Ukraine alleges Israeli FM’s call with Lavrov proves Israel changed stance on war

Kyiv fumes at Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, with Ukrainian Ambassador Yevgen Korniychuk saying Jerusalem is remaining silent as Moscow shells civilians

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Ukraine's ambassador to Israel, Yevgen Korniychuk, gives a statement to the media on the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, in Tel Aviv, on March 11, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni‎‏/Flash90)
Ukraine's ambassador to Israel, Yevgen Korniychuk, gives a statement to the media on the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, in Tel Aviv, on March 11, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni‎‏/Flash90)

Kyiv views Foreign Minister Eli Cohen’s phone call Tuesday with Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s top diplomat, as evidence of a change in Jerusalem’s position on the war, Ukraine’s Ambassador to Israel Yevgen Korniychuk said.

“Israel’s minister of foreign affairs hasn’t spoken to Lavrov since the war started,” he told The Times of Israel on Tuesday, indicating that Kyiv is incensed that Cohen went ahead with the conversation.

As foreign minister, Yair Lapid did not speak with Lavrov. However, then-prime minister Naftali Bennett remained in touch with Russian President Vladimir Putin throughout the war, even becoming the first foreign leader to meet in person with Putin since the invasion began on February 24.

Lavrov called Cohen on Tuesday to congratulate him on taking up his new post and to discuss “bilateral and regional issues,” in the shadow of Moscow’s ongoing invasion and bombardment of Ukraine.

An Israeli official told The Times of Israel shortly after the Cohen-Lavrov conversation that “there is no change in Israel’s policy” in the wake of speculation that the call, and Cohen’s insistence during his address on Monday that “we will talk less” in public about the war, indicated a shift toward Moscow.

Republican US Senator Lindsey Graham, an outspoken Republican voice in support of aiding Ukraine, was among those who saw Cohen’s remarks as an indication that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government would avoid denouncing Russia publicly over its invasion.

Incoming minister of Foreign Affairs Eli Cohen at a ceremony at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem, January 2, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“The idea that Israel should speak less about Russia’s criminal invasion of Ukraine is a bit unnerving,” Graham said in a tweet.

Korniychuk said that Israel’s position on the Russian invasion is “unclear.”

“Unfortunately, we are getting no condemnation of the mass shelling of our civilians in recent months. Israel is unique in terms of our partners. It remains silent,” he said.

Russia has carried out airstrikes on Ukrainian power and water supplies almost weekly since October, increasing the suffering of Ukrainians, while its ground forces struggle to hold ground and advance.

Ukraine’s envoy emphasized that neither Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba nor Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky have asked to speak with Cohen.

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, left, walks with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg as they arrive for a meeting of NATO foreign ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Thursday, April 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)

An Israeli official told The Times of Israel that a diplomat had put in an official request with Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry for a call between Cohen and Kuleba. Ukrainian officials denied receiving any formal request.

The previous government headed by Bennett and then Lapid had refused Ukrainian requests for weapons, but Lapid spoke out repeatedly against the Russian invasion, accusing the Kremlin of carrying out war crimes. The comments won praise in the West but stoked tensions with Moscow, even as Jerusalem attempted to maintain a semblance of neutrality.

Kyiv has said it needs Israel’s help in air defense technology to counter Russia’s ongoing strikes on its civilian infrastructure. Israel has so far refused to provide such aid, out of apparent concern for Russia’s reaction.

During his previous terms in office, Netanyahu touted his close relationship with Putin and insisted that it was critical to maintaining the IDF’s ability to operate freely from the Russian-controlled skies over Syria in order to prevent the entrenchment of Iranian forces on Israel’s northern border. As opposition leader, he initially criticized the previous government for neglecting ties to Russia as Jerusalem took several limited steps in support of Ukraine following the invasion by Putin’s forces in February.

This image shared by Syrian media outlets purports to show the aftermath of an Israeli airstrike on the Shayrat Airbase, south of the city of Homs, November 13, 2022. (Social media; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

However, Netanyahu changed his tune more recently. In an interview ahead of the November election, he characterized the Bennett-Lapid government’s Ukraine policy — which has seen Israel supply humanitarian aid, operate a field hospital in Ukraine and take in a limited number of largely Jewish refugees while stopping short of providing Kyiv-requested military aid — as “pragmatic.”

Netanyahu even said he would consider arming Ukraine if he returned to the premiership, and told Zelensky after the election that he had not yet determined Israel’s policy. He also assured the Ukrainian president that he would remain in the loop.

Netanyahu said in the October interview that the mediation offer “presumably would come up again” if he returned to power.

Netanyahu and Putin spoke last week in a congratulatory call, which the Israeli prime minister agreed to take while Zelensky was giving an address to a joint session of US Congress in which he implored for additional American aid to push back the Russian invasion.

Netanyahu and Zelensky spoke by phone on Friday. According to a report, Netanyahu pressed the Ukrainian leader to vote against an upcoming UN resolution, but would not commit to any steps when asked about a quid-pro-quo involving transferring defensive aid to intercept Russian strikes.

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