Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky indicated Thursday he feels Prime Minister Naftali Bennett isn’t doing enough to support his country as it tries to fend off Russia’s invasion, saying that unlike a group of Jews he saw photographed at the Western Wall, Bennett does not seem to be “wrapped in our flag.”
During a press conference from an undisclosed location in Kyiv, guarded by machine-gun-toting bodyguards, Zelensky said his relations with Bennett are “not bad at all,” but then expressed “candid” reservations.
“As a Jewish man, do you have expectations of the Jewish state,” he was asked by Itai Engel, a reporter for Israel’s Channel 12.
Zelensky first said he had seen “a very nice picture today of Jews praying at the Western Wall — hasidim, all sorts of people, all wrapped in [Ukraine’s] blue and yellow flag. That picture amazed me. I say all credit to the people who did that. They prayed [for us].”
Moving on to Bennett, he said: “I spoke to the prime minister of Israel. And I’m telling you candidly, and this might sound a little insulting, but I do think I have to say it: Our relations are not bad, not bad at all. But relations are tested at times like these, at the hardest moments, when help and support are needed. And I don’t feel that he [Bennett] is wrapped in our flag.”
Bennett has refrained from personally condemning Russia over its offensive in Ukraine, in an apparent bid to maintain Israel’s ability to operate against Iranian proxies in Syria, where Russia controls the skies. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Israel’s UN mission have more directly censured Moscow, but both American and European officials have expressed dissatisfaction with Jerusalem’s cautious line.
Bennett himself has spoken twice with both Zelensky and Russian leader Vladimir Putin since the invasion began last Thursday, and has offered to mediate between the sides, in line with a request from the Ukrainian president.
Ukraine has also asked Israel to provide military assistance, however, a request Jerusalem has not granted. Bennett reportedly demurred when Zelensky directly asked for “assistance with military implements and weapons” in a phone conversation on Friday, according to a Sunday report.
A report last week also said Israel stopped the US from transferring Israel’s Iron Dome defense system to Ukraine last year to preserve Israel’s ties with Russia.
Israel has sent multiple shipments of humanitarian supplies for Ukrainians under attack.
Israel also refused to cosponsor a resolution condemning Russia last week at the Security Council, provoking a rebuke from US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield, an official familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel.
However, in recent days the air appears to have been cleared somewhat, as US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides tweeted out his thanks to Israel “for helping rally more members to stand with Ukraine” in the General Assembly vote on Tuesday to condemn Russia, which Israel backed.
Also Thursday, Bennett warned that Ukraine faces “total destruction” if world leaders don’t act quickly amid Russia’s invasion of the country.
“Things are looking bad on the ground right now, but it’s important to understand that if world leaders don’t act quickly, it can get much worse,” he said at Tel Aviv’s CyberTech conference. “I’m talking about untold loss of life, total destruction of Ukraine. Millions of refugees. And it’s not too late.”
“It’s the responsibility of the major players in the world to get the two sides out of the battlefield and on to the negotiation table,” he added.
Zelensky addressed reporters Thursday from a stage at a secret location, as several armed guards stood close by amid fears of Russian assassination attempts.
Zelensky called on the West to increase military aid to Ukraine, saying Russia would advance on the rest of Europe otherwise.
“If you do not have the power to close the skies, then give me planes!” Zelensky told a press conference. “If we are no more then — God forbid — Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia will be next,” he said, adding: “Believe me.”
He called for direct talks with Putin, saying it was “the only way to stop this war.”
“We are not attacking Russia, and we do not plan to attack it. What do you want from us? Leave our land,” he said, addressing Putin.
“Sit down with me. Just not 30 meters away like with [French President Emmanuel Macron],” the Ukrainian leader said, referring to Putin receiving world leaders at a now-famous enormously long table, apparently due to his fears of COVID-19.
Zelensky, who just weeks ago had sought to calm Ukrainians over US allegations that Russia was planning to invade his country, said: “Nobody thought that in the modern world a man can behave like a beast.”
Russia says it is not targeting civilian areas, despite widespread evidence otherwise. Ukraine’s emergency service announced on Wednesday night that over 2,000 civilians had been killed so far in Russia’s invasion of the country.
Jacob Magid and AFP contributed to this report