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US official warns Israel: ‘Don’t be last haven for dirty money fueling Putin’s war’

Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland calls on Israel to join Western sanctions, as Jerusalem’s attempt to publicly stay in a neutral position becomes increasingly precarious

State Department Under Secretary for Public Affairs Victoria J. Nuland speaks during a briefing at the State Department in Washington, Jan. 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, Pool, File)
State Department Under Secretary for Public Affairs Victoria J. Nuland speaks during a briefing at the State Department in Washington, Jan. 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, Pool, File)

The US warned Israel on Friday against taking in “dirty money” from Russia and called on Jerusalem to join Western sanctions to punish the Kremlin for its invasion of Ukraine.

Israel has avoided sanctions or strident criticism against Russia and President Vladimir Putin as it seeks to balance its warm ties with both Kyiv and Moscow.

Western countries and companies have enacted crippling sanctions against Russia’s economy, its oligarchs, and some officials, including Putin, since the start of the invasion.

However, Israel has not joined the efforts, including not taking action against Russian-Israeli billionaire Roman Abramovich who has been sanctioned by the United Kingdom and Canada.

In addition, a number of private jets have reportedly traveled from Russia to Israel in recent days.

The US Under Secretary of state for political affairs, Victoria Nuland, told Israel’s Channel 12 news on Friday that Israel should get onboard with Western sanctions, and bar Russian oligarchs.

An explosion is seen in an apartment building after Russian’s army tank fires in Mariupol, Ukraine, on March 11, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

“You don’t want to become the last haven for dirty money that’s fueling Putin’s wars,” Nuland said. “So whatever Israel is able to do, Ukrainians would welcome and the international coalition in support of Ukraine would welcome.”

Asked about Israel joining the Biden administration’s sanctions, Nuland said, “What we are asking among other things is for every democracy around the world to join us in the financial and export control sanctions that we have put on Putin. We have to squeeze the regime, we have to deny it the income that it needs.”

“We squeeze the oligarchs around him, we squeeze its economy. So in that context, we’re asking as many countries as we can to join us. We’re asking that of Israel as well,” she said.

As for whether Israel should provide military aid to Ukraine, Nuland said that was in the hands of the Israeli government.

“That’s a sovereign decision for Israel to make. Many, many democracies around the world are stepping out of their comfort zone to supply security and military support to Ukraine. But what’s most important from our point of view right now is [for Israel] to join the financial sanctions,” she said.

Israel has provided humanitarian aid to Ukraine, including medical equipment and generators for a hospital. However, it has refused to send military equipment, including defense gear such as flak jackets and helmets.

As Israel avoids imposing sanctions, flight traffic has suggested that some wealthy Russians are seeking refuge in Israel.

Channel 12 reported Friday that in the last 10 days, 14 private jets that took off from St. Petersburg landed at Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport.

Last week, the outlet reported that an unusual number of rented private jets have been flying from Russia to Israel since the invasion of Ukraine, a possible indication that some rich Russians are looking at ways to slip around sanctions.

A destroyed tank is seen after battles between Ukrainian and Russian forces on a main road near Brovary, north of Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 10, 2022. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

Israel has attempted to walk a tightrope between Kyiv and Moscow, and sought to use its relations with the two countries to mediate between them, so far unsuccessfully. Israel is also fearful of angering Russia due to its powerful presence in Syria, where Israel carries out strikes against Iran-linked targets.

Israel’s attempt to remain neutral has become increasingly fraught in recent days, as Russia’s onslaught intensifies, exacting a staggering humanitarian toll against its neighbor.

Ukraine has repeatedly pressed Israel to take a stronger stance against Russia, and is reportedly growing exasperated with Jerusalem’s reluctance to take a side.

Friday reports said that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett pushed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to take up an offer from Putin, which Zelensky rejected. Bennett’s office denied the report.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks in Kyiv, on March 10, 2022. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

Zelensky, who is Jewish and a declared admirer of Israel, is hoping to broadcast a speech to the Knesset plenum as he has done in other parliaments around the world, but the plans for the speech remain unclear.

Israel has instead proposed that he hold a less formal Zoom session with all MKs invited, Walla reported. Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy said Thursday that Zelensky will speak to lawmakers via Zoom in the coming days.

Zelensky was reportedly initially uninterested in a Zoom talk, and has considered a speech to Yad Vashem, but the details are murky.

On Friday, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai said that he has told Ukraine’s ambassador to Israel that any speech made by Zelensky to Israelis could be broadcast on screens in a major square in the city.

Bennett traveled to Moscow to meet with Putin on Saturday, becoming the first foreign leader to sit down with the Russian president since he invaded his neighbor. He spoke to Zelensky before and after the meeting.

Israel’s refugee policy has also caused tensions, as some incoming Ukrainians have been left for days with amenities at Ben Gurion airport, and Israel has been reluctant to accept non-Jewish refugees. A Friday report said Israel, while taking in some 3,000 Ukrainians since the Russian invasion began, has turned away around 200.

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