Feb 23, 2022 - World

Israel expresses "concern" on Ukraine invasion but doesn't mention Russia

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett of Israel (on right) greets Russian President Vladimir Putin last October. Photo: Israeli government handout via Getty

In its first response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Israeli government expressed support for Ukraine's territorial integrity but declined to condemn Vladimir Putin or even mention the word Russia.

Why it matters: The Foreign Ministry statement hinted at Israel's attempt to balance aligning itself with its biggest ally, the U.S., while maintaining good relations with another superpower, Russia, with which it has an important security relationship.

The statement:

“Israel shares the concern of the international community regarding the steps taken in eastern Ukraine and the serious escalation in the situation. Israel hopes for a diplomatic solution which will lead to calm, and is willing to help if asked. Israel supports the territorial integrity and the sovereignty of Ukraine."
— Foreign Ministry spokesman Lior Haiat

Between the lines: Russia holds enormous influence in neighboring Syria, but allows Israel to operate freely against Iranian activity there.

  • Israel's pragmatic approach to Russia was also underscored when Israeli officials asked Moscow for help evacuating Israeli citizens in the event that Russia invades, prompting Ukraine to summon the Israeli ambassador.
  • Israel also notified the Russian government before evacuating its embassy in Kyiv on Monday night, and it even gave the Russian government the coordinates of Israel's temporary mission in Lviv in western Ukraine to ensure it isn't bombed, Israeli officials tell me.
  • Israel also shared the evacuation plans with the Ukrainians, who expressed disappointment.

Behind the scenes: Wednesday's statement was approved in a high-level meeting convened by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, which included Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

  • Israeli officials say the statement was intended to show which side Israel was on in the conflict without burning any bridges with Russia, and was not the result of U.S. pressure. The language can be strengthened in case of further escalation, the officials said.
  • A senior U.S. official confirmed the Biden administration hasn't pressed Israel on Ukraine. The official said the U.S. understands Israel’s situation with Russia in Syria and is satisfied with what the Israelis are saying and doing in private.

State of play: Israel had planned to evacuate the embassy on Tuesday morning but Lapid decided to begin immediately after Putin's threatening speech on Monday.

  • The Israeli diplomats left secretly at midnight in several motorcades and arrived in Lviv on Tuesday.
  • Preparations for an evacuation had already taken place days earlier, including the burning of classified documents and removal of sensitive equipment, Israeli officials say.

What to watch: The government also proposed an immediate transfer of humanitarian assistance to Ukraine and said it was in contact with the Ukrainian government on that issue.

  • In the statement, the Israeli Foreign Ministry also said it was concerned about the welfare of the thousands of Israeli citizens living in Ukraine and of the Jewish community in the country.
Go deeper