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'Isn't it time for your state to choose who you are with?'

Zelensky: Israel’s neutrality spurred Russia-Iran ties; Putin may help Iran on nukes

Panning government policy in address to Haaretz event, Ukraine’s leader says Israel must decide if it backs democracy or turning blind eye to ‘Russian terror’; hails public support

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks by video at a conference organized by Israel's Haaretz daily, October 24, 2022. (Screenshot: YouTube; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks by video at a conference organized by Israel's Haaretz daily, October 24, 2022. (Screenshot: YouTube; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Monday tore into Israel over its stance toward his country and the Russian invasion, charging that Moscow would not have been collaborating militarily with Iran if Jerusalem had not decided against sending military aid to Kyiv.

Zelensky was speaking by video to a conference organized by the Haaretz daily.

He said the cooperation between Moscow and Tehran would not have occurred if Israeli leaders had agreed to help protect Ukraine’s skies against Russian attacks that use Iranian drones.

“This alliance of theirs would simply not have happened if your politicians had made only one decision at the time — the decision we asked for,” he said.

Israel has maintained a strict policy of not providing military aid to Ukraine since Russian troops invaded on February 24, including systems that could help it intercept Russian missile and drone attacks.

The reasoning behind the decision appears to be Israel’s strategic need to maintain freedom of operations in Syria, as part of its efforts to prevent Iranian entrenchment on its doorstep. To that end, Israel cooperates with the Russian military, which largely controls Syria’s airspace.

Zelensky said the Israeli government’s decision “was seemingly adopted a long time ago — in 2014, when Russia began its aggression against Ukraine. The decision ‘not to annoy’ the Kremlin, not to help Ukraine for real.”

“I emphasize, we have been asking Israel for help since 2014,” the Ukrainian leader added, referring to the year when Russia annexed Crimea and fighting in eastern Ukraine started.

He called on Israel to make a choice in the conflict.

“Isn’t it time for your state to choose who you are with?” he said. “Is it with the democratic world, which is fighting side by side against the existential threat to its existence? Or with those who turn a blind eye to Russian terror, even when the cost of continued terror is the complete destruction of global security?”

Zelensky alluded to Israeli concerns regarding Iran during his speech, saying the Russian military presence in Syria “has been significantly reduced,” as Moscow moves to send reinforcements to counter Ukrainian advances.

According to Zelensky, Russia ordered around 2,000 drones from Iran, the same kind that Kyiv said Moscow used in its recent attacks against Ukraine.

“The disgusting sound of Iranian drones is heard in our skies every night. According to our intelligence, Russia ordered about 2,000 ‘Shaheds’ from Iran,” he said.

Zelensky said “Iranian instructors came to teach Russians how to use drones” in Ukraine, echoing a White House claim last week that Iran sent military personnel to help train drone operators in Crimea.

“Unfortunately, we do not have our own ‘Iron Dome.’ We still do not have a modern and effective air defense and missile defense system that could secure our skies,” he went on. “In eight months of full-scale war, Russia has used almost 4,500 missiles against us. And their stock of missiles is dwindling. This is why Russia went looking for affordable weapons in other countries to continue terror. It found them in Iran.”

He said Russia may now help Iran develop its nuclear program in exchange for the drones supplied by the Islamic Republic. “I have a question for you – how does Russia pay Iran for this, in your opinion? Is Iran just interested in money? Probably not money at all, but Russian assistance to the Iranian nuclear program. Probably, this is exactly the meaning of their alliance. And this alliance of theirs,” he charged, “simply would not have happened if your politicians had made only one decision at the time — the decision we asked for.”

He elaborated: “Every time we in Ukraine, at the meetings of the staff of the supreme commander-in-chief, discuss Russian missile and drone terror, we also talk about our partners who already help or can help protect the sky. Unfortunately, the words – Israel, Israeli – do not sound at that moment. Of course, this is the decision of your state, your governments.”

Zelensky stressed that Ukraine had been asking Israel for help since 2014. “If we had immediately secured our skies when faced with a missile and drone threat, Russia would not even have a motive now to go to Iran and offer it something in exchange for assistance in terror,” he argued. “But that’s what happened. And I think that this alliance of theirs can still be rendered meaningless. If we act together, with you, in the same way as with other democracies.”

The wreckage of what Kyiv has described as an Iranian Shahed drone downed near Kupiansk, Ukraine, September 13, 2022. (Ukrainian military’s Strategic Communications Directorate via AP)

Last week, Prime Minister Yair Lapid expressed Israel’s “deep concern about the military ties between Iran and Russia” in a phone call with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.

Despite rebuking the Jewish state’s leaders in his remarks Monday, Zelensky thanked the Israeli public for its support of his country.

“I’m grateful to you and all the Israeli media that spread the truth about this war and condemn Russian terror,” he said. “I’m thankful to all of your people who took to the streets after the start of the full-scale war, and we saw — we are supported in the Promised Land.

“I believe that we will see support in the sky as well,” he concluded.

Earlier Monday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz spoke with his Ukrainian counterpart Oleksii Reznikov, discussing Israel’s offer to help Ukraine build an early warning system to notify citizens of incoming aerial threats such as missiles, rockets and attack drones.

Gantz reiterated Israel’s commitment to the Ukrainian people and to supporting Ukraine amid the Russian invasion by delivering humanitarian aid and life-saving equipment, but nonetheless stressed “the operational limitations” Israel faces in regard to Russia’s presence in Syria.

“As a result, Israel will not provide weapon systems to Ukraine,” Gantz told Reznikov.

The two instead agreed to conduct professional dialogue on Israeli help for building civilian early warning system.

Tobias Siegal and AFP contributed to this report.

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