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Why Has Israel Remained Relatively Silent on the Russian Invasion of Ukraine?

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In the Israeli media, they talk about nothing else. Analysts parade through the news channels, and all journalists ask them the same question: why has Naftali Bennett’s government remained so frugal in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? The answer is not so complex, as is everything related with Israel. But the issue has marked an unprecedented dilemma.

The war in Ukraine, provoked by the aggression of an out-of-control Vladimir Putin, has filled the media. Newspaper and magazine covers. Reports and videos have gone viral. It has been, above all, the contrast between a power and a heroic resistance, which has made it so attractive to the media—together, of course, with the fact that we are facing the first war of this magnitude in times of TikTok and reels. Vladimir Putin, on the one hand; and Zelensky on the other. The latter, in a green T-shirt, with daily broadcasts, is gradually building the narrative of a virtuous and passionate resistance.

Israel has been no stranger to the phenomenon. Everyone on the street is moved by the epic of Zelensky and his men. And, of course, Israeli society sympathizes, in the face of this conflict, with Ukraine.

“Putin’s a son of a bitch and he has to be stopped,” Eran Vinitzki, a shopkeeper in Tel Aviv, tells me. “What he’s done to Ukraine is crazy, it’s a clear invasion.”

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Front page of a newspaper in Israel, Monday, February 29.

The cover of a newspaper left on a table at a gas station in Kfar Saba appeals to the human drama of the conflict. There are two photographs. On the left side of the cover, two Ukrainian servicemen. One holds a machine gun. On the right side, a Ukrainian serviceman embraces his partner. The expression of both is one of pain.

It is clear that the conflict in Eastern Europe has touched a large part of Israeli society, as it has the rest of the world. The transparency with which the drama is transcending has driven a completely unprecedented global movement. The child crying because his father went to war; the bride imploring not to conscript her partner; the grandfather enlisting to leave a free nation to his grandchildren. Every image, every testimony has led to the unexpected: Sweden has broken with a decades-long tradition of neutrality to side with Ukraine; Germany has decided, after years, to increase its military spending; the European Union sent weapons for the first time to a victim nation of another, among other efforts.

However, Israel’s stance is a dismaying one. How is it that such a courageous and resolute state, when it comes to conflicts or crises of this nature, has not firmly condemned Russia? Israel knows well what Ukrainians are going through today. Putin’s invasion stirs up the unbearable traumas of the tragedy that was the advance of the Third Reich across Europe. Refugees fleeing on foot, thousands piling into buses or trains and broken families. To reinforce this, Vladimir Putin bombed the area where the Babyn Yar memorial is located, on the outskirts of Kiev, where eighty years ago the Nazis executed tens of thousands of Jews, in the worst anti-Semitic massacre in history (between 100,000 and 150,000 victims). On the day of the bombing, this week, the Russian Army killed five people.

The necessary status quo

A couple of days ago, Israel’s Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, sent a letter to the American ambassador with the purpose of pressuring his government to prevent it from sanctioning Russian-Israeli billionaire Roman Abramovich, who is a major donor to Jewish institutions and a staunch Putin supporter.

The premiere of the apathy was when last Friday Israel refused to support a U.S. resolution before the United Nations Security Council to condemn Russia’s invasion. So far, Israel is only offering to act as an intermediary, although this proposal has not taken off.

As an Israeli official told the daily Yedioth Aharonoth, the United States is disappointed in Israel’s lukewarmness in the face of something that, to all, is obvious. “Countries that have much more to lose have taken a clear stance. Only Israel, which is good at reminding others of how they failed to support the Jewish people during the dark times, has done its best to do nothing,” the official told the newspaper.

The reason for the apathy is, however, solid and simple. A Likud party member, who preferred anonymity, told me, “The answer is straightforward. Russia has control in Syria. Hizbullah 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.”

“We have a lot of sympathy with Ukraine, but we can’t intervene in the war,” he added.

A conflict with Russia now, for Israel, would be irresponsible. The advance of terrorist forces in Syria has led to a tacit understanding between Moscow and Jerusalem, so that the latter can intervene on Syrian territory and attack terrorist forces.

Russia, which virtually controls Syria’s airspace after the civil war under Bashar al-Assad, allows Israel to operate against Hizbullah and other groups backed by Iran’s Shiite regime. The status quo is necessary for Jerusalem, as well as maintaining stability and, of course, Israel’s security.

In a tweet, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Herzog, wrote: “While our moral position is clear, we are striving to pursue it in a way that will maintain our freedom of operations against Iran in the region, which is in everybody’s interest.”

Likewise, Israel, perhaps the most targeted nation in the world, can’t afford a conflict with a power like Russia. Subjected to a hostile environment, the Jewish state has too many security concerns to open another front.

So what should Israel do? The Likud member told me, “We must civically help the Ukrainians as much as we can, and be neutral in terms of statements or pronouncements about the war. We have to shut up and call for peace. We can’t pick a fight with Putin.”

The Likud politician’s position is shared by almost all serious analysts in Israel. Most agree that although what Putin is doing is unacceptable, it is not the time to declare him an enemy. An international analyst put it this morning in an Israeli media outlet: “It is a very difficult dilemma. Perhaps the most difficult in recent years. Of course, we are hurt by what is happening in Ukraine. It is very hard to see that drama, but there is not much we can do. The state must look after the safety of the people in Israel, who are constantly at risk.”

“We support the Ukrainians, no doubt; but there is a duty to the Israelis. That’s where the priorities of Naftali Bennett’s government should be,” he said.

Orlando Avendaño is the co-editor-in-chief of El American. He is a Venezuelan journalist and has studies in the History of Venezuela. He is the author of the book Days of submission // Orlando Avendaño es el co-editor en Jefe de El American. Es periodista venezolano y cuenta con estudios en Historia de Venezuela. Es autor del libro Días de sumisión.

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