Israel supports Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty, the government said Wednesday in its first official statement on the crisis between Kyiv and Moscow.
Israel is prepared to transfer immediate humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, the Foreign Ministry statement added, and it is engaged in dialogue with its partners on ways to restore the diplomatic path.
The statement, however, did not address Russia by name, reflecting the complicated position Israel has found itself in over the crisis unfolding 3,000 kilometers away. An Israeli diplomatic official who asked to remain anonymous said, "We did the minimum required so now we can go back to sitting on the sidelines."
While the Ukrainians declined to comment on the Israeli statement officially, a diplomatic source, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, indicated that it did not go far enough to suit his government.
“This is better than nothing but this isn’t the statement we expected,” the source told Haaretz.
Speaking by phone from the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, Israeli Ambassador to Ukraine Michael Brodsky told Haaretz that while Wednesday’s statement did not constitute an outright condemnation of Russia, it was “far stronger than our usual position.”
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“The main thing is that we explicitly mentioned the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, which has never been said before by us officially. We used to say we recognized the territorial integrity of Ukraine, but I don't think we ever said it in an official statement of the foreign ministry.”
According to a political source, the statement "reflects the balance between Israel's political and security interests." Referencing Israel's relationship with both Syria and Putin, he added "The United States and the world understand the complexity of our situation. "
So far no ultimate demand has been made on Israel to take a public stance on the conflict.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett had initially pushed his cabinet to maintain strict public neutrality on the developments in eastern Ukraine in recent weeks, distributing a set of talking points that ministers were expected to stick to judiciously.
But on Monday, a chorus of senior Israeli officials changed their tune and said that, should the Ukraine crisis escalate into a diplomatic and economic clash between Washington and Moscow, Israel would back the United States.
In its statement on the conflict, Israel's government said it shares the concern of the international community regarding the steps taken in eastern Ukraine and that it is continuing to engage in dialogue with its partners on ways to get the diplomatic efforts back on track.
Israel is also concerned about the welfare of the thousands of Israeli citizens and large Jewish community living in Ukraine, the statement read.
Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli, chair 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 on Israeli TV 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, chair 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, “Our border with Syria is, for all intents and purposes, a border with Russia.”