Jerusalem insistently mum on Crimea referendum

Bucking the trend of worldwide condemnation, no Israeli official wants to comment and potentially harm ties with Russia

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin at Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem on June 25, 2012. (Photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/POOL/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin at Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem on June 25, 2012. (Photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/POOL/FLASH90)

While the United States and the European Union have vocally condemned Sunday’s referendum in Crimea, during which the residents of the Ukrainian peninsula overwhelmingly voted in favor of joining Russia, Israel is maintaining official radio silence on the matter.

The Foreign Ministry refused comment, citing current labor sanctions. The office of Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and the Prime Minister’s Office have so far likewise failed to respond to queries on the issue. Aides of International Relations Minister Yuval Steinitz refused to comment on the referendum as well.

So far, Jerusalem’s only official reaction to the ongoing Ukrainian-Russian standoff has been one bland statement issued two weeks ago. “Israel is following with great concern the events in Ukraine, is anxious for peace for all its citizens, and hopes that the situation will not escalate to a loss of human life. Israel hopes the crisis in Ukraine will be handled through diplomatic means and will be resolved peacefully,” the statement read in full. According to Israeli media, Jerusalem agreed to issue the statement only after it was pressured to do so by the US administration.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday recognized Crimea as an independent state following its vote to secede from Ukraine and join Russia in a controversial referendum, which has been criticized by the West as illegal.

As a punitive measure intended to stem Moscow’s alleged territorial appetite, EU foreign ministers on Monday announced travel bans and asset freezes against 13 Russian officials and eight Ukrainian officials from Crimea. Brussels’ measures were followed minutes later by a White House announcement that it was imposing financial sanctions on seven top Russian government officials and lawmakers in reprisal for the Kremlin’s incursion.

The White House said Ukraine’s ousted pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych and Crimea’s self-declared premier Sergiy Aksyonov were both on the US list.

Last week, a Ukrainian member of parliament and senior member of the local community said Israel was not doing enough in word or deed to help the Jewish residents of Ukraine during the current crisis occurring in their country. “We did expect a clearer stance on everything that’s going on. There are 400,000 Jewish citizens in Ukraine and we did expect a little bit more of Israel,” said Oleksandr Feldman, a lawmaker in Kiev since 2002. “I’m a bit disappointed by Liberman.”

Israel’s silence on the Crimean crisis can be understood as an effort not to hurt bilateral ties with Moscow. Some Jerusalem officials believe that with American influence waning in the Middle East, it is in Israel’s best interest to maintain good relations with other major powers, such as China and Russia.

“The simple fact is that under your leadership relations between Israel and Russia have become closer, warmer, more intimate and more productive,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Putin last November during a visit in Moscow. “I think that there is a basic sympathy between our two peoples.”

AFP contributed to this report.

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