02/28/2022, 15.08
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Bennett's difficult balancing act between Kyiv and Moscow

by Giorgio Bernardelli

So far, the Israeli leader has kept a low profile in the crisis, trying to preserve ties with Ukraine whilst keeping his Russia connection, especially to counter Iran. Now however, Israel will have to take sides at the UN General Assembly and domestic public opinion is pressing for a condemnation of Russia. Meanwhile, 2,500 Ukrainian Jews have already applied for immigration to Israel under the Law of Return.

Milan (AsiaNews) – Israeli Prime Minister Neftali Bennett has told members of his cabinet to keep a low profile in the name of the country’s interests whilst offering himself as mediator to Russian President Vladimir Putin, an offer rejected so far.

But with each passing day following the invasion of Ukraine, it is getting harder and harder for the Israeli leader to keep up this position.

On the one hand, Jews of Ukrainian origin living in Israel are demanding a strong stance against Moscow, whilst its strongest ally, the United States, is calling on Israel to show solidarity. On the other, Israel has nurtured a close relationship with Vladimir Putin in view of Russia’s wider role in the Middle Est over the past decade.

From an Israeli point of view, ties with Moscow matter since Russia controls Syria’s airspace, which Israeli planes have violated in order to carry out raids against pro-Iranian targets.

For this reason, Israel has tried so far to keep a balance between the two sides with different responses, ranging from Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who condemned the Russian invasion, to the more tight-lipped Bennett.

But now that the issue is before the UN General Assembly, Israel will have to make an explicit choice, and decide whether to vote in favour of the resolution condemning Russia or abstain.

Within the country among public opinion, pressure is mounting for a condemnation of Russia. Ukraine is a country that has many ties to Israel and in many areas, from the thousands of Ukrainian engineers working in the Israeli hi-tech sector to wheat imports from Ukraine.

Even Breslov Hasidim (Ultra-Orthodox Jews), one of Israel’s most important Haredi groups, have their roots in Uman, not far from Kyiv, where thousands go on pilgrimage every year.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has recently tried to leverage these ties by asking for military supplies and putting Ukraine's official recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital on the table in exchange. Bennett has so far rejected the request.

There is also an entirely Jewish aspect to the story, since Ukraine is home to one of the largest communities in the diaspora.

According to the Jewish Agency, the body that oversees the immigration of Jews from all over the world to Israel, about 2,500 Ukrainian Jews have already applied for immediate immigration to Israel since the start of the Russian invasion.

Officially, approximately 43,000 Jews live in Ukraine, but according to the rules of the Law of Return, which guarantees the right to immigration to Israel for anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent, about 200,000 Ukrainians could potentially demand Israeli citizenship.

The Jewish Agency is preparing to receive at least 10,000 in the coming days. In Israeli public opinion, their fate today overlaps with the memory of past persecutions.

Ukraine is the country of Babi Yar, the site of the terrible tragedy that saw the Nazis exterminated about 200,000 people, mostly Jews, between 1941 and 1943.

At present, Jews from Odessa are heading to Moldova, precisely towards Chișinău which at the beginning of the 20th century saw one of the worst pogroms in history.

Since then, the old wounds have never healed and still weigh on Jewish consciousness as images of the last Shabbat celebrated in Kyiv’s underground shelters are shared on social media.

In a press release, Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, said it “deplores the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which will inevitably lead to dire consequences.”

At the same time, it slams the two sides for “the propagandist discourse accompanying the current hostilities” and the “irresponsible statements and completely inaccurate comparisons with Nazi ideology”.

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