In the intensifying crisis between Russia and the United States regarding the future of Ukraine, Israel is forced to tackle a particularly cautious course: The morass of conflicting interests in which the Bennett-Lapid government finds itself forces it to carefully consider any move on the matter so as not to anger their main ally – the U.S. – and on the other hand not jeopardize the important relationship with Russia.
“The U.S. is Israel’s most important friend. Obviously you can’t cross it,” a diplomatic source told Haaretz on Sunday. “On the other hand,” he says, “our security cooperation with Russia, particularly regarding the Iranian presence in Syria, is critical, and we must not harm it. We have other important interests with Putin, mostly security-related.” The fear for the safety and status of the two major Jewish communities in Russia and Ukraine, and the close relationship with the Ukrainian administration, are a factor in restraining Israeli conduct.
In an attempt to prevent damage to the relations with Russia, the U.S., and Ukraine, the Prime Minister’s office has ordered ministers not to express support for one side or the other in the conflict. The ministers were asked to “keep a low profile,” to cut down on interviews on the topic, and to stick to a judicious message sheet distributed to them.
Foreign Affairs Minister Yair Lapid addressed the sensitivity guiding Israel’s conduct in the current crisis. At a press conference he convened, Lapid sought to clarify that “Israel is not a player involved in the conflict, and therefore it is acting cautiously.” He said that “I think this conflict can and should be prevented. The way is to not give up the diplomatic channel and make the sides communicate with one another.”
A senior Israeli source said this week that Moscow and Washington are not pressuring Israel to take a stand in the conflict, for the time being. The source added that there is no expectation of Israel to mediate between the sides, although in recent months, as in the past few days, there have been attempts to recruit senior Israeli figures to pass messages between the three countries.
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A few days ago, Lapid gave public voice to his estimate that the chances of Russia launching a broad military campaign against Ukraine are not high. His prediction, expressed in an interview to the Walla news website, is shared by more than a few Israeli diplomats and intelligence personnel. Lapid confirmed on Sunday that there are differences of opinion between Israel and the U.S. regarding their analyses of the crisis.
“Our relationship with the Americans is tight,” he said at the press conference. “There’s an exchange of opinions. Sometimes there are disagreements about situation assessments.” He said that “part of our assessment is influenced by what we hear from the Americans.” Another source simply said that “The Americans are showing disproportionate stress.”
There are those in Jerusalem who figure that some of the pressure demonstrated by the U.S. administration stems from fears at the State Department that Secretary of State Anthony Blinken will pay with his job should American efforts in Ukraine fail. Either way, Israel is justifying the decision to announce a rapid operation to bring thousands of Israelis back from Ukraine, despite the difficulty in determining whether military action will in fact break out.
“If there’s a Russian invasion this week, contrary to the moderate assessments we’re hearing, the situation will deteriorate rapidly, and we won’t have enough time to evacuate the Israelis and the Jewish community in real time. It’s better to be prepared for an unlikely scenario, than to deal with a crisis,” a source in Jerusalem explained.
The political echelon preferred not to take the lead in dictating facts on the ground this week. Thus, Bennett’s decision on Saturday Night, to increase the urgency of the travel advisory and call upon Israelis to leave Ukraine immediately, was made only after other countries began evacuating their citizens. From data obtained by Haaretz, the countries which began evacuating families even before Israel began to do so, included the UK, Japan, Australia, and Canada, in addition to the U.S.