US losing patience as Israel backs Ukraine but pulls punches on Russia
(Ha’aretz) — U.S. officials are growing increasingly impatient with Israel’s attempts to support Ukraine without alienating Russia, arguing that anything less than full support for the beleaguered nation falls short.
Israel’s stance is out of sync with the international community and has provoked rare bipartisan criticism in Washington, as Jerusalem strives to maintain Moscow’s permission to operate over Syria, where Russia effectively controls the airspace and lets Israel attack Iranian targets according to numerous foreign reports.
Israel has thus far been inconsistent, with officials often stopping short of condemning Russia or Russian President Vladimir Putin. At a meeting Wednesday with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Israel stood with the people of Ukraine.
U.S. officials note the unconditional support much of the international community offered during Israel’s own rounds of fighting.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, generally considered the most pro-Israel senator in Washington, condemned Israel on Monday, accusing it of declining to sell Stinger missiles to Ukraine following a plea by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to Bennett.
“Ukraine asked Israel – no bigger fan of Israel than Lindsey Graham – for Stingers and apparently Israel said no,” the senator said, referring to the U.S.-made antiaircraft missiles. “So I’m going to get on the phone with Israel – you know, we stand up for Israel with the Iron Dome.”
The Israeli media has reported that Israel denied a Ukrainian request for the Iron Dome antimissile defense system before the invasion, with Israel hoping to remain neutral.
But the Ukrainian ambassador, Yevgen Korniychuk, said that the system had “not been discussed,” adding that “Russia uses completely different weapons from the Palestinians so Iron Dome would probably not help us.”
Still, Korniychuk on Tuesday confirmed that Ukraine had requested weapons from both Israel and other Western allies, adding that despite Israel’s repeated refusals, “we definitely are” still hopeful.
Zelenskyy also asked Bennett, among the few Western leaders to speak with Putin since Russia invaded Ukraine last Thursday, to spearhead mediation efforts between the two countries, months after Bennett proposed such a summit.
Israel’s unique status as a potential broker is another reason Israeli officials have tried to avoid alienating Russia. Bennett, for example, has yet to publicly condemn Russia, with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid acting as Israel’s “bad cop.”
The Zelenskyy-Bennett conversation happened the same day Israel refused to join 87 countries in backing a U.S.-led resolution at the UN Security Council. Israeli officials used the inevitable Russian veto as cover.
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Washington later relayed its dissatisfaction despite Israel’s commitment to support the UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia. This pledge was widely considered self-defeating after Israel instructed UN Ambassador Gilad Erdan to send deputy Noa Furman in the hope of lowering Israel’s profile during the session.
On Monday, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides, said he has “had hundreds of conversations with Israeli officials about what they can do and how they should do it.
“At the end of the day, Putin is a madman,” Nides said at an event hosted by the Jewish People Policy Institute. “What you’re witnessing in Europe, and the world coming together, to show in unity against Putin and Russia is beyond any of our imaginations.”
Nides, however, nodded when Dennis Ross, the Clinton administration’s Mideast envoy speaking alongside the ambassador, elaborated on Israel’s unique challenges.
Russia “is right next door and they can make it very difficult for Israel to continue to conduct its operations in Syria, which are geared at preventing Hezbollah from putting precision guidance on tens of thousands of rockets,” Ross said, adding that both Russia and the Biden administration have recognized Israel’s freedom of action.
Nides’ welcoming of the international unity starkly contrasted with Israel’s response after Russia struck near the Babi Yar massacre site Tuesday, where tens of thousands of Jews were killed by the Nazis and their local collaborators within two days in 1941.
Lapid criticized the “attack on the Jewish cemetery near the memorial site commemorating the Holocaust of the Jews of Kyiv and the murder of the Jewish people in Babi Yar. We call for preserving and respecting the sanctity of the site.” But he failed to blame Russia for launching such an attack.
Israeli officials’ condemnation paled in comparison to the outrage offered by countries around the world, Jewish organizations and U.S. lawmakers. The White House highlighted the strike in its readout of President Joe Biden’s phone conversation Tuesday with Zelenskyy, stating that “the leaders discussed Russia’s escalation of attacks on sites used by civilians in Ukraine, including today’s bombing near Babyn Yar Holocaust memorial.”
Former U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen said he was “deeply disappointed” with Israel’s failure to join in lockstep with the United States.
Cohen, who served in the Clinton administration but also spent decades in the House and Senate as a Republican, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour he acknowledged Israel’s “conflict of interest” related to Syria but added: “Now it comes down to: Are you with the Russians or are you with the United States and the West? They do have to make a decision here.”
As he put it, “We have been with them, we have provided financing for the Iron Dome, for the Arrow missile system and so much other military equipment, and billions of dollars economically.” He added: “We understand that this is a security interest for you. We’re now looking into the potential for the world to spin out of control with Putin now threatening to turn to nuclear weapons.”
When asked for comment on Israel’s reported rejection of Ukraine’s request for Stingers and its attempts to maintain neutrality, the State Department said the United States and its allies and partners were standing together to expedite security assistance to Ukraine.
“We are committed to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and will continue to provide Ukraine the support it needs. We refer you to the government of Israel to speak to its defense transfers,” a spokesperson said, adding that the United States “thanks those allies and partners that have provided vital security assistance to Ukraine.”
“We welcome contributions from all allies and partners to give Ukrainians the support it needs to defend itself against Russia’s aggression,” the spokesperson said.
Despite its cautious words, Israel has sent significant humanitarian aid to Ukraine including medical equipment, water purifying kits, tents, blankets, sleeping bags and coats.
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