EXPLAINER: Is Israel sitting on the fence in the Russia-Ukraine war?

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EXPLAINER: Is Israel sitting on the fence in the Russia-Ukraine war?

After Prime Minister Naftali Bennett flew to Moscow to meet Vladimir Putin on Saturday, we look at the complicated situation Israel has found itself in

Michael Daventry is Jewish News’s foreign and broadcast editor

It came a bit like a bolt out of the blue to learn Israel’s Orthodox prime minister had broken Shabbat rules last weekend.

He did so, his rabbis advised, because human life was at risk: he was flying to Moscow to talk peace with Vladimir Putin.

His trip marked the moment when Israel gently disengaged from its strategy to trying to stay out of the war triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Until the weekend, Israeli language on the conflict had been much more muted than other countries.

Nor has it joined the west in imposing sanctions of unprecedented scale on Putin, his associates and the Russian economy.

One factor is that a substantial part of Israel is Russian-speaking — as much as one-fifth, by some measures.

Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky (Photo: Reuters)

Over the past 75 years nearly 1.3 million people born in Russia, Ukraine and other former Soviet countries have emigrated to Israel and that makes them influential.

A whole political party, Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, was originally founded to cater for Russian-speaking Israelis.

And there’s Iran, Israel’s biggest adversary in the region which has long been operating from neighbouring Syria — a key Russian ally.

Israel needs to Russia to support, or at least overlook, the fact that there are frequent IDF military strikes on Iranian targets deep within Syrian territory. There were reports of one just this week.

But on the other hand there’s the United States. Israel might not be a member of NATO but America is its closest military and economic ally.

That was why Foreign Minister Yair Lapid made a point of flying to Latvia on Monday to meet the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.

Being stuck between Russia and the United States is enough to understand why Israel would want this war to just go away, even though it involves Ukraine, a country with a Jewish president.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken meeting Israel’s Yair Lapid in Latvia on Monday (Photo: Reuters)

But that position became difficult to defend as this became longer and more ferocious than many expected.

All we really know about Bennett’s meeting in Moscow is that it lasted three hours and that he has made multiple phone calls to Putin and Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky since.

The likelihood is that Israel’s prime minister will be respected for making the most substantial effort by a world leader so far, but it is far from enough to stop the fighting.

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