Should the Ukraine crisis escalate into a diplomatic and economic clash between Washington and Moscow, Israel would back the United States, several senior Israeli officials have said, indicating that Israel could still get drawn into the Ukraine conflict despite its efforts so far to remain neutral.
Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli, chairwoman of the Labor Party, said Monday that “there is no question that the special relationship that Israel has with the United States, that this government is working to rehabilitate and rebuild, is not the same relationship that Israel has with Russia.” Michaeli is a member of Israel’s ministerial security cabinet.
“Our heart is in the direction of the United States,” weighed in Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai, telling Channel 12 that Israel was working hard not to “take a clear public position, with the great hope that this crisis will end without fire, without casualties and without a military confrontation.” However, he added, “we know where we stand on the international map.”
Lawmaker Ram Ben Barak, the chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, told the 103 FM radio station that if the United States were to place sanctions on Russia, that would put Israel in a “difficult situation.” He added, however, that “in the end, if we ever have to choose a side, we will choose the U.S. side."
The one senior government official who offered a more nuanced response – one that could raise eyebrows in Washington – was Foreign Minister Yair Lapid.
Asked by Channel 12 on Sunday evening about the prospect of Israel joining U.S. sanctions on Russia, Lapid replied that while “traditionally, of course, we go with the Americans,” Jerusalem has to be more cautious in its approach to the current crisis, due to the large Jewish communities in Russia and Ukraine. He added that “our border with Syria is, for all intents and purposes, a border with Russia.”
Citing these reasons as the cause of Israel’s complicated diplomatic maneuvering during a talk with American Jewish leaders on Monday, Lapid stated that he "must be more careful than any foreign minister in the world because of these interests."
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Despite Lapid’s cautious reply, the statements by the other Israeli officials, which seemed to show cracks in Israel’s wall of neutrality, were noticed in Kyiv, according to a senior Ukrainian diplomatic source who spoke with Haaretz. The source said that Jerusalem is “getting some pressure from the U.S. at the moment” over the issue.
Kyiv has expressed disappointment that Jerusalem has not stepped up its diplomatic and moral support. Last Thursday, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry summoned Israel’s ambassador to Kyiv to demand an explanation for media reports that Jerusalem requested Moscow’s assistance in evacuating its citizens from Ukraine in case of war.