The discovery of the Bucha massacre, where hundreds of dead civilians were found after the town was liberated by Ukrainian forces earlier last week, appears to be changing the diplomatic landscape over the invasion as on Tuesday Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid issued a statement condemning the Bucha massacre as a “war crime” committed by Russian forces, marking a major change in Jerusalem’s policy towards the war.
Yair Lapid, who is one of the key members of the Israeli coalition government that defeated Netanyahu last year, said to the press that “The images and testimony from Ukraine are horrific. Russian forces committed war crimes against a defenseless civilian population. I strongly condemn these war crimes”
Lapid is not the only Israeli official to condemn the atrocities, as just a few hours before Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett also denounced the massacre, although he stopped short of calling them a war crime, saying that “We’re shocked by the terrible sights in Bucha – awful scenes – and we condemn them. The suffering of Ukrainian citizens is immense, and we’re doing everything we can to assist.”
Israel’s cautious approach in the Russia-Ukraine war, explained
The comment comes just days after the Israeli ambassador to Ukraine also called the Bucha killings a massacre. Lapid’s statement marks a stark departure from Israeli policy towards Russia since the invasion began, as Jerusalem has toed a semi-neutral line on the conflict, trying to maintain its good relations with both the West and Russia, since the former is one of the most important allies of Israel while maintaining good relations with the latter is vital for maintaining Israeli air attack against Iranian assets in Syria.
Israeli PM Naftali Bennett was even one of the few leaders with good enough relations with both the West and Moscow to visit Putin a few days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a way to find out a peaceful end to the conflict. Although the dialogues clearly did not work, Israel has maintained its position since the beginning of the conflict, even blocking the sale of Iron Dome and spyware technology to Ukraine, while saying that it would comply with the international financial sanctions against Moscow.
The Israeli position in the conflict is not exclusively held by the ruling coalition, as former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also stated that the government should take a policy of “caution” regarding the war in Ukraine and that the government should center its energies on Iran instead.
The Bucha Massacre means that Israel’s Ukraine dilemma will continue to get worse
The Israeli position is a complicated one. While countries like Germany and Hungary have taken a much-criticized lukewarm approach to Russia due to their energetic dependence on Moscow, Israel’s neutrality on Ukraine can be explained due to the Russian influence on Syria. As a Likud MP told El American’s co-chief-editor Orlando Avendaño last month “The answer is straightforward. Russia has control of Syria. Hezbollah and other Iranian terrorist forces are active in Syria. We have to fight them. As long as Russia is in Syria, we cannot afford to fight them.”
However, the recent discoveries of Russian atrocities against Ukraine civilians will put pressure on the Israeli government to reconsider parts of their policy towards Russia and might even create some tensions within the heterogeneous coalition which holds a very tenuous majority in the Israeli Knesset.
The divergence between Lapid and Bennet, with the former calling it a war crime while the latter refusing to do so, could signal some differences within the government over how to handle a war that continues to become more bloody and destructive.
Another example of disagreements within the ruling coalition was the declarations of Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman‘s controversial response when asked about the Bucha massacre as he said that while he condemned the atrocities in Bucha, the case was one of “mutual accusations” and that “Russia is blaming Ukraine and Ukraine is blaming Russia.”
The ideologically diverse government coalition in Israel, which includes both Israeli nationalist parties and the United Arab List, only has a two-seat majority in the Knesset. While the government has remained more stable than its composition would predict, the Ukrainian crisis might put some stress on the way the ruling coalition governs.