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January 4, 2023 11:59 am

Israel a ‘Difficult Country’ Says Ukraine Foreign Minister, As Speculation Mounts Over Thawing of Russian-Israeli Ties

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Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba is seen at a NATO meeting in Bucharest, Romania. Photo: Reuters/Stoyan Nenov

Ukraine’s foreign minister described Israel as a “difficult country” in his press briefing on Wednesday, as speculation mounted over whether the new Israeli government will revive bilateral relations with Russia.

“Israel is a difficult country. There is experience of interaction with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu in Ukraine, we have heard the statements and actions of the new Israeli foreign minister,” Dmytro Kuleba said. Israel’s newly appointed foreign minister, Eli Cohen, spoke by telephone with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday, breaking with the previous government’s policy, introduced at the start of the invasion of Ukraine last February, of shunning contact with top Russian officials.

“Now, to be honest, it is too early to say what exactly Israel’s position will be,” Kuleba continued. “I can roughly imagine it, but let everyone see it first.”

Following his call with Lavrov — who sparked the ire of Israeli and Jewish leaders last April when he opined that Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler had “Jewish blood”and accused Israel of backing “neo-Nazis” in Ukraine — Cohen said the two had discussed a variety of “bilateral and regional” issues, among them Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, a matter which he had earlier pledged to “talk less” about during his inaugural speech as foreign minister.

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A statement from the Russian foreign ministry after the call specified that Lavrov had spoken in favor of a political solution in Syria, where Russia retains a military presence in support of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime — a vexed challenge for Israel, which has frequently cited the Russian presence on its border as a key reason for its reluctance to arm Ukraine.

Lavrov also urged Israel to break ranks with other western nations that have imposed robust sanctions against Russia, calling for the convening of a “Russian-Israeli Commission” to explore “the potential for trade and economic cooperation.”

Cohen’s discussion with Lavrov drew responses from Ukrainian and American leaders along the spectrum from negative to neutral.

Oleskander Scherba, Ukraine’s Ambassador-at-large, declared himself incredulous at the news. “[Volodymyr] Zelensky, Ukraine’s Jewish president: Russia preparing a mega-attack with Iranian drones. Chief Rabbi of Russia: recommend all Jews leave RU. Israel’s new foreign minister: we won’t help Ukraine militarily & will start talking to Russia again. Strange,” Scherba tweeted.

Iran’s military alliance with Russia — which has seen Tehran supply Moscow with hundreds of Shahed-131 and Shahed-136 drones used to devastating effect against Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure — has led to increasingly anguished demands from Ukraine’s democratic government for Israel to match its humanitarian assistance operation in Ukraine with military aid.

US Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) — a strong supporter of both Israel and Ukraine — also expressed disquiet. “I’m glad to see Mr. Cohen, the new Israeli foreign minister, is prioritizing the US-Israel strategic relationship and supports continued humanitarian aid to Ukraine,” he tweeted. “However, the idea that Israel should speak less about Russia’s criminal invasion of Ukraine is a bit unnerving.”

The US State Department’s reaction to the Lavrov-Cohen call was more measured, however. At a press briefing on Tuesday, spokesperson Ned Price said he did not anticipate any change in Israel’s position of providing humanitarian aid and political support to Ukraine. On the question of possible Israeli mediation in the conflict, Price said the US would not be opposed to Israel “potentially playing or try to play a role in the talks between Russia and Ukraine,” but that ultimately, “this issue is primarily for Ukraine.”

“If Israel or any other country has the opportunity to help stop Russia’s brutal aggression against Ukraine, then we would welcome it, if the terms of this effort are acceptable to our Ukrainian partners,” Price emphasized.



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