Israel’s new Foreign Minister, Eli Cohen, is going to be faced with a serious challenge to Israel’s neutrality in his upcoming visit to Ukraine. His visit, ostensibly to re-open the Israeli embassy in Kyiv, will be the first by a member of the Israeli government since Russia’s invasion.
The Ukrainian government has presented Cohen with a list of demands in preparation for his visit. Walla media reported that Ukraine demanded that Israel issue a statement in support of a peace plan proposed last November by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that would require Russia to withdraw completely from Ukraine and restore sovereignty to all regions of the country.
Ukraine is also asking that the new Israeli government openly condemn the Russian invasion. The previous Israeli government did so but the new government has yet to do so. In addition, when Cohen was appointed last month, he met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, something no Israeli foreign minister had done since the war began.
Ukraine has also requested a loan of $500 million from Israel. The same request was rejected by the previous Finance Minister, Avigdor Lieberman. Israeli officials have stated that Cohen is expected to offer a $50 million loan.
Kyiv is also asking that the new government commit to completing a system that would enable Ukrainian military radar to warn civilians of incoming missiles and drones. The project, based on an existing Israeli system, was begun by the previous government.
Furthermore, Ukraine is requesting that Israel take in hundreds of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers for medical treatment. Ukraine has pressed Israel to provide military supplies including defensive Iron Dome anti-missile batteries. Israel has thus far limited its involvement to providing non-military supplies.
Israel has sent significant amounts of humanitarian aid to Ukraine, including 17 tons of medical equipment and medicine. In March, Israeli medical professionals opened a field hospital in western Ukraine to treat people fleeing the war.
The Walla report cited an unnamed Ukrainian official as saying that a meeting with Zelensky would be dependent on Cohen bearing a message that Israel would take a definitively pro-Ukrainian stance.
“The president won’t meet Cohen for a photo-op,” the Ukrainian official was quoted by Walla as saying.
Israel has tried to remain neutral in the war. One of the reasons is the presence of a large Jewish community in Russia. A Russian census in 2010 showed about 160,000 self-identified Jews. A similar survey last year showed that number had dropped to about 82,000. According to Israeli government figures, in the past year, 43,685 of these people immigrated to Israel presumably due to fears connected to the war in Ukraine and its possible implications.
Another concern comes from Russia’s significant military presence in Syria intended to bolster the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Despite advanced anti-air assets in the region, a system is in place for Israel to carry out necessary airstrikes against Hezbollah and Iranian targets in Syria with Russia’s tacit assent.
Israel’s neutral stance allowed then-Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to mediate between Russia and Ukraine in the early months of the conflict. In an interview with Channel 12 posted on YouTube on Saturday night, Bennett claimed that during these negotiations, Russian President Vladimir Putin assured him that he would not attempt to assassinate Zelensky who, at the time, was in hiding. For his part, Zelensky promised at the time not to pursue membership in NATO.
Israel’s delicate balancing act has been made even more complex by Iran’s military support of Russia. Iran has been providing Russia with much-needed drones and according to a report in the Wall Street Journal, an Iranian delegation visited western Russia last month to scout out a potential site for a new drone factory.
In his visit with the new Israeli government last week, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken called for Israel to strengthen its support for Ukraine.
“We’ve raised with Israel the importance of providing support for all of Ukraine’s needs – humanitarian, economic, and security – as it defends its people against Russia’s brutal war of aggression,” Blinken said at a media event in Jerusalem.
This came at the same time that Russia issued a clear warning to Israel. The Times of Israel reported that Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova issued statements that providing arms to Ukraine would turn Israel into a “legitimate target”.
“We say that all countries that supply weapons should understand that we will consider these to be legitimate targets for Russia’s armed forces,” Zakharova said. “Any attempts — implemented or even unrealized but announced for the supply of additional, new, or some other weapons — lead and will lead to an escalation of this crisis. And everyone should be aware of this.”