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Russia-Ukraine War and Israel’s Mediation Efforts: A Lasting Peace to Come?

*Dr Kateryna Tyminska, PhD, is an expert in Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and former diplomat.

BY Dr Kateryna Tyminska, PhD*

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09/19/2022

Russia-Ukraine War and Israel’s Mediation Efforts: A Lasting Peace to Come?

In February 2014, Russia’s illegal occupation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula undermined the international post-war order. Russia-backed military activities in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions eroded regional stability and security. New regional and global threats to peace and security have emerged. Eight years later, on 24 February 2022, Russia raised the stakes and attacked its neighbour, bringing a large-scale war to the European continent.

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine was internationally condemned. The United Nations General Assembly (UN GA) Resolution titled Aggression against Ukraine demanded that the ‘Russian Federation immediately ceases its use of force against Ukraine and refrains from any further unlawful threat or use of force against any Member State.’[i] Countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) voted in favour of the Resolution along with other 135 nations condemning Russia’s invasion of its neighbour. The UN GA also called for an ‘immediate peaceful resolution of the conflict between the Russian Federation and Ukraine through political dialogue, negotiations, mediation and other peaceful means.’[ii] These efforts were put into practice by Israel and Türkiye — countries that are well accepted and highly perceived on both sides of the Russia-Ukraine war.

Officials in Ankara and Jerusalem have taken steps to keep communication lines with the Kremlin as efficient as possible. Neither has introduced sanctions against Russia, explaining it would harm the potential of being mediators in conflict resolution. Moreover, it might undermine the established agreements on other topical issues where Moscow has a leverage, particularly concerning Iran, Palestine and Syria. Undoubtedly, for both Israel and Türkiye, balancing their domestic and foreign policy security agendas is crucial when it comes to the dialogue with Russia. Moscow’s presence in peace talks on Syria and Iran’s nuclear programme, and its ability to secure guarantees from partners “across the aisle” have been keeping Israel and Türkiye away from harsh critique that might harm fragile accords in key regional dossiers.

The “Crimean Question” as a Litmus Test for Partnership Cooperation

In the course of President of Türkiye Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Kyiv, President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, ‘noted the initiative of the Turkish leader to become a mediator between Ukraine and Russia on the way to ending the war in Donbas.’[iii] This was seconded by Türkiye’s President at NATO leaders’ summit in Brussels with expressed readiness for ‘intense contact with both Ukraine and Russia to end the war as soon as possible.’[iv]

Prior to the 2022 invasion, Ukraine’s key political and strategic partnership “litmus test” was any country’s stance on the “Crimean question”. Türkiye condemned in its strongest terms Russia’s occupation of the Crimean Peninsula and stated that return of the territory to Ukraine is a requirement of the international law.[v] In contrast, Israel may have been less publicly outspoken on the issue, but votes “in favour” of UN GA resolutions condemning Russia’s occupation of Ukraine’s territory prove that the country respects Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty in its internationally recognised borders.

Ukraine-Israel Relations

Ukraine-Israel relations have been mostly seen through perspectives of aliyah (immigration of Jews to Israel), revival of Jewish religious life in Ukraine after the proclamation of its independence (1991), and Ashkenazi (Eastern European Jews) backgrounds of decision-makers in Israel. Nazi-organised crimes of “Holocaust by bullets” that begun in Kyiv’s Babyn Yar are painful reminders of common sorrows and pains.[vi] Ukraine’s 2,673 “Righteous Among the Nations” places the country in top-5 globally of whose nationals rescued Jews during the horrors of World War II (WWII).[vii]

The past naturally takes a sacred place in bilateral relations between these states, and with Israel carving a niche as being a “start-up nation,” Ukraine has become a magnet for Israeli IT hubs, besides trading goods, services and direct investments. In his address to Israel’s Knesset in March 2022, Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy reiterated these sentiments while asking why is Israel reluctant to send weapons to Kyiv or toughen sanctions against Moscow, comparing Russia’s offensive against Ukrainians to Hitler’s Final Solution.[viii] Many Israeli lawmakers found those statements outrageous for many reasons, including the extremely sensitive issue of Ukrainian collaborators during WWII.[ix]

However, since the first days of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in February 2022, Israel was among the first to condemn the attack, provide vital humanitarian assistance to the citizens of Ukraine and call for a peaceful settlement of the conflict. Ukrainians fleeing the war were welcomed in the State of Israel and only then immigration two-tier system of Jews and non-Jews was put in place.

