Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Wednesday that Israel’s prime minister-elect Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to look at supplying Ukraine with much-needed air defense systems as it battles to fend off Russia’s invasion.
Zelensky told reporters that Netanyahu assured him he will “consider” supplying Ukraine with Israeli systems.
The president said he raised the matter when he recently spoke with Netanyahu following Israel’s recent elections, and stressed that air defense systems were a top priority for his country, Israeli daily Maariv reported on Wednesday.
According to the report, Netanyahu responded that he will deliberate over how he can help and get back to the Ukrainian leader.
Zelensky said his country doesn’t need Israeli weapons to attack enemies but rather seeks its air defense systems to protect against Russian missiles.
Though he didn’t specify when the call was made, the two leaders spoke last week when Zelensky joined other world leaders in congratulating Netanyahu on his election victory.
Following Russia’s February invasion of its neighbor, Western nations have provided weapons and other significant military aid to Ukraine. Though Israel has supplied humanitarian aid and some non-lethal equipment, such as helmets and flak jackets, Ukrainian officials repeatedly pressed it — without success — for air defense weapons.
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.
In recent weeks, Ukraine has been registering cautious victories and has retaken key territory Russia had illegally occupied and annexed. But Russia has been deploying new Iranian-made suicide drones across the country with devastating effect.
Israel has been closely watching the military cooperation between Russia and Iran, first reported in late summer, and appeared to be warming to the idea of supplying defensive equipment to Ukraine.
Outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid told Ukraine’s foreign minister in October that this Russia-Iran cooperation put “the whole world in danger.”
Netanyahu told USA Today last month that he would consider supplying arms to Ukraine if he won the November 1 vote. His Likud party and religious-right allies won 64 seats in the election, a majority in 120-seat Knesset, and he will form the next government.
Earlier this week, a spokesman for Russia’s President Vladimir Putin said following the Israeli election that the Russians “definitely value constructive relations with our Israeli partners.”
The comments appeared to signal that Moscow may be willing to put aside its spat with Jerusalem over its support for Ukraine, which has led to a significant deterioration in ties between the countries.
Lapid and his predecessor Naftali Bennett had sought to walk a tightrope between Moscow and Kyiv, showing support for Ukraine while also making sure that Israel did not take any actions that threatened security coordination with Russia in Syria or the welfare of Jews in Russia.
Though a scathing critic of the outgoing coalition, Netanyahu praised its “prudent” approach toward Ukraine during an interview last month, highlighting Israel’s absorption of refugees and other humanitarian initiatives while refraining from supplying weapons.
Earlier this month, Bloomberg reported that Russia warned Israel that it would respond if Jerusalem passes along air-defense systems directly or through a third party to Ukraine. The report did not specify what action Moscow might take.
The report followed remarks made by former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev last month, who warned Israel against sending weaponry to Ukraine, saying it would “destroy all diplomatic relations” between Jerusalem and Moscow.