|Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has prompted a host of reactions from the Middle East, though few of these have been as unequivocal as in Europe or North America.
- Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid confirmed on Monday that Israel would vote in favour of a UN General Assembly resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
- Lapid said that Israel had a moral responsibility to both condemn Russia for its action and provide humanitarian assistance to the Ukrainians.
- “Israel was and will be on the right side of history”, Lapid said, adding that “we have a moral duty and historical obligation to be part of the effort”.
- Saturday saw Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy offer his solidarity with the Ukrainian people in a conversation with his Ukrainian counterpart, in which he condemned the invasion as “a blatant violation of international order”.
- Israel’s unusual record of maintaining relatively warm relations with both Ukraine and Russia was defended by Lapid through Israel’s need to be “careful and discretionary” due to the presence of Russian forces in Syria, as well as Ukraine and Russia’s large Jewish populations.
- 100 tonnes of Israeli humanitarian aid for Ukraine – in the form of thousands of coats, blankets, sleeping bags, medical equipment, tents and water purification equipment – began to be sent from Monday this week.
- The Israeli opposition has been uncharacteristically quiet with regard to the invasion, with leader of the opposition Benjamin Netanyahu not having commented publicly. Relations with Russia warmed considerably under Netanyahu’s premiership, which ended last year.
- The Israeli people have been much more forthright in their condemnation of Russia, with thousands gathering in Tel Aviv’s HaBimo Square on Saturday to protest the invasion and to push a firmer Israeli response.
Israel has