Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Israel's Balancing Act on Ukraine

 At the New York Times, "War in Ukraine Forces Israel Into a Delicate Balancing Act":

Israel is a strong ally of the United States, and its leaders have a good relationship with Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s Jewish president. But Israel also doesn’t want to provoke Russia.

TEL AVIV — On the day Russia invaded Ukraine, Israel’s prime minister, Naftali Bennett, did not mention Russia once. Mr. Bennett said he prayed for peace, called for dialogue and promised support for Ukrainian citizens. But he did not hint at Moscow’s involvement, much less condemn it — and it was left, as preplanned, to Mr. Bennett’s foreign minister, Yair Lapid, to criticize Moscow in a separate statement that day.

The pair’s cautious double act embodied the bind in which the war in Ukraine has placed Israel.

Israel is a key partner of the United States, and many Israelis appreciate longstanding cultural connections with Ukraine, which, for several months in 2019, was the only country other than their own with both a Jewish president — Volodymyr Zelensky — and a Jewish prime minister. But Russia is a critical actor in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, Israel’s northeastern neighbor and enemy, and the Israeli government believes it cannot risk losing Moscow’s favor.

For much of the past decade, the Israeli Air Force has struck Iranian, Syrian and Lebanese military targets in Syria without interference, trying to stem the flow of arms that Iran sends to its proxies in both Syria and Lebanon and to limit a military buildup on its northern border.

Israel also wants to leave itself enough room to act as a go-between in the conflict. After Ukrainian requests, Mr. Bennett has offered at least twice to mediate between Russia and Ukraine, most recently on Sunday — when Mr. Bennett rushed abruptly from a cabinet meeting to speak with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia for 40 minutes. And Israeli officials, including Mr. Bennett, shuttled between their Russian, Ukrainian and American counterparts on Sunday afternoon, two senior Israeli officials said, a mediation that may have contributed to Ukraine’s decision to meet with Russian officials on the Belarusian-Ukrainian border.

Israel, which often asks that its allies support it unconditionally, finds itself in the uncomfortable position of appearing to refuse to publicly criticize Russia, even when other countries with seemingly more at stake have condemned Mr. Putin’s war.

It is a “delicate situation for Israel,” said Ehud Olmert, a former Israeli prime minister who dealt often with Mr. Putin during his time in office.

“On the one hand, Israel is an ally of the United States and a part of the West, and there can be no doubt about it,” Mr. Olmert said in a phone interview. “On the other hand, the Russians are present in Syria, we have delicate military and security problems in Syria — and that requires a certain freedom for the Israeli military to act in Syria.”

Israel also wants to avoid taking any action that might stir antisemitism against the hundreds of thousands of Jews in both Ukraine and Russia...