Zelensky: I don’t want Israel to mediate. I want it to pick a side, Ukraine’s side

At press conference marking year since invasion, Ukrainian leader says he recognizes Israel’s ‘complex’ situation vis-a-vis Russia, cites improvement in Kyiv’s ties with Jerusalem

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky leaves a hall after his press conference on the occasion of the Russia Ukraine war one year anniversary in Kyiv, Ukraine on February 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky leaves a hall after his press conference on the occasion of the Russia Ukraine war one year anniversary in Kyiv, Ukraine on February 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Friday that he would like Israel to “choose a side — the Ukrainian side,” amid Russia’s ongoing invasion of his country, rather than try to mediate.

Speaking during a press conference on the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion, Zelensky said he recognized Israel’s “complex” situation and noted an “improvement” in Kyiv’s ties with Jerusalem. His remarks also underscored Ukraine’s continued frustration with Israel over the latter’s refusal to supply weapons while also refusing to forcefully condemn Russia.

As the war has progressed, Israel has increasingly insisted that it is in fact on Ukraine’s side, providing over $22.5 million in humanitarian aid and setting up a field hospital to treat wounded Ukrainians in the early days of the war. On Thursday, it voted alongside 140 other countries for a UN General Assembly resolution drafted by Kyiv calling for Russia to withdraw its forces from Ukraine.

Still, Israel’s refusal to send weapons — a position it has justified by arguing that it cannot risk upending its ties with Russia whose approval it needs in order to operate in the Moscow-controlled skies over Syria to prevent Iran’s military entrenchment on its northern border — has contributed to the perception that the Jewish state has staked out a neutral position on the war.

Earlier this week, a pair of Israeli lawmakers said it was time for Jerusalem to stop “sitting on the fence” and provide “meaningful” support to Ukraine, including at the military level, after they met with Zelensky in Kyiv.

At Friday’s press conference, Zelensky was asked by an Israeli reporter how Israel is assisting Ukraine in curbing Iranian assistance to Russia and whether alleged Israeli strikes on Iranian weapons transfers have helped Ukraine.

Zelensky said that while he could answer those questions, he declined to do so in order not to “jeopardize the improvement of Ukraine-Israel relations that has begun.”

Prior to that remark, he lamented that “for a long time during this war, I’ve really been eager for Israeli support, not just from the public — because there’s a lot of support there — but also from its political leadership.”

“Historically, Ukraine has had excellent relations with Israel,” he noted, explaining that he has held a wide variety of conversations with Israeli officials regarding Jerusalem’s stance.

“It has been difficult to change their position because Israel has a complex situation regarding its relations with Russia, Iran, Syria, etc.,” he continued.

“But I very much would like them not to be a mediator in this war, but to choose a side — the Ukrainian side,” Zelensky said.

In the first months of the war, Israel sought to use its unique position enabled by its close working ties with both Russia and Ukraine to serve as a mediator between the parties. Then-prime minister Naftali Bennett flew to Moscow and held a series of calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Zelensky over a span of several weeks.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, left, meets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, in Jerusalem, January 24, 2020. (Haim Zach/GPO)

However, the effort failed to bear fruit and Bennett shelved the initiative altogether as his own political position at home worsened. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged before entering office to review Israel’s position and also speculated that he could well be called on to mediate between the sides, as Bennett tried to do.

But Zelensky made clear on Friday that this was not what Ukraine wants.

“I cannot imagine Israel supporting war,” he said, seemingly equating anything less than full-throttled support for Ukraine as backing continued bloodshed.

“Israel is a country that for dozens of years had war, so I couldn’t even fathom [it supporting war here],” Zelensky added.

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