Liberman refuses to condemn Russia over Bucha, citing ‘mutual accusations’

Ukrainian ambassador rebukes finance minister, says he’s welcome to ‘see for himself the bodies,’ Gantz calls killing of civilians in city near Kyiv a war crime

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

A man walks on a street with several dead bodies on the ground in Bucha, northwest of Kyiv, Ukraine, on April 2, 2022. (RONALDO SCHEMIDT / AFP)
A man walks on a street with several dead bodies on the ground in Bucha, northwest of Kyiv, Ukraine, on April 2, 2022. (RONALDO SCHEMIDT / AFP)

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman refused to outright condemn alleged Russian atrocities in Bucha and other cities surrounding Kyiv, stating on Monday that Israel must uphold both its values and its own interests amid the ongoing war.

Ukrainian officials said Sunday that the bodies of more than 400 civilians were found in towns around the capital, Kyiv, that were recaptured from Russian forces, calling the killings evidence of genocide.

In Bucha, northwest of the capital, Associated Press journalists saw 21 bodies. One group of nine, all in civilian clothes, were scattered around a site that residents said Russian troops used as a base. They appeared to have been shot at close range. At least two had their hands tied behind their backs.

“There are difficult images, and we all condemn all war crimes,” Liberman told Army Radio on Monday morning, adding, however, that “this is about mutual accusations.”

Liberman, a native of Moldova, noted that Russia has called for a UN Security Council meeting over the situation in Bucha and has accused “Ukrainian radicals” of a “blatant provocation” in the city outside Kyiv.

“Russia is blaming Ukraine and Ukraine is blaming Russia,” he said. “We condemn, but really what we need to understand is that there is a bloody war and we must, on the one hand, maintain Israel’s moral position and on the other hand preserve the interests of the State of Israel.”

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks at a conference of the Israeli newspaper “Makor Rishon” at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, February 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Amid the war between Russia and Ukraine, Liberman said, “I support first of all Israeli interests,” alluding to Israel’s good relations with both countries, as well as the Russian army’s presence in Syria, and noting his greater concern with the ongoing Iran nuclear talks in Vienna.

In an interview later Monday with Kan public radio, Liberman said Israel has “an obligation to condemn all murder of innocent civilians.” However, he claimed, “the Israeli media ignores all the threats against the State of Israel,” citing statements from Iran while “Hezbollah and Hamas are producing missiles and rockets and Hamas is digging tunnels — I haven’t heard any condemnation in the world of that.”

In response to Liberman’s comments, Ukrainian Ambassador to Israel Yevgen Korniychuk said the finance minister could visit Bucha and see firsthand the atrocities in the city.

“I invite Mr. Liberman to come to Ukraine. We will take him with a convoy to Bucha and to other places where he can see for himself the bodies of civilians and meet the women who were tied up and raped,” Korniychuk said in a statement. “Maybe then he will know what happened.”

Also Monday morning, Defense Minister Benny Gantz labeled the situation a war crime, going further than Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s comments a day earlier.

“I condemn carnage of this kind. It is certainly a war crime,” Gantz told the Kan public radio of the situation in Bucha, without naming Russia as the antagonist. The defense minister noted that even during times of war, certain standards of conduct must be maintained.

“Unfortunately, citizens may be harmed during fighting, but they cannot be murdered during fighting,” Gantz added, saying that the situation in Bucha “appears to be something very, very severe.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz gives a press conference at IDF Central Command headquarters on March 30, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Despite Israeli criticism of Russian activity, Gantz maintained that the IDF will remain active in Syria, where Russia partially controls the airspace: “We will continue to operate anywhere in the Middle East that we need to operate.”

On Sunday, Lapid tweeted that it “it is impossible to remain indifferent in the face of the horrific images from the city of Bucha near Kyiv, after the departure of the Russian army.”

He added: “Intentionally harming a civilian population is a war crime and I strongly condemn it.”

Lapid’s tweet did not explicitly accuse Russia of war crimes. Israel has used careful diplomatic language in relation to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, seeking to maintain good ties with Moscow as well as Kyiv.

Lapid’s post came hours after his office refused to comment on potential Russian war crimes, in response to comments by Israel’s ambassador to Ukraine.

“Deeply shocked by the photos from Bucha. Killing of civilians is a war crime and cannot be justified,” Israeli envoy Michael Brodsky wrote. But a spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry told Haaretz that Brodsky had been speaking for himself and highlighted that the envoy “did not blame Russia.”

AP contributed to this report.

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