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Ukrainian envoy in Israel makes plea for protective gear

Israel said likely to shift to more pro-Ukraine stance as Russian invasion escalates

Senior official says US has given Israel leeway, recognizing security concerns, but that patience will soon run out; ministers to weigh taking in refugees, sanctions against Moscow

Ukraine's ambassador to Israel, Yevgen Korniychuk, Ukrainian citizens and supporters attend a special prayer for the Ukrainian people organized by Businessman Arie Schwartz, at the Western Wall, in Jerusalem's Old City on March 2, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Ukraine's ambassador to Israel, Yevgen Korniychuk, Ukrainian citizens and supporters attend a special prayer for the Ukrainian people organized by Businessman Arie Schwartz, at the Western Wall, in Jerusalem's Old City on March 2, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Policymakers in Israel recognize they won’t be able to maintain their relatively ambiguous policy regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for much longer as the crisis there further escalates, Israeli television reported Friday.

“If things calm down in the next few days and are headed to dialogue, Israel will maintain its current approach… of humanitarian support for Ukraine, declarative condemnations of the Russian invasion and no sanctions,” an unnamed government source told Channel 12 news. “But if the situation continues to escalate, and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin deepens the invasion, and the victims and killing mount, Israel will be compelled to join the Western effort to impose sanctions.”

The network also quoted a “very senior Israeli source” who said the Biden administration to date has given Israel leeway, recognizing Jerusalem’s need to maintain working relations with Russia. However, the source said, “the longer that this war continues, we will no longer be able to sit on the fence. We’ll have to follow a different policy — in words and deeds. We’ll have to take a side far more clearly.”

Speaking to Kan news, Gary Koren, Deputy Director-General of the Eurasia and the Western Balkans Division, said the Foreign Ministry was “considering things that may happen and may not. There are some limits to what can and can not be done.”

Asked if aid could include equipment for the Ukrainian military, even if not weaponry, Koren said: “We may be nearing that.”

While Jerusalem expressed its concern regarding the Russian military operation early on, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has avoided criticizing Moscow or Putin, as he seeks to maintain the green-light the Kremlin has long given Israel, allowing the IDF to operate in Russia-controlled skies over Syria against Iranian proxies below.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on December 5, 2021. (Emil Salman/Pool/Flash90)

Israel co-sponsored a UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia on Wednesday, but only after it refused to do so when the same measure came before the Security Council last week — a decision that drew the ire of the Biden administration.

Jerusalem has sent a 100-ton shipment of humanitarian aid to Ukrainians, but turned down Kyiv’s request for military equipment. Israel has welcomed Jewish Ukrainians who have fled the country, but has refused to do the same for non-Jewish refugees and those who have arrived at Ben Gurion have been forced to pay a NIS 10,000 ($3,050) fee in order to remain temporarily in the country.

Bennett has heeded calls from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to mediate between Kyiv and Moscow, and has held a pair of phone conversations with both the Ukrainian leader and Putin since the start of the invasion last Thursday. But Russia has yet to express interest in Israel playing the role of mediator and analysts are skeptical Jerusalem has enough leverage over Putin to keep him at the table.

Men walk past a residential building damaged in yesterday’s shelling in the city of Chernihiv, on March 4, 2022. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP)

In a step that will likely make the prospect of an Israeli mediator role even more irrelevant, Channel 12 reported Friday that an inter-ministerial committee is set to give recommendations to the government on Sunday regarding sanctions that Israel could employ against Russia.

One scenario that might potentially need to be addressed is how to prevent sanctioned Russian oligarchs from using Israel as a financial safe haven for their assets. As things stand, the network said, there is no legislation that would prevent oligarchs with Israeli citizenship from putting their money into bank accounts here.

According to the Kan public broadcaster, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid plans to introduce a proposal at the upcoming cabinet meeting on Sunday that would see Israel begin to take in non-Jewish refugees from Ukraine.

It is unclear whether the policy will have the support of more right-wing members of the government, such as Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, but the cabinet debate will take place as criticism of Israel at home and abroad grows over Jerusalem’s refusal to take in refugees en-masse. Israel is currently granting citizenship to Ukrainian Jews under the Law of Return. However, non-Jewish Ukrainians who arrive at Ben Gurion Airport are required to pay a NIS 10,000 fee to stay temporarily.

Meanwhile, Channel 12 reported Friday that some cabinet ministers are growing increasingly worried over the price Israel is paying on the global stage for not aligning closely enough with Ukraine.

Ukrainian Ambassador to Israel Yevgen Korniychuk told the Kan public broadcaster Friday he understands that Israel might not be able to provide Ukraine with weapons due to its need to maintain ties with Russia. However, Korniychuk pleaded with Israel for military protective gear, which he said Ukraine needs more right now than the humanitarian shipments Israel has agreed to send.

“Can you kill with personal protection?” Korniychuk asked. “That could save the people’s lives. We’re not talking about military. They all need the self-protection.”

Other countries, such as Japan, have announced that they would be sending Ukraine military vests and helmets, as Israel remains on the fence.

“Our government believes that as a partner and a friend, you can do more,” Korniychuk said.

He told Kan that the donations already made by Israeli civilians are appreciated, but that from the perspective of those in Kyiv who don’t see the limits to Israel’s ability to act from up close, there is disappointment regarding Jerusalem’s stance.

For his part, Vladislav Roitberg, a Hebrew-speaking adviser to Zelensky, thanked “all the Israelis who are supporting” Ukraine in a Friday interview with Channel 12.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a press conference in Kyiv, on March 3, 2022. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP)

“It is very much felt,” he said from Kyiv. “The citizens supporting the Ukrainian people — I thank them very, very much.”

In what could further complicate Jerusalem’s efforts to distance itself from Moscow, a Russian delegation is scheduled to land in Israel next Thursday for a monthly meeting on security coordination between the sides in Syria, the Kan public broadcaster reports.

Such meetings have been a regular occurrence in recent years, but it will be the first to take place since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine.

People arrive at a border crossing in Medyka, Poland, on Thursday, March 3, 2022, as they flee the Russian invasion. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)

On Thursday, Zelensky himself expressed his disappointment with Bennett’s stance, saying that unlike a group of Jews he saw photographed at the Western Wall, Bennett does not seem to be “wrapped in our flag.”

“I spoke to the prime minister of Israel. And I’m telling you candidly, and this might sound a little insulting, but I do think I have to say it: Our relations are not bad, not bad at all. But relations are tested at times like these, at the hardest moments, when help and support are needed. And I don’t feel that he [Bennett] is wrapped in our flag,” Zelensky told reporters at a press conference.

As for Russia, it has been less open about its feelings regarding Israel’s stance. Last Friday, Moscow’s Ambassador to Tel Aviv Anatoly Viktorov told The Times of Israel that the Kremlin hopes Israel “will continue [taking] a wise diplomatic approach,” in what could either be interpreted as a compliment or possibly a subtle warning.

Russia’s foreign ministry summoned Israel’s Ambassador to Alex Ben-Tzvi demanding that he clarify Israel’s position on the invasion hours after Lapid issued a statement that directly criticized Russia.

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