. That may be so. But his neutrality has placed Israel on the wrong side of history for two weeks and counting.

On behalf of those Israelis unburdened by the ostensible realpolitik restrictions on taking a clear moral position and conveying it unmistakably to Moscow, let it be stated here: The people of Ukraine manifestly believe that their country does in fact exist; do not loathe their government or regard it as a manifestation of Nazi evil, and do not seek liberation by Russia. And Israel stands in solidarity with them.

Hopefully, our prime minister, in the difficult, constricted conversations he is having with a brutal, wayward, ally-of-sorts in the Kremlin, has at least tried to emphasize that people have the right to a life free from murderous assault; that, whatever Russia’s grievances, the killing has to stop.

Hopefully, Bennett will soon also find himself able to make that publicly clear, begin to reroot Israel firmly on the side of freedom and democracy, and start to undo the damage that has been done.

Related interview, January 2020: A serious man: Zelensky bids to address Ukraine’s dark past, brighten its future

Related op-ed, February 2022: Why Israel must stand squarely with Ukraine

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