Ukrainian Refugees in Israel

In early March 2022, Israel’s Minister of the Interior, Ayelet Shaked, announced that quota for 5,000 Ukrainians would be set amid 20,000 of Ukrainians already visiting Israel before the war broke out.[x] It immediately sparked outcry and retreat from common diplomatic practices. Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, Andriy Yermak, called Israel’s decision to revoke visa-free regime with Ukraine and the establishment of quotas for refugees as ‘an unfriendly step which has to be immediately reviewed.’[xi] Ukraine’s Ambassador to Israel, Yevgen Korniychuk, went further and filed a lawsuit against ‘the actions of Israeli government and personally Ayelet Shaked.’[xii] Mixed messages from officials in Kyiv were most probably fuelled by Ukraine’s frustration over the urgent need of military supplies, and the expectations that Israel’s handling of “uneasy neighbours” and “living life as usual” under daily threats would enhance empathy towards a country under attack.

Israel’s Assistance to Ukraine in Times of War

Setting a double-tier immigration policy aside, Israel continued its humanitarian assistance to Ukrainians in need. Israel’s delegation led by the Minister of Health, Nitzan Horowitz, was among the first international dignitaries to arrive to Ukraine. They visited the newly established Kohav Meir field hospital[xiii] and condemned ‘Russia’s massacres in Bucha and war crimes carried out across the country.’[xiv] Moreover, it was quite symbolic and brave of the Israel’s diplomatic mission in Kyiv to be among the first to renew its full-scale work in Ukraine, irrespective of continuous security threats.

Softening its critique on Jerusalem’s migration rules, Ukraine’s leadership[xv] referred to Israel as a leading example of a self-defence state, seeing it ‘as one of the guarantors of a major international treaty that would provide clear security guarantees for our country after the end of the war with Russia.’[xvi] Nonetheless, US-led requests to transfer Israeli Spike anti-tank missiles to Ukraine were not approved.[xvii] But time showed that Israel’s delicate balancing with Russia over crucial regional dossiers was not beneficial either. Moscow’s decision to outlaw the Jewish Agency for Israel (July 2022) worsened relations with Jerusalem and reduced space for political and diplomatic manoeuvres.[xviii]

Naftali Bennett’s Mission

In the closing months of 2021, when Israel and Russia celebrated the 30th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations, the first in-office visit of Israeli Foreign Minister, Yair Lapid, was to Moscow. The new Israeli Cabinet was driven to fast-forward relations with Russia, consolidate its post-Netanyahu international image and enhance cooperation on the Iran, Palestine and Syria portfolios. The growing Russian military presence along the border of Ukraine seemed to be an ‘elephant in the room,’ but that drastically changed when Israel’s Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, pledged to mediate the conflict. His swift manner and attempts to consolidate a solid communication channel between Presidents of Russia and Ukraine were highlighted by the fact that he travelled to Moscow on Shabbat in early March 2022. It gave not only symbolic importance to the Jewish concept of pikuach nefesh (the moral obligation to save a life in jeopardy), but to Israel’s readiness to use its good relations with both sides to save lives and stop the bloodshed.

Interestingly, Bennett’s mission strengthened identity feelings within what has always been seen as the “Russian street” in Israel (15% of Israeli population are Jewish immigrants from former USSR countries predominantly speaking Russian) and in diaspora.[xix] It added to an overwhelming support of Ukraine in its defensive war from 90% of Israel’s left-wing citizens and 68% of the right-wing ones.[xx] Rallies in the streets of Israeli cities, protests by the Russian Embassy and gatherings by the residence of Israel’s Prime Minister Bennett were as driven as they were throughout Europe at the same time. Handwritten signs reading “Naftali, you can!” and chants to help Ukraine aimed to inspire the newly sworn Israeli Prime Minister to do the right thing and help bring peace.

Sometimes blamed for not shunning Russia or expected to stay out of the conflict, criticised for avoiding direct accusations in his first statement after Russia’s invasion, Bennett still managed to assume a pole position for brokering peace. His notorious statement on ‘praying for the well-being of the citizens of Ukraine and hope that additional bloodshed will be avoided’ was in complete adherence with the declared ‘measured and responsible policy.’[xxi] Moreover, it was backed by Israel’s Foreign Minister Lapid’s reaction that ‘the Russian attack on Ukraine is a serious violation of the international order.’[xxii]

As recently explained by Israeli leadership, those steps were part of ‘being on a right side of history’ along with Israel’s co-sponsoring and voting in favour of the UN GA Resolution “Aggression against Ukraine.”[xxiii] The history of Ukraine’s voting in favour of UN Security Council Resolution 2334 (2016)[xxiv] regarding ‘no legal validity of Israel’s settlements in Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem,’[xxv] did not affect the decision.

