Feb 14, 2022 - World

New U.S. intelligence on Ukraine led Israel to evacuate its citizens

Passengers arrive in Tel Aviv from Kyiv. Photo: Jack Guez/AFP via Getty

Israel's decision to call for its nationals to leave Ukraine immediately was based on an updated intelligence report shared by the U.S. on Friday evening, five Israeli officials with direct knowledge of the issue tell Axios.

Why it matters: Israel has strong relationships with both Russia and Ukraine and for weeks avoided taking any significant steps that could upset either partner. Israeli officials say they didn’t want to automatically follow everything the U.S. did or said, but the latest intelligence changed the equation.

Behind the scenes: Last Friday morning, officials at the Israeli Foreign Ministry were discussing initial steps to respond to the threat of a Russian invasion.

  • The main dilemma was whether to issue a travel warning, at the highest level of urgency, calling on the 10,000 to 15,000 Israeli nationals in Ukraine to leave. Like many of his colleagues in Jerusalem, Israeli ambassador to Kyiv Michael Brodsky assessed at the time that the situation didn't warrant such an extreme step.
  • The decision published Friday afternoon was that the families of Israeli diplomats in Ukraine should evacuate, and Israeli citizens should consider leaving.

Several hours later, the U.S. sent Israel and several other key allies, mainly in NATO, an updated intelligence report.

  • The bottom line of the report was that there was a high probability of a Russian invasion of Ukraine in less than a week.
  • The Israeli officials say it was unclear how much of the assessment was based on hard information and how much was based on analysis of the events on the ground — or influenced by lingering trauma from the botched Afghanistan exit.

Either way, the Israeli position changed almost immediately. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett convened a high-level consultation about the situation on Saturday at noon.

  • The fact that Bennett, an observant Jew, did this during Shabbat underscores the sense of urgency.
  • In a preparatory meeting at the Foreign Ministry, the Israeli ambassador in Kyiv was far more adamant than a day prior, saying "we need to get the Israelis out of here," according to an Israeli official.

When Bennett convened the meeting, he asked the Foreign Ministry officials present why they hadn't published a travel warning calling on Israelis to evacuate.

  • The officials replied that Israel's position was particularly sensitive because of its close ties with Russia, Ukraine and the U.S., and thus the world would be watching its next move.
  • Bennett said that such diplomatic considerations were now irrelevant with all signs pointing to an imminent Russian invasion, and that the goal must be to evacuate as many Israeli citizens as possible before then. The prime minister raised the prospect that Israel could have to pay a heavy price to get its citizens out after any invasion, according to the Israeli officials.
  • “The Foreign Ministry didn’t want it to look like we were all out against Russia, but on Saturday morning the penny dropped," a senior Israeli official told me. The decision was to issue the highest-urgency travel warning once the phone call between President Biden and President Putin had concluded.

In the meantime, Israeli officials spoke to their counterparts at the White House and State Department.

  • One senior Israeli official tells me the message from the U.S. side was that an invasion would likely begin on Wednesday but could also take place before then.
  • U.S. officials have said repeatedly that an invasion could happen any day but haven't confirmed reports that Wednesday is the likely target date.

The latest: After the travel warning went out on Saturday evening, Israel sent several diplomats to Kyiv to help with the evacuation process.

  • On Sunday, more than a thousand Israelis left Ukraine. Around 20 flights are expected to leave Kyiv for Tel Aviv in the coming days.
  • Israel is also preparing a contingency plan for opening a diplomatic mission in Lviv in Western Ukraine if it has to evacuate its diplomats from Kyiv. The plan also involves evacuating Israeli citizens by land via Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Moldova and Romania.
  • Initial talks with these countries have already taken place and they agreed to help, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said in a briefing on Sunday.
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