Oct 25, 2022 - World

Ukraine's FM criticizes Israeli politicians who boasted about friendships with Putin

Dmytro Kuleba

Dmytro Kuleba. Photo: Marcus Brandt/AFP via Getty Images

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba expressed tacit criticism about Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu for his rhetoric on the Russian invasion of Ukraine and his attitude towards Russian President Vladimir Putin during his time as Israel’s prime minister.

Why it matters: There is a chance that Netanyahu's bloc could win a 61-seat majority in the Knesset, which would allow him to form a government less than 18 months after being ousted from office.

Flashback: During his 12 years as prime minister, Netanyahu had close relations with Putin, speaking to the Russian president on the phone every few weeks and meeting in person every few months.

  • In his recently-published book, Netanyahu writes positively about Putin and describes him as “smart, sophisticated and focused on one goal – returning Russia to its historical greatness."
  • In the initial months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Netanyahu avoided criticizing Putin or condemning Russia’s actions. He criticized the Israeli government, saying it has been too involved in the crisis.

Yes, but: In a series of interviews with U.S. press over the last two weeks, Netanyahu changed his tune and said he hopes Putin will realize the invasion was a mistake. He even said he would “look into” providing weapons to Ukraine if he forms the next government.

  • Between the lines: Tens of thousands of Israelis from Ukrainian backgrounds are eligible to vote in the upcoming elections, with many supporting Netanyahu's political rival and current prime minister, Yair Lapid.

What they're saying: Asked about Netanyahu’s recent remarks, Kuleba told Axios he doesn’t want to interfere in domestic Israeli politics or the elections, but added that there were times when people were honored to be friends with Putin, but now those individuals should be ashamed.

  • “If someone does not understand that the reality has changed, this is his political and moral responsibility…because the wheels of history are turning in the direction opposite to the one that many politicians had made their careers on," he said.
  • Kuleba claimed one of the reasons Israel hasn’t agreed to provide Ukraine with air defense systems and other weapons was due to domestic political considerations ahead of the elections.
  • “I will not name anyone, but let me say this - If anyone in the Israeli political elite believes that the nicer you are towards Russia, the better Russia will treat you. These people are wrong," Kuleba said.
  • He stressed that anybody who stays neutral and says "it is not our war, we should mind our own business" is effectively supporting Russia and allowing Moscow to continue to commit crimes.

State of play: Last week, Kuleba spoke to Lapid and asked him to provide Kyiv with air defense systems against the Iranian-made drones Russia is using in Ukraine.

  • Israel has given Ukraine humanitarian aid and helmets and bulletproof vests, but it has so far refrained from providing advanced weaponry and defensive weapon systems to Ukraine, fearing a clash with Russia that could harm Israel’s security interests in Syria.
  • On the call, Lapid stressed that Israel is not politically neutral and is on the side of Ukraine, but in terms of practical military cooperation, it remains neutral.
  • “It was a very honest and frank conversation. I tried to convince Lapid that I think it's a strategic mistake. And I believe that it would be in the best strategic interests of Israel to cooperate fully with Ukraine," Kuleba said.
  • The Ukrainian foreign minister added that he told Lapid that Ukraine will keep pushing Israel to provide it with weapons. “And the day will come when the government of Israel will make this decision," he predicted.

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