More than one month into the conflict, Israel’s Prime Minister has yet to openly condemn Russia, instead trying to balance a fine line between Israel’s Western allies, including the United States, and its strategic relationship with the Kremlin.
The bipartisan group of lawmakers have expressed surprise and disappointment that Israel, which receives more US foreign aid than any other country in the world, has not sent weapons to Ukraine or joined in the sanctions regime imposed by the US, Europe and others.
“They ought to be stepping up like the rest of the world. I don’t understand it,” Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine, said last week. “I understand it’s because they feel they have some red light, green light from Russia about attacks on Iranian assets in the Middle East … but that’s, it’s very disappointing, especially considering the massive amount of military aid we’ve provided to them.”
The US gives Israel $3.8 billion a year in military foreign assistance, in addition to half a billion dollars in missile defense. In comparison, the US has provided Ukraine with two packages of military assistance since the Russian invasion began, totaling nearly $1.5 billion.
Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland, said he has spoken with the US ambassador to Israel about Israel’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While Israel has “tried to find a path for humanitarian help” for Ukrainian refugees, Cardin said last week that he believes Israel “could do more.”
“They have a lot of capacity, a lot of military capacity, so, they’re a pretty sophisticated country, we know that, so I think they could do more,” Cardin told CNN.
Israel has established a field hospital in western Ukraine, the only country to do so. It has also supported United Nations General Assembly resolutions condemning Russia. But Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has tried to walk a diplomatic tightrope, calling it a “responsible and measured approach” in a speech at the beginning of March.
Bennett has tried to act as a mediator of sorts, speaking multiple times with both Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin, even as other countries have warned Putin is not seriously negotiating toward a ceasefire.
Standing next to Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday, Bennett only mentioned the war toward the end of his opening remarks, asserting that Israel “stands firm with people of Ukraine” without making any mention of Russia or condemning Putin for starting the war.
Blinken, on the other hand, began his remarks with efforts “to stop the catastrophic suffering that Russia’s aggression is causing for the people of Ukraine.” He went on to thank Israel for its field hospital in Ukraine.
During his visit to Israel this weekend, Blinken repeatedly stressed that the US appreciates Israel’s efforts at diplomacy and said they have been closely coordinated throughout.
During a news conference with Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Blinken stressed the US’ appreciation of Israel’s efforts to help Ukraine during the crisis.
“Just speaking to Israel, again, we greatly appreciate, first of all, its strong repudiation of Russian aggression against Ukraine. We very much appreciate, as well, the foreign minister’s commitment to ensure that Israel is not used as any kind of back door for sanctions evasion,” Blinken said.
During a summit in Negev, Israel, with his counterparts from Israel, Morocco, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, Blinken “continued to emphasize that we view this not as just a Ukraine issue or a European issue. This really is a global issue, and all these countries have an interest in standing up for the rules-based order,” a senior State Department official said Monday.
“All of them agreed that they would use their level of influence if they have it, on both sides, and with others in the region as well to push for an end to the war,” the official added.
Israel has good relations with Moscow and Kyiv, and both countries have sizable Jewish populations. But there is an added dimension to Israel’s dealings with Russia, one that is strategically critical for the Jewish state.
Israel needs Russia’s acquiescence to carry out strikes against targets in neighboring Syria, mostly of Iranian positions or weapons shipments to Lebanon.
Israel’s noninterference on Ukraine has allowed the country “not only to protect our interests, but also to be useful,” Bennett said in early March.
The statement came days after Israel’s public broadcaster reported that Bennett had refused a request from Zelensky for Israel to send weapons to Ukraine.
Even ardent Israel supporters like Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina have wondered why one of America’s closest allies isn’t doing more.
In early March, Graham said on Fox that he would “get on the phone to Israel” after he learned that “apparently” Israel had refused a request to send anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine. Zelensky has repeatedly called for Israel to send in its Iron Dome short-range missile defense system.
Last weekend, Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois suggested on Twitter that the billions of dollars the US provides Israel every year in military aid should be contingent on its response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“I deeply support our relationship with Israel. But supporting friends doesn’t mean we look past differences,” he tweeted. Kinzinger called it a “battle between good and evil” where “everyone must pick a side.”
“If we don’t want to directly attack Russia, then our leverage is in the world uniting in sanctions and assistance for the people of Ukraine. This includes everyone, and Israel doesn’t have a special exemption. Hopefully they will do the right thing,” he said on Twitter.
Bennett traveled to Moscow and had a three-hour meeting with Putin on March 5, and he has followed that up with multiple calls with both Putin and Zelensky. Bennett has said he is prepared to go to Kyiv to help with mediation efforts after receiving an invitation from Zelensky, but the trip would happen only if there were progress in negotiations between the two sides, a source familiar with the matter told CNN.
But in public, Bennett has remained largely silent about Russia. When CNN asked Keren Hajioff, a spokeswoman for Bennett, if Israel would give Zelensky — the only Jewish world leader outside of Israel — refuge should he choose to leave Ukraine, the answer was “no comment.” It is a remarkable indication of just how far Israel will go to avoid publicly declaring a side. One of Israel’s foundational laws is the right of any Jew in the world to make “aliyah” and move to Israel, yet the Prime Minister’s office refused to publicly affirm that it would apply that law to Zelensky as well.
While some US lawmakers are openly frustrated, others are more understanding of Israel’s unique position in the Middle East.
“Israel’s surrounded by enemies, Iran, Hezbollah out of Syria, Gaza, so I just think that they have a very delicate geopolitical balance that they need to keep,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the ranking Republican member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN. “A lot of the strikes they conduct and things and activities that have to do against Iran in that region require deconflicting with the Russians, so there just in a tough spot. There’s just some realities to their position, their vulnerability.”
Both Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, believe Israel is doing the best they can in a delicate situation.
“Israel is a strong ally of the United States, and they are surrounded by neighbors in a very dangerous part of the world. It’s not Israel’s job to win the war in Ukraine, and I think American politicians that are using the war in Ukraine to attack Israel are mistaken in doing so,” Cruz said.
Sen. Jacky Rosen, a Democrat from Nevada, stressed Israel’s humanitarian support throughout the ongoing crisis.
“They’re taking a lot of Ukrainian refugees, they’re doing a lot of the humanitarian aid, and we’ll just have to continue to talk with them,” Rosen said last week. “The President and Secretary Blinken will be doing that.”