There is an increased interest in what Israel is doing to help Ukraine fight off the Russian invasion and the perception (based on social media posts and recent Google search data) seems to be that the Jewish state isn’t doing enough or anything at all to help.
So what is Israel doing to help Ukraine and are the pundits correct in saying that Israel is sitting the war out?
The Israeli government has repeatedly condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and voted in favor of the United Nations condemnation in which 35 countries abstained (including China and India) and five voted against: Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea and Syria. Israel’s vote to condemn was met with criticism by Russia, with the Russian ambassador to Israel reportedly saying that they were “very disappointed by your position at the UN.”
Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid doubled-down on the condemnation saying during a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken: “We have condemned the Russian invasion, and we still do … and Israel is a partner in the global effort to make sure and verify that this war must be stopped.”
After the bombing of the Babyn Yar Memorial Israel was also quick to condemn Russia and pledged to pay to rebuild.
Israel has implemented some but not all economic sanctions against Russia– despite this, Israel’s foreign minister has pledged that the country would not be used to funnel Russian money.
“Israel will not be a route to bypass sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States and other Western countries,” Lapid said during a meeting in Slovakia.
“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is coordinating the issue together with partners including the Bank of Israel, the Finance Ministry, the Economy Ministry, the Airports Authority, the Energy Ministry, and others,” he added.
It seems that the government’s actions are working. Weeks after Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich made an eight-figure donation (estimated to be around $3 million) to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum (the donation was made after the Russian invasion of Ukraine) officials there announced that they were returning the money.
Complicating matters is an Israeli law which states sanctions can only be imposed on a country designated as an enemy state. Currently Russia is not officially labeled as such and it is unlikely that this will happen due to ongoing military coordination in neighboring Syria (see “Diplomacy” below).
Israel is taking a leading role in diplomatic efforts to broker a cease fire between Russia and Ukraine acting on behalf of the Ukrainian president.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has taken on a “messenger” or intermediary role between Ukraine and Russia, communicating proposals on behalf of the two countries. It seems Bennett is the only world leader who has spoken directly to both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The Israeli prime minister even made the rare decision to travel on Shabbat (Bennett is Orthodox) to meet face to face with Putin.
In his speech to Israel’s parliament, or Knesset, Zelensky called on Israel to do more to help Ukraine. His appeal was similar in nature to his talks to other foreign governments including the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada.
Following his speech Zelensky announced new diplomatic movements courtesy of Israel’s efforts.
“The prime minister of Israel, Mr. Bennett is trying to find a way of holding talks. And we are grateful for this,” said Zelensky. “We are grateful for his efforts, so that sooner or later we will begin to have talks with Russia, possibly in Jerusalem.”
The United States also reached out to Israel to use its diplomatic channels to lobby its Arab neighbors to vote for the UN condemnation of Russia’s invasion.
This is a tough situation for Israel, which has Russian troops on its northern border in neighboring Syria supporting embattled President Bashar al-Assad. For years Russia has allowed Israel to carry out attacks on targets linked to terrorist and militant groups.
“We have a kind of border with Russia,” Lapid said right before the invasion, calling Russia “the important force” in Syria and adding that Israel was in “a bit of a Baltic situation” because of this. The foreign minister was referring to Balkanization, which is “the fragmentation of a larger region or state into smaller regions or states, which may be hostile or uncooperative with one another.”
Israel has set up a multi-million dollar field hospital inside Ukraine and is staffing it with medical workers from across Israel.
On top of this, Israel has shipped several thousand tons of aid into the region and numerous Jewish and Israeli agencies are operating in Ukraine or along its borders. The organizations and government agencies are providing numerous services including transport out of Ukraine, medical care and even medical clowns.
Israel is accepting thousands of refugees (both Jewish and non-Jewish) and has waived visa requirements for Ukrainian citizens. In fact, Israel has taken in more refugees than any other country which doesn’t share a border with Ukraine. In contrast, the United States and the United Kingdom have not accepted any Ukrainian refugees en masse. That’s not to say that there hasn’t been controversy over the government’s decision to allow so many people in.
At the moment Israel is only providing non-lethal aid to Ukraine (similar to other countries such as New Zealand and Ireland) and there has been a lot of speculation about why Israel has not allowed the Iron Dome to be deployed in Ukraine.
Regarding the Iron Dome, currently it only works against rockets in tight population areas and not against sophisticated ballistic missiles like the ones the Russians are using in Ukraine.
Most of the debate in Israel surrounding sending lethal aid to Ukraine is focused on what Russia would do in retaliation.
“Ultimately, can Israel risk antagonizing Russia in Syria, right on Israel’s borders? Could that lead to Hezbollah’s triumph and Iran’s entrenchment, if Israel loses its flight and strike privileges over Syria?” wrote Dahlia Scheindlin in an opinion piece for Haaretz.
Originally Published May 15 2022 09:20AM EDT