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Russia avoids dressing down Israeli envoy after summoning him over Lapid’s ‘attack’

After initial reports said Ambassador Michael Ben Zvi would be reprimanded, Moscow leaves out public rebuke in readout from envoy’s meeting with deputy foreign minister

Israel's Ambassador to Russia Alexander Ben Zvi. (Video screenshot)
Israel's Ambassador to Russia Alexander Ben Zvi. (Video screenshot)

Russia avoided publicly dressing down Israel’s ambassador to the country on Monday, after initial reports on Moscow’s summoning of the envoy said that he would be rebuked over Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s critical comments regarding the Ukraine invasion and Israel’s backing for Russia’s removal from the UN Human Rights Council.

But after the meeting between Ambassador Alexander Ben Zvi and Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, the latter’s office issued a statement that presented the conversation as relatively routine.

The two discussed the war in Ukraine; the situation in Syria where Israel uses Russian-controlled airspace to target Iranian-linked targets below; and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, particularly the recent tensions on the Temple Mount, according to a Russian Foreign Ministry statement, which did not mention any disagreements with Israel.

On Sunday, Haaretz reported that Russia was going to use the opportunity to publicly rebuke Ben Zvi, though the paper quoted Israeli officials who said it was not a sign of relations between Moscow and Jerusalem deteriorating, but rather a “controlled confrontation.” An Israeli diplomatic source said that the “summoning of the ambassador is unsurprising. It’s one of the available modes of response in the diplomatic toolbox,” according to the report.

But other officials were concerned that ties are starting to fray and worry about the implications for Israel’s ongoing efforts to thwart the activities of Iranian and pro-Iranian forces in Syria, Channel 13 reported. It said Israeli officials were surprised that Ben Zvi was summoned, having believed the UN Human Rights Council spat was over.

A Russian foreign ministry statement released last Friday accused Lapid of an “anti-Russian attack” with his comments after the General Assembly vote last week, which marked only the second time a country has been stripped of its membership rights on the council.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City, on April 3, 2022. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

“There is an effort to take advantage of the situation around Ukraine to distract the international community from one of the longest unresolved conflicts — the Palestinian-Israeli,” the ministry said.

The statement went on to rail at Israel for “the illegal occupation and creeping annexation of Palestinian territories.” It also bashed the blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, which Israel says is needed to prevent arms from reaching terror groups in the enclave.

“It is also noteworthy that… the longest occupation in the post-war world history is carried out with the tacit connivance of the leading Western countries and the actual support of the United States,” the statement charged.

It was not clear what specifically Lapid — who has accused Russia of war crimes in Ukraine — said following the April 7 vote to draw Moscow’s ire.

A Foreign Ministry statement at the time denounced the “unjustified invasion” of Ukraine and accused Russian forces of “killing innocent civilians.” The statement also quoted Lapid as saying there was no change in Israel’s stance toward the Human Rights Council, which Jerusalem alleges has an anti-Israel bias, without referring to Russia or its invasion of Ukraine.

There was no response from Lapid or the Foreign Ministry to the Russian statement.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attends a joint press conference with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) president following their talks in Moscow, on March 24, 2022. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/Pool/AFP)

Israel has avoided aligning too closely with either side, since Russian troops invaded Ukraine on February 24. It is one of the few countries that maintains relatively warm relations with both Ukraine, a fellow Western democracy, and Russia, which controls the airspace over Syria, in which Israel operates to target Iranian proxies.

However, after irking the Biden administration by declining to co-sponsor the first UN Security Council resolution against Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in February, Israel has since joined the West in condemning Russia in several UN resolutions.

Jerusalem has also moved slowly toward the West’s position against Russia more broadly, though there has been a division of responsibility between Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who until recently sought to mediate between the sides and has largely avoided criticizing Russia, and Lapid, who has been much more vocal in his criticism. Both men condemned the massacre that took place in Bucha, but only Lapid called out Russia as responsible.

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