Top Zelensky aide asks Jewish leaders to press Israel on Ukraine weapons

Pointing at increased Iranian involvement, Chief of Staff Andriy Yermak and Natan Sharansky make case for sending missile defense systems

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Andriy Yermak, Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, speaks at a virtual meeting with leaders of Jewish organizations and prominent Russian-speaking Israelis, October 20, 2022. (Office of the President of Ukraine)
Andriy Yermak, Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, speaks at a virtual meeting with leaders of Jewish organizations and prominent Russian-speaking Israelis, October 20, 2022. (Office of the President of Ukraine)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s chief of staff held a virtual meeting Thursday morning with leaders of Jewish organizations and prominent Russian-speaking Israelis, asking them to push Jerusalem to provide Kyiv with air defense systems.

Andriy Yermak, whose father is Jewish, pointed at Russia’s expanding use of Iranian drones to argue that Israel can no longer remain on the sidelines of the eight-month-long war.

“I think no one has any doubts that we are dealing with a terrorist state,” said Yermak, according to Zelensky’s office. “Russia is a terrorist state that today uses Iran in its fight against the US and its allies, including Israel. Russia is the European Hezbollah.”

Iran is Israel’s arch-enemy, and Ukrainian officials have expressed dismay that Israel’s stance has not changed even as Iranian weapons play a growing role in the fight.

“Iran is our mutual enemy,” Ukraine’s Ambassador to Israel Yevgen  Korniychuk told The Times of Israel, “but Israel is providing only very limited intelligence cooperation.”

Iran agreed to sell Moscow Fateh 110 and Zolfaghar short-range surface-to-surface ballistic missiles, Reuters reported on Tuesday.

Yermak stressed that Israel must become an active supporter of the effort against Russia, and that Jewish organizations have the power to influence Israel’s stance.

Illustrative: In this photo released by the Iranian Army on August 25, 2022, a drone is launched in a military drone drill in Iran. (Iranian Army via AP)

“Today, the voice of each of you, your organizations is critical in the issue of air defense, in which Israel really has extensive experience, and most importantly, it has these systems,” he said.

The meeting was attended by Ukraine’s leading rabbis, a representative of the American Jewish Committee and other Jewish groups, Atlantic Council Fellow Ksenia Svetlova, and others.

In the conversation, Yermak revealed that Ukraine is investing in the renovation and expansion of the Babyn Yar memorial, and dressed the importance of fighting against past and present genocide.

Yermak, 50, has spoken openly about his own Jewish roots. His Kyiv-born father is Jewish, and he lost family members in the September 1941 Babyn Yar massacre in which 33,000 Jews were slaughtered by Nazi Germany and its local allies.

Natan Sharansky, former Israeli cabinet minister and former chairman of the Jewish Agency, joined Yermak, saying that the war in Ukraine is a struggle over the future of the free world.

Natan Sharansky on June 24, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“Therefore, I, like everyone present here, believe that being together with Ukraine at this moment is not just a moral obligation, it is in the interests of Israel,” the former prisoner of Zion said.

“Our duty is to do everything for Israel to do it,” Sharansky argued. “The people of Ukraine need this, but we also need it as part of the free world, because [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has encroached on the foundations of the free world and wants to deprive us of this freedom.”

Sharansky told The Times of Israel that he emphasized to Yermak the importance of Gantz’s offer to supply a civil early-warning system to Ukraine, and that he fully understands Kyiv’s frustration.

He added that he has no illusions that Israel’s stance is about to change, but “there were rabbis on the call who play a key role in the relationship between Ukraine’s Jews and communities in the US and elsewhere.”

Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials have consistently pressed Israel on the issue since the Russian invasion on February 24.

Firefighters work after a drone attack in Kyiv, Ukraine, October 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Though it has sent repeated shipments of humanitarian aid to Ukraine, Israel has repeatedly rebuffed Kyiv’s requests for defense weapons, specifically missile defense systems that could be used to fend off Russian airstrikes, despite expressing sympathy for the country’s plight.

Israel’s refusal is seen as an attempt by Jerusalem to maintain working ties with Moscow, due to Russia’s control of Syrian air space, where Israel’s air force has carried out hundreds of sorties against alleged Iranian arms shipments and in order to keep groups backed by Tehran from establishing a foothold.

As Russia relies increasingly on Iranian-made drones in recent weeks, Kyiv has amplified its calls for Israel to share air defense expertise and technology.

Ukraine has provided evidence that Iranian-made drones — which appeared to be repainted and given Russian names — have been used in strikes across the country by Russia. US defense officials have also publicly confirmed the use of Iranian drones by Russia, and that Ukrainian forces have successfully shot down some of the UAVs.

Iran denies supplying Russia with weapons.

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