Israeli President Reuven Rivlin congratulated Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko on the occasion of his country’s Independence Day on Saturday, sending him "good wishes" for his "personal well-being and for the ongoing progress and prosperity of your country and its people."
According to the Belarusian presidential website, Israel joined a list of mostly authoritarian countries – including Turkey, Turkmenistan, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Iran, Syria and the Palestinian Authority – in offering congratulations to the longtime president, largely shunned by Western leaders.
An Israeli government source told Haaretz that "Israel shows sensitivity to the well-being of the Jewish community In Belarus and therefore prefers not to confront the Lukashenko administration," which is facing harsh sanctions from the United States and European Union after it diverted a passenger jet to arrest a dissident journalist last month.
A spokesman for President Rivlin said the letter “was sent according to the normal practice of the Foreign Ministry on national days of countries with which the State of Israel has diplomatic relations.” He referred further inquiries to the Foreign Ministry, which did not comment.
Belarus has been rocked by months of protests fueled by Lukashenko’s reelection to a sixth term in an August 2020 election that was widely seen as rigged. Authorities responded to the demonstrations with a massive crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands beaten by police.
Israeli digital intelligence company Cellebrite announced in March that it would stop selling its technology to Russia and Belarus after it was used to hack opposition forces and minorities in the countries.
Rivlin's English-language letter, published by Israel's Kan public broadcaster, reads: "Relations between our two nations are founded in a long shared history,” citing several Israeli presidents and prime ministers who hailed from Belarus and saying that “the community of former Belarus citizens in Israel serves as a human bridge strengthening the relations between our two countries.”
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Rivlin also wished Lukashenko "good health and success in overcoming the health and economic challenges of this past year" of the coronavirus pandemic.
Alexander Fruman, a Belarusian-Israeli originally from Minsk who was beaten during anti-Lukashenko protests last year, told Haaretz that while he always thought of Rivlin as a “fair president with a strong sense of justice,” the president has “sadly slipped into dictator Lukashenko’s blood-filled hands.”
“All my friends, both in Israel and in Belarus, do not understand how Israel gives legitimacy to the dictator through the activities of the ambassador in Minsk,” Fruman said, adding that he no longer believes in the “myth that Israel always protects its citizens.”
Last month, Israel's ambassador to Minsk raised eyebrows when he publicly endorsed stronger ties between the two countries and called for increased Israeli tourism to Belarus.
Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.