Shuttle Diplomacy

Naftali Bennett’s shuttle diplomacy and personal dedication to stop Russia’s aggression against Ukraine shaped his political maturity in many ways. Firstly, his leadership skills proved to be as highly appraised as his predecessor’s. Secondly, he managed not to grow into a staunch ‘anti-Bibi’ domestically and internationally.[xxvi] Thirdly, he served as an example to his coalition government and gave hopes (internally) that domestic turbulence may be tempered during global crises. Fourthly, his diplomatic efforts paved grounds for rapprochements in other areas (i.e., normalisation of relations with Türkiye). Fifthly, Israel did not trap itself into an “excuse policy” defending the presence of Russian oligarchs of Jewish background on its soil.[xxvii] Neither did it review its decision not to supply offensive weapons to Kyiv amid growing pressure from Washington. More importantly, the country developed its niche as a responsible partner playing by the rules and for the sake of relations in the spirit of mutual understanding, peace and security.

To those taking Israel’s mediation efforts with a grain of salt and demanding immediate results or permanent solutions, Naftali Bennett’s job is not fully accomplished. However, it is the attempt that counts the most and the ability to find inner strength and general focus to mediate and facilitate. With Türkiye brokering[xxviii] a so-called “grain deal” in Istanbul there might be a feeling that Bennett’s mission is fait accompli, but one should not set aside possible prospects of the State of Israel as a security guarantor of Ukraine.[xxix] In that case, it sheds a different light on Israel in terms of its political, security and humanitarian cooperation with countries in the region and across the globe, its aims and tactics in achieving what serves the best to its national interests in foreign and security policies, as well as good faith traditions.

