Israel is not doing enough to support Ukraine by providing defensive aid, absorbing refugees, and taking a clear stance against Russia, Ukrainian envoy to Israel Yevgen Korniychuk said Friday, accusing Israel of being “afraid” of Moscow.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky “does not” understand Israel’s refusal to provide defensive equipment, such as helmets and flak jackets, to Ukraine, Korniychuk said in a briefing with reporters.
“I, as an ambassador, do,” understand Israel’s position, “but our president does not,” Korniychuk said at his Embassy’s Cultural Center in Tel Aviv.
Russia has “a few airplanes and anti-missile systems in Syria… and you are afraid,” Korniychuk charged.”And at the same time, let me point you to Baltic states that have a joint border with the Russian Federation. And they don’t care, they bring everything they could to Ukraine, they’re not afraid,” referencing NATO countries who are supplying Ukraine with weapons to resist the invasion.
Israel has provided humanitarian aid to Ukraine, including 100 tons of medical and cold-weather equipment flown out of Ben Gurion Airport last week. However, it has sought to walk a tightrope to maintain good relations with both Ukraine and Russia, the latter of which maintains a military presence in Syria and is negotiating Iran’s return to a nuclear deal.
Last week, Zelensky said that relations with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett were “not bad at all,” but that the Ukrainian leader did not think that Bennett was “wrapped in our flag,” referring to a picture of Jews draped in the Ukrainian banner at the Western Wall.
Korniychuk, part of whose family is currently in Ukraine, was visibly distraught and broke his diplomatic veneer to fault “the current leadership of Israel,” for not taking a more active hand in supporting Ukraine, saying, “if you had someone like Golda Meir or Jabotinsky, the results might be different.”
Israel has pointed to its neutral position as an asset that enabled Bennett to assist as a mediator between Kyiv and Moscow, but Korniychuk dismissed this as an excuse for not being more actively supported of Ukraine, following Russia’s February 24 invasion.
“I don’t think there’s any exclusivity there or any special role or position [held by] the Israeli government. So, saying that, ‘listen, we are mediators, that’s why we have to be neutral to both parties.’ That’s not the name of the game,” Korniychuk said.
As part of taking a clear pro-Ukrainian position, Korniychuk called on the Israeli government to join the Western-led sanctions imposed against Russia, and on private Israeli companies to end their business with Russian counterparts.
On Wednesday, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked announced plans to allow a total of 5,000 Ukrainian refugee-seekers into Israel, along with permitting an estimated 20,000 Ukrainians who were in the country illegally before the war to stay. The majority of the 5,000 person quota has been filled, but the government canceled earlier demands for a NIS 10,000 ($3,082) bond per person. Ukrainians who qualify for Israeli citizenship under the right of return will be permitted to immigrate without restriction.
A number of Ukrainians seeking shelter in Israel — Korniychuk claimed “hundreds” — are still in status limbo, and have been held at Ben Gurion Airport under sparse conditions. On Thursday the government announced that these individuals, who still haven’t been formally admitted into the country, will be transported to a Tel Aviv hotel.
“You don’t have to [flatter] yourself, Israel is not an easy country to come to because it is so expensive,” Korniychuk said. “Ninety percent of the people who are coming either have relatives or friends here that are asking [these] Ukrainians to come.”
“We very much hope that the Israeli government will hear our thoughts, they will listen to us, and they’ll find the solution on this matter which is very painful for us,” he said.
The conflict, which Korniychuk called “the biggest humanitarian crisis since World War II,” has created 2.3 million refugees, half of whom are children.
Korniychuk said that, according to Ukrainian estimates, 1,500 civilians have died, including 100 children. The ambassador highlighted that Ukraine’s military losses are “less than civilian losses in this brutal war,” as “Russia is purposely bombing civilian targets.”
He said his government estimates Russian casualties as higher, claiming “12,000 soldiers killed,” as well as 340 tanks, 50 aircraft, 81 helicopters, and 11,000 armed vehicles destroyed.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and his Russian counterparty Sergey Lavrov met on Thursday in Turkey for the highest-level peace negotiations to date, which reportedly did not make significant progress.
Korniychuk said that although several mediation efforts are ongoing, none are promising.
“This bloody war is going on, civilians and children are dying, and evacuation is going full speed ahead. That means that the mediation is not successful at the moment.”
Bennett made a rare Saturday trip to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and then engaged in a flurry of communication with Putin, Zelensky, and Western leaders. However, the last call between Zelensky and Bennett was on Tuesday.
Korniychuk didn’t directly answer a question on whether Israel is still playing a key role in facilitating dialogue between Moscow and Kyiv, but he said: “Israel doesn’t have any exclusivity on the mediation or intermediary process. And of course, we were asked by many leaders of the different states [for them] to be mediators,” the envoy said.
On Wednesday, Zelensky asked to address a session of Knesset, which Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy turned into an offer to host a Zoom call with parliamentarians instead, as the Knesset closed its winter session this week. Zelensky declined the offer, but Korniychuk said he and Levy’s office are in touch about correcting the gaffe.
“He has held speeches in the British Parliament, in the US Congress, and the members of Parliament and Congress stood up and applauded after his speech,” said Korniychuk, referring to Zelensky’s recent addresses to foreign governments. “I don’t think it’s a proper excuse that the Knesset members are on holiday, or some chairs in the office are under renovation.”