Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is seeking to evacuate as many Israelis as possible from Ukraine by Tuesday amid growing fears of a Russian invasion, according to Saturday reports.
Israeli officials believe the window for evacuating citizens from Ukraine is closing fast, and may be shut by Wednesday morning.
There are around 4,500 Israelis registered with the Israeli embassy in Ukraine, the Foreign Ministry told The Times of Israel. The ministry estimated that there are 10,000-15,000 Israelis in the country.
The Biden administration has warned Israel that Russia could invade Ukraine within days, according to Saturday Hebrew media reports. Russia has massed over 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders. US officials said that Russia’s buildup of firepower near Ukraine has reached the point where it could invade on short notice.
Israeli airlines have started to increase flights to Ukraine to aid the evacuation. Israel’s El Al, Israir and Arkia airlines are offering rescue flights.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Saturday that he has instructed the Israel Defense Forces to prepare for the possibility of helping evacuate Israelis from Ukraine.
Security sources told the Walla news site that the scenario was considered a last-ditch option and civilian airlines would be the preferred mode of transportation in an evacuation operation.
Gantz’s office said any IDF assistance would “depend on the scenarios and assessments of the situation.”
Bennett has reportedly instructed government ministers not to publicly weigh in on Russia’s actions and limit any public comments to the evacuation of Israelis from Ukraine. Israel has a sensitive relationship with Russia due to Moscow’s alliance with Syria, where Israel has for years been carrying out strikes on Iran-linked targets.
Jerusalem is in touch with Washington regarding the Ukraine crisis, and is receiving regular updates from the Americans, including after US President Joe Biden spoke on Saturday with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, Ynet reported.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry said it has begun working in an emergency capacity. Though the families of embassy staff and diplomats are being evacuated for their safety, the embassy itself will continue to operate and will even be reinforced with additional staff from Israel to boost consular services for Israelis wishing to leave the country.
The Foreign Ministry issued a new “stricter” travel warning for Ukraine on Saturday, urging Israelis currently in the country to leave “as soon as possible.” Israelis planning on traveling to Ukraine should cancel their trips, the ministry added.
Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai said Israel must also begin readying plans for the “emergency immigration” of Jews from Ukraine in case of a Russian invasion.
The Jewish Agency said Saturday it would evacuate some of its staff and their families on Sunday. The agency’s senior emissaries will remain in Ukraine, Walla reported.
On Saturday, Bennett called on Israeli citizens to leave Ukraine immediately, following two meetings he held with top security and diplomatic officials.
“It was agreed to raise the travel warning for the area, along with calling on Israeli citizens to immediately leave,” Bennett’s spokesperson said in a statement.
Earlier Saturday, the office of the prime minister, an observant Jew, said the first meeting on the Jewish day of rest was held “to expedite preparations to evacuate Israelis from the country.”
Bennett met with Lapid, Gantz, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata, Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar and others to discuss the crisis on Saturday.
Biden warned Putin in a 62-minute phone call on Saturday that the United States “will respond decisively and impose swift and severe costs on Russia” should it invade Ukraine.
According to a readout from the White House, Biden stressed that “while the United States remains prepared to engage in diplomacy, in full coordination with our Allies and partners, we are equally prepared for other scenarios.”
A senior US official said the call brought no major change in the standoff.
The Kremlin denounced Washington’s “peak hysteria” surrounding the conflict after the call, but said Biden and Putin had agreed to continue dialogue.
The US picked up intelligence that Russia is looking at Wednesday as a possible target date for an invasion, a US official said. The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly and did so only on condition of anonymity, would not say how definitive the intelligence was.
The Biden administration has been warning for weeks that Russia could invade Ukraine soon, but US officials had previously said the Kremlin would likely wait until after the Olympic Games ended so as not to antagonize China. The US said Friday that intelligence now showed Russia could take military action during the Olympics.
Russia denies that it intends to launch an offensive against Ukraine.
Biden has said the US military will not enter a war in Ukraine, but he has promised severe economic sanctions against Moscow, in concert with international allies.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban warned Saturday that a Russian invasion could send hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees fleeing across the border into his country.
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.