Resources

  1. United Nations General Assembly, Resolution ‘Aggression against Ukraine’, 1 March 2022, https://s3.documentcloud.org/documents/21314169/unga-resolution.pdf
  2. Ibid.
  3. President of Ukraine, ‘Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Historical Visit of Turkish President demonstrates who is a friend of Ukraine, always willing to help,’ Press release, 3 February 2022, https://www.president.gov.ua/en/news/volodimir-zelenskij-istorichnij-vizit-prezidenta-turechchini-72709
  4. TRT World and Agencies, ‘Erdogan: Ukraine conflict resolution must be based on ‘credible formula,’ TRT World, 24 March 2022, https://www.trtworld.com/turkey/erdogan-ukraine-conflict-resolution-must-be-based-on-credible-formula-55789
  5. Diyar Güldoğan, ‘Return of Crimea to Ukraine a requirement of international law: Turkish president,’ Anadolu Agency, 23 August 2022, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/russia-ukraine-war/return-of-crimea-to-ukraine-a-requirement-of-international-law-turkish-president/2667680
  6. Stéphanie Trouillard, ‘The first major massacre in the “Holocaust by bullets”: Babi Yar, 80 years on,’ France 24, 29 September 2021,https://www.france24.com/en/europe/20210929-the-first-major-massacre-in-the-holocaust-by-bullets-babi-yar-80-years-on
  7. Names and Numbers of Righteous Among the Nations – per Country and Ethnic Origin, as of 1 January 2021, The World Holocaust Remembrance Center Yad Vashem, https://www.yadvashem.org/righteous/statistics.html
  8. President of Ukraine, ‘Speech by President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the Knesset,’ 20 March 2022,https://www.president.gov.ua/en/news/promova-prezidenta-ukrayini-volodimira-zelenskogo-v-kneseti-73701
  9. TOI Staff, ‘Israeli lawmakers tear into Zelensky for Holocaust comparisons in Knesset speech,’ The Times of Israel, 20 March 2022, https://www.timesofisrael.com/israeli-lawmakers-tear-into-zelensky-for-holocaust-comparisons-in-knesset-speech/
  10. Office of the Prime Minister of the State of Israel, ‘IM Shaked: “According to the data, we are en route to 15,000 Ukrainians by the end of the month,”’ Press release, Government Press Office, 6 March 2022, https://www.gov.il/en/departments/news/shaked07032022
  11. Andiry Yermak, Facebook post, 15 March 2022, https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=4827171237336720&id=100001316744918
  12. ‘Ambassador of Ukraine to Israel files lawsuit against Interior Ministry regarding accepting Ukrainian refugees,’ Interfax-Ukraine, Ukraine News Agency, 13 March 2022, https://interfax.com.ua/news/general/812695.html
  13. Ido Efrati, ‘Israeli Minister Visits Ukraine, Decries ‘Russian War Crimes,’ Haaretz, 4 April 2022, https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/2022-04-04/ty-article/.premium/israeli-minister-visits-ukraine-decries-russian-war-crimes/00000180-5bbe-dee0-afd6-7bffaf290000
  14. Jerusalem Post Staff, ‘Israel “stands with Ukraine against Russian war crimes, massacres” – Horowitz,’ The Jerusalem Post, 4 April 2022, https://www.jpost.com/israel-news/article-703206
  15. President of Ukraine, ‘Volodymyr Zelenskyy: Ukraine will build a European liberalized state, but with strong protection like the Israeli one – President during a meeting with professors and students of Israeli universities,’ Press release, 23 June 2022, https://www.president.gov.ua/en/news/ukrayina-buduvatime-yevropejsku-liberalizovanu-derzhavu-ale-76013
  16. President of Ukraine, ‘Andriy Yermak: Israel could become one of the guarantors of the international agreement on security guarantees for Ukraine, as it should understand us like no other,’ Press release, 24 March 2022, https://www.president.gov.ua/en/news/izrayil-mig-bi-stati-odnim-iz-garantiv-mizhnarodnogo-dogovor-73797
  17. TOI Staff, ‘Israel refused US request to transfer anti-tank missiles to Ukraine — report’, The Times of Israel, 27 May 2022, https://www.timesofisrael.com/israel-refused-us-request-to-transfer-anti-tank-missiles-to-ukraine-report/
  18. Марина Барановская, ‘Почему власти РФ решили закрыть представительство “Сохнута,”’ Deutsche Welle, 13 August 2022,  https://www.dw.com/ru/pochemu-vlasti-rossii-reshili-zakryt-predstavitelstvo-sohnuta/a-62785192
  19. Lily Galili, ‘Russia-Ukraine war: For Israel’s Russian speakers conflict is painful and personal,’ Middle East Eye, 25 February 2022, https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/russia-ukraine-war-israel-russian-speakers-conflict-personal-painful
  20. Jerusalem Post Staff, ‘A majority of Israelis support Ukraine in the war with Russia – survey,’ The Jerusalem Post, 5 March 2022, https://www.jpost.com/israel-news/politics-and-diplomacy/article-699374
  21. Office of the Prime Minister of the State of Israel, ‘PM Bennett’s Remarks at the Start of the Weekly Cabinet Meeting,’ Press release, 27 February 2022,https://www.gov.il/en/departments/news/spoke_start270222
  22. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the State of Israel, ‘Israel condemns attack in Ukraine,’ Press release, 24 February 2022, https://www.gov.il/en/departments/news/israel-condemns-attack-in-ukraine-24-feb-2022
  23. United Nations General Assembly, Resolution ‘Aggression against Ukraine.’
  24. United Nations Security Council, Resolution 2334 (2016) adopted by the Security Council at its 7853rd meeting, 23 December 2016, https://www.un.org/webcast/pdfs/SRES2334-2016.pdf
  25. United Nations, Meetings Coverage and Press Releases, ‘Israel’s Settlements Have No Legal Validity, Constitute Flagrant Violation of International Law, Security Council Reaffirms,’ 23 December 2016, https://press.un.org/en/2016/sc12657.doc.htm
  26. Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu served as the 9th Prime Minister of the State of Israel in 1996-1999 and 2009-2021.
  27. Elliott Abrams and Gideon Weiss, ‘Why Israel Has Been Slow to Support Ukraine,’ Council on Foreign Relations, 8 April 2022,https://www.cfr.org/article/why-israel-has-been-slow-support-ukraine
  28. Al Jazeera, ‘Turkey says Russia, Ukraine to sign grain export deal on Friday,’ Al Jazeera, 22 July 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/7/21/turkey-says-russia-ukraine-to-sign-un-grain-export-deal-friday
  29. Bahtiyar Abdülkerimov, ‘Ukraine’s negotiations with security guarantor countries to be completed in 1 week,’ Anadolu Agency, 23 April 2022, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/russia-ukraine-war/ukraines-negotiations-with-security-guarantor-countries-to-be-completed-in-1-week/2570734