TEL AVIV — On the day Russia invaded Ukraine, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett did not mention Russia once. Mr Bennett said he prayed for peace, called for dialogue and promised support to Ukrainian citizens. But he did not allude to Moscow’s involvement, let alone convict – and it was left, as pre-planned, to Mr Bennett’s Secretary of State, Yair Lapid, to criticize Moscow in a separate statement that day.
The couple’s cautious double act embodied the bond in which the war in Ukraine has placed Israel.
Israel is an important partner of the United States, and many Israelis appreciate longstanding cultural ties with Ukraine, which for several months in 2019 was the only country other than their own to have both a Jewish president – Volodymyr Zelensky – and a Jewish prime minister. But Russia is a crucial player in the Middle East, especially in Syria, Israel’s northeastern neighbor and enemy, and the Israeli government believes it cannot risk losing favor with Moscow.
For much of the past decade, the Israeli air force has been without interference with Iranian, Syrian and Lebanese military targets in Syria, trying to stem the flow of weapons Iran is sending to its proxies in both Syria and Lebanon and a military build-up in Syria. its northern border.
Israel also wants to allow itself enough room to act as an intermediary in the conflict. Following Ukrainian requests, Mr. Bennett has offered to mediate between Russia and Ukraine at least twice, most recently on Sunday — when Mr. Bennett abruptly rushed from a cabinet meeting to speak with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia for 40 minutes. And Israeli officials, including Mr Bennett, commuted Sunday afternoon between their Russian, Ukrainian and US counterparts, two senior Israeli officials said, a mediation that may have contributed to Ukraine’s decision to meet Russian officials at the Belarusian-Ukrainian border. .
Israel, which often asks that its allies support it unconditionally, is in the awkward position of appearing to refuse to criticize Russia publicly, even when other countries with seemingly more at stake have Mr Putin’s war convicted.
It is a “delicate situation for Israel,” said Ehud Olmert, a former Israeli prime minister who often dealt with Putin during his tenure.
“On the one hand, Israel is an ally of the United States and part of the West, and there can be no doubt about that,” Olmert said in a telephone interview. “On the other hand, the Russians are present in Syria, we have delicate military and security issues in Syria – and that requires a certain freedom for the Israeli military to act in Syria.”
Israel also wants to prevent any action that could fuel anti-Semitism against the hundreds of thousands of Jews in both Ukraine and Russia.
And Israeli officials at the same time must consider the reactions of Israel’s large Russian-speaking population, who make up about 12 percent of the electorate. According to government data, in the past three decades, about 1.2 million Russian speakers have arrived in Israel from the former Soviet Union, about a third from Russia and about the same from Ukraine.
Some of the latter are even back in Ukraine to defend their original homeland.
“Yes, I love Israel, but I have two countries and I have to defend them both,” said Mykhailo, 25, an Israeli-Ukrainian digital marketer currently fighting in Ukraine’s capital Kiev, who asked to be identified alone. by his first name for security reasons.
“Here is war,” he said in a telephone interview on Sunday afternoon. “I have to do my job.”
Israel’s primary concern is to remain able to act in Syria with virtually impunity and without Russian interference.
But Russia also has a significant presence in Syria, and Israel needs Moscow’s goodwill to continue operating there with ease. Israeli officials are currently notifying Russian counterparts of impending attacks, and vice versa, using a special encrypted communication line between the Israeli Air Force underground bunker, located beneath a military base in Tel Aviv, and the Khmeimim Air Force Base in western Israel. Syria, a senior Israeli defense official said.
Any change in that relationship could complicate both Israeli and Russian strategies in Syria. In September 2018, Syrian anti-aircraft missiles fired at Israeli planes hit a Russian plane that accidentally flew through the area. It crashed and all 15 Russian soldiers on board were killed.
Russian planes have been more active in recent weeks around Syria’s borders, both on the western border with Israel and in eastern Syria, where US planes often operate, the senior Israeli defense official said. The rebound may have been a display of power intended to send a signal about Ukraine’s growing crisis, the official added.
Israel is aware of the need to appease Russia and has declined several requests in recent months to send military and intelligence equipment to Ukraine, three Israeli officials and a Ukrainian official said. The most recent request was rejected by Mr Bennett during Friday’s conversation, the Ukrainian official said.
Even after it approved the sale of Pegasus, an Israeli-made spyware program, to dozens of other countries, Israel refused to sell it to Ukraine. official and two people familiar with the case. And Ukraine has never formally asked Israel to use its fabled air defense system known as Iron Dome precisely because it knew Israel would never agree to provide it, the Ukrainian official said.
Israel has instead allowed private Israeli companies to sell Ukrainian military communications equipment and robotics, and on Sunday it announced a delivery of 100 tons of humanitarian and medical supplies to Ukrainian citizens.
Within Israel, the war in Ukraine has divided Russian speakers along political lines, though not necessarily along national lines.
Eduard Shtrasner, a teacher and businessman who moved to Israel in 1990 from an area that was then part of Moldova, has become estranged from some friends of Moldovan descent because they expressed a less critical attitude towards Mr Putin.
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“I am not at all in favor of war,” said Mr. Shtrasner, 48. “But I can justify what Putin is doing. I read, I listen, I gather information and if I were him I would do the same.”
However, he acknowledged that his position in Israel was “not popular at all.” The invasion was a unifying moment for Russian speakers, with those who once supported Mr Putin increasingly turning against him, community activists said.
On Thursday, as Russia began its invasion, the Russian-born owners of the Putin Pub, a bar popular with Russian-speaking Israelis in Jerusalem, removed the gold “PUTIN” lettering from its facade, announcing that they were looking to a new name for their bar.
“It was our initiative,” says Yulia Kaplan, one of the bar’s three owners, who moved to Israel from St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1991. “Because we are against war.”
In 2014, during the Russian invasion of Crimea, there was a much more stormy social media debate between hostile camps of Russian-speaking Israelis, said Ksenia Svetlova, a journalist, academic and former member of the Israeli parliament who flew from Moscow in 1991.
“But then there was not the violence and bloodshed that there is now,” said Ms. Svetlova.
Even among older Russian speakers here who tend to rely on the Russian news media and have admired strong leadership in the past, there seems to be little sympathy for Mr Putin this time around.
“There’s a sense of shock — people my parents’ age say it’s embarrassing,” said Pola Barkan, a community activist who moved to Israel with her family from Ukraine in the early 1990s as a baby. “They say their grandparents fought the Nazis shoulder to shoulder, and the grandsons are now fighting each other.”
Russian speakers in Israel are also bracing for another wave of Jewish immigration from Ukraine; anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent can apply for Israeli citizenship.
The Jewish Agency, a global Jewish organization working with the Israeli government to help Jews interested in immigrating to Israel, said it was opening six processing stations for potential immigrants at Ukraine’s border crossings with Poland, Moldova, Romania and Hungary. .
The Israeli Ministry of Immigration and Absorption has plans for a new wave of immigration and contingency plans, including temporary housing.
“It feels like we’re back in the 90s,” said Alex Rif, a Ukrainian-born poet and activist. “All those questions, like how many will come.”
Patrick Kingsley and Ronen Bergman reported from Tel Aviv, and Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem. Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting from Tel Aviv, Myra Noveck from Jerusalem and Rawan Sheikh Ahmad from Haifa, Israel.