Israel may not have much to lose now by clearly siding with Ukraine.
By Pesach Benson, World Israel News
Coming on the heels of Yom HaShoah, the remarks by Russia’s top diplomat that sparked an uproar in Israel were akin to spitting on the ashes of six million Jews killed by the Nazis.
Asked by Italian media on Sunday about Moscow’s claim that Ukraine is run by a Nazi regime, considering the fact that President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov responded, “So what if Zelensky is Jewish? Hitler had Jewish blood.”
Lavrov went on to state that “the greatest antisemites were Jews.”
The remarks, naturally, sparked denunciation from Israel and Germany, the two countries most intimately acquainted with the Holocaust.
Lavrov then doubled down on his Holocaust revisionism when asked to respond to criticism from his Israeli counterpart, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. Lavrov dismissed Lapid’s comments as “anti-historical,” adding that they explain “to a large extent why the current Israeli government supports the neo-Nazi regime in Kyiv.”
Indeed, Lapid’s father was a Holocaust survivor, having been rescued from the Nazis by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg
Further Russian provocations
Russia continued piling criticism on Israel on Wednesday. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova claimed Israeli mercenaries are fighting alongside Ukraine’s Azov Battalion.
The “mercenaries” to whom Zakharova was presumably referring were dual Ukrainian-Israeli citizens. Ukrainian nationals between the ages of 18 and 60 are prohibited from leaving the country and are expected to fight, even if they hold citizenship with another country. A small number of dual nationals in Israel flew to Ukraine after the invasion.
Overall, it’s not clear how many Israeli-Ukrainians were conscripted or volunteered to fight.
The background on the Azov Battalion makes it a useful Exhibit A for Russian insistence that Ukraine is riddled with Nazis.
The Azov Battalion is former independent militia of neo-Nazis founded in 2014 to fight Russian separatists in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Later that year, the battalion was among a number of other militias formally incorporated into Ukraine’s National Guard. The battalion, is believed to have 900-2,500 fighters and its symbols are deliberately based on Nazi military symbols.
Further fueling the fire, a delegation of senior Hamas leaders is currently in Moscow. The Jerusalem Post reported that the group was due to meet with Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, and possibly Lavrov as well if his schedule permits.
Clearly, Moscow is not going to back down from its false rhetoric that it invaded Ukraine in order to “denazify” the country.
The dispute presents a turning point for Israel-Russia relations. Until now, Israel has bent over backwards to temper its criticism of Russia and support for Ukraine for three reasons.
1. Jerusalem did not want to endanger its security cooperation with Moscow over Syria.
2. Israel was in a unique position to mediate the conflict.
3. Israelis are cognizant that a more pro-Ukraine position could trigger an antisemitic backlash against Russia’s roughly 166,000 Jews.
Rethinking security cooperation
In 2018, as part of an arrangement for Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar Assad to deploy in the Syrian Golan, Russia guaranteed Israel it would keep Iran and its proxies away from the Israeli border. There would be no foreign forces in proximity to the 155-square-mile buffer zone between the two countries.
But that hasn’t worked out.
What has largely worked out, so far, is the “deconfliction” arrangements between Jerusalem and Moscow. Putin turns a blind eye to Israeli airstrikes on Iranian targets — including those in areas he had guaranteed. Jerusalem gives Moscow just enough notice so that Russian and Israeli pilots don’t fire on each other.
But after seeing the Russian military’s underwhelming performance in Ukraine, Israel may conclude that Russian forces in Syria don’t pose as big a threat as assumed.
Does the Israeli security establishment regard Russia’s deterrence in Syria as eroding, and if so, how can Jerusalem capitalize on that?
Mediating the conflict
It was hard to believe Israel was playing a mediating role in a far-away conflict. But now things have changed.
Lavrov did not merely claim that the Ukrainian government of President Volodymyr Zelensky is riddled with Nazis. He claimed that Israel is actively supporting them too.
National honor means Israel cannot continue mediating as if nothing happened. Putin has bigger worries than Israel right now. There won’t be an apology, and Israel won’t be at the forefront of international diplomacy.
Had Moscow held Israel’s peace efforts more seriously, Lavrov would not have said what he said, much less dig in his heels. Other countries — such as Turkey — may reasonably conclude that Russia is not serious about peace, so why waste time mediating?
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett gave it a shot . Nobody can fault him for trying, but that chapter is closed.
The big unknown is where this collision course leaves Russia’s 165,000 Jews. Two of Russia’s most influential rabbis highlight the conundrum.
On one hand, Russia’s Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar took the unusual step of cautiously hoping that Lavrov apologize for his remarks. Russian religious leaders rarely, if ever, publicly criticize the government.
“I do not consider myself entitled to give advice to the head of Russian diplomacy — but it would be nice if he apologized to the Jews and simply admitted that he was mistaken,” Lazar wrote to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
On the other hand, conflicting media reports claim that Moscow Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt has either resigned and fled Russia or is tending to his sick father in Israel.
All that is really known is that before leaving Moscow, he transferred responsibility to his assistant, Rabbi David Yoshubiev.
Rabbi Goldschmidt also serves as the influential president of the Conference of European Rabbis.
One point that is clear is that Israelis are sympathetic to Ukraine for a variety of reasons.
Many Israelis are of Ukrainian descent. Ukraine is trying to pull itself out of Russia’s orbit and align itself with the West. Zelensky is not only Jewish, but articulates a message of national pride and David vs. the Russian Goliath, to which Israelis can relate.
And while the invasion may not amount to genocide, the ethos of “Never Again” weighs heavily amid the accumulating reports of Russian atrocities.
For the last two months, Israel has tread cautiously around the Russian bear. But Lavrov’s stubborn and delusional comments make it worth asking how much Jerusalem really stands to lose by more assertively backing Ukraine. It may not be much.