Mar 2, 2022 - World

Inside U.S.-Israel discussions on Ukraine

From left: Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Government Secretary Shalom Shlomo attend a Cabinet meeting on Feb. 27. Photo: Abir al-Ahmar/AFP via Getty Images
From left: Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Government Secretary Shalom Shlomo attend a Cabinet meeting on Feb. 27. Photo: Abir al-Ahmar/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. officials privately urged Israel to take a clearer stance on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, three U.S. and Israeli officials told me.

Why it matters: That contrasts with the Israeli government's public claim that the Biden administration has no complaints about Israeli policy and understands Israel's need to calibrate its reaction to the Russian invasion in order to maintain its security coordination with Russia in Syria.

A senior Biden administration official told me the U.S. understands Israel’s interests regarding Russia in Syria.

  • But after Russia invaded Ukraine, U.S. officials urged Israel to take a clear stance and be on the right side of the issue, the official said.
  • “We told the Israelis this is a moment of right and wrong," the official said.

Behind the scenes: Ahead of the UN Security Council vote last Friday on a resolution condemning Russia for the invasion, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield and other U.S. officials lobbied the Israelis to join dozens of co-sponsors of the resolution.

  • Thomas-Greenfield even told her Israeli counterpart Gilad Erdan that President Biden expected Israel to co-sponsor the resolution, according to the Israeli officials.
  • Erdan recommended that Israel co-sponsor it, but Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid decided not to.
  • Shortly after, Thomas-Greenfield protested to Erdan and expressed disappointment with Israel while mentioning Biden's expectation once again, an Israeli official told me.

The messages from the White House were more nuanced, several Israeli officials said.

  • A senior Israeli official told me the U.S. didn’t push or press Israel hard, but urged and expressed its expectation that Israel would sound a moral voice.
  • On Sunday, the Biden administration was initially concerned when it heard reports that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett told Cabinet ministers not to speak publicly about the Russian invasion and not to criticize Russia, a U.S. official said.
  • According to the U.S. official, when the White House and State Department raised their concerns, the Israelis made clear the directive was given to ensure that only Lapid and Bennett spoke publicly about it.

To reassure the Biden administration, Lapid gave a statement the next day stressing Israel is against the Russian invasion and would vote in favor of condemning Russia at the UN General Assembly.

  • “We feel good about the Israeli position heading into this historic vote. Their position has been positive and helpful, and we have an ongoing dialogue with Israel about the crisis," the U.S. official said.

The big picture: Israel voted Wednesday at the UN General Assembly to condemn the invasion.

What to watch: Israeli officials say they are concerned about the perception created in the U.S. that Israel wasn’t supporting Ukraine.

  • Republican and Democratic senators have criticized Israel in recent days, in addition to critical reports in U.S. media.
  • Yesterday, Michael Herzog, Israel's ambassador to the U.S., stressed in a series of tweets that Israel opposes the Russian invasion and will support condemning it at the UN.
  • Israeli officials say they will continue conveying this message in public in an effort to change the U.S. perception.
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