Israel torn apart by ties to Russian oligarchs

At a February 27 meeting of Israel’s Foreign and Security Cabinet, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid addressed his colleagues with a bizarre request-warning, asking them not to provide aid to Jewish-Russian billionaires/oligarchs who have been hit by international attacks. punishments. “You have to be very careful because these guys have connections and they can call you on the phone and ask you things. Do not commit to anything as it may cause diplomatic damage. Say you can’t help them and give them the Foreign Office number,” Lapid said.

Such calls have apparently already started. The oligarchs are the latest twist on the dilemmas the Russian invasion of Ukraine confronts Israel as it seeks to balance a host of competing interests. A good number of them are Jews and have Israeli nationality. Many of them are linked in one way or another to Israeli high civil society and political levels. A few live in Israel at least part-time and invest their money here. Israel may have to impose sanctions on them.

The best-known oligarch is Roman Abramovich, a Russian-born Jewish billionaire who lives in Israel part-time and owns a mansion there. He was considered one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest associates, and on top of all that, he is a generous benefactor to hospitals and public causes, including pledging tens of millions of dollars to Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance. Center. Reports yesterday indicated that Abramovich is in Belarus, apparently at the request of Ukraine, to help with negotiations between Russia and Ukraine.

Israeli officials are torn. For now, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is doing what Israel always does when approaching a minefield: forming a committee. The panel will consider potential sanctions on a case-by-case basis, with the hope that by the time this process is complete, the crisis will be behind us. For now, the crisis is mostly ahead of us.

Beyond the oligarch conundrum, officials in Jerusalem are pleased with Israel’s efforts to have the cake and eat it too. “To be honest, Putin doesn’t really care about us right now. He is at war. And the Americans aren’t focusing on what Israel is going to do or say either. Biden is also at war and midterm elections are looming,” a senior Israeli diplomatic source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be on the safe side. Israel does not ride the fence. He’s on the good side, the American side, but he’s trying to avoid attention.

The government decided to vote in favor of the condemnation of Russia by the United Nations, and the Israeli ambassador to the UN, Gilad Erdan, even went so far as to kiss his Ukrainian colleague in full view of the cameras and pose with him for a selfie.

Israel’s strategy in this crisis stems from what it sees as its “special position” in relation to other states. During the Cabinet session devoted to the crisis, participants described Israel’s unique situation. On the one hand, he is unmistakably a full-fledged member of the American Democratic Western camp. On the other hand, Putin is threatening his vital security interests in the ongoing low-intensity war with Iran and its proxies along Israel’s northern border.

A senior Israeli security source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity: “Every time one of our F-16s takes off from an airfield in Israel, powerful Russian radars deployed in Syria immediately lock onto it. . Without the special coordination mechanism that we have with the Russian military in our north, the activity of the air force in this airspace would be reduced – much more dangerous and particularly difficult.

Israel concedes that it has an immediate interest in preserving this cooperation with Putin. “But there is something else,” the senior diplomatic source said. “We are perhaps the only country in the world that enjoys the trust of all parties and can speak openly with them. We have an open channel to Putin and proven cooperation with him, we are allies of the United States and we have a very special relationship with [Volodymyr] Zelensky, Jewish President of Ukraine. This is an asset that we must preserve and exploit. For now, this mediation is not taking off, but in the days or weeks to come, it could become critical if the situation deteriorates further.

With these considerations in mind, the Cabinet has decided on the following policy: Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Defense Minister Benny Gantz will keep a low profile and avoid public statements whenever possible. The Minister of Foreign Affairs responsible for the matter would be the one who speaks publicly on the matter if necessary.

Of course, Bennett cannot completely ignore the situation, nor speak only of humanitarian aid. Speaking at a conference today, the Prime Minister said that Israel was helping Ukraine, and that “from the first moment, Jerusalem has taken a responsible line, which allows us not only to protect our interests but also to do good”.

He continued: “Israel is a reliable factor. We are one of the few who can communicate directly with both sides and help wherever we can. And indeed, we help discreetly.”

Having publicly condemned the invasion, Lapid is the most visible official Israeli voice on Ukraine. Still, even Lapid isn’t exactly making the rounds in TV studios. In fact, his condemnation of Russia on February 24 was precise and concise. It was he who initiated the phone call the same day with his American counterpart, Antony Blinken, devoting the conversation to presenting to him the “special circumstances” and the sensitive interests of Israel.

“We fly over Syria at night, we don’t do it for fun,” another senior Israeli diplomatic official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “Americans know that our campaign against Iran’s entrenchment in Syria and the rise of Hezbollah in Lebanon is an existential need and they recognize our problem in the Russian context. That’s why they are ready to contain our situation.

So far, this policy has proven itself. The Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv released a long and detailed document this week, addressing the war, including the “containment” of Israeli condemnation and emphasizing “further security cooperation with Israel”. Americans too, aside from some silent grumbling about Israel’s refusal to sign on as a sponsor of the UN Security Council’s condemnation of Russia last week, aren’t really bothered by the politics of Israel.

Israel is happy and continues to scrutinize every move. Four planes loaded with emergency humanitarian aid have been dispatched to Ukraine in recent days, carrying only items for civilian use. The Ukrainian request for helmets and vests was rejected despite the promise to distribute them only to civilians. “We are careful not to make a mistake,” the senior Israeli diplomatic official said. “Our flights to Ukraine will not include uniformed officers; everything will be of a civil nature. It should be understood that the Russians also do not need a conflagration in Syria at this time. They too prefer relative calm and we will make sure to be very careful in the weeks to come. »

The argument within Israel regarding the desired position on the Russian-Ukrainian-Western conflict is hardly semantic. More than 1.5 million Russian speakers, possibly more, live in Israel. They constitute about 15% of the population. Most are from Russia, but a lot from Ukraine. Thousands of Israelis live in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities. About 200,000 Ukrainians are eligible to immigrate to Israel under its law of return for Jews and their relatives. Roman Brodsky, an Israeli citizen living in Kyiv, was killed on February 28 as he tried to escape the city.

Israel is considering how to take advantage of the situation to entice a significant number of Ukraine’s Jewish population to immigrate here. “This is a historic opportunity,” Knesset member Zvi Hauser, chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, told Al-Monitor. “It must be recognized, understood, as Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir understood in 1989, long before many others, that the collapse of the Soviet empire would induce a million Russian Jews to immigrate to Israel.

On February 27, after receiving a direct request from Zelensky, Bennett called Putin. “The Russian president was quick to take the call and it lasted about half an hour,” a source close to Bennett told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “He did not express enthusiasm for the Israeli mediation offer at this time, but left an opening for future developments.”

Israel believes this is why it should maintain its “special position” among the parties rather than mobilizing to stand unambiguously alongside Ukraine. “For now,” a senior Israeli political source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “Americans, Russians and Ukrainians all understand us. With the exception of several WhatsApp messages to our ambassador to the UN, Americans are keeping their options open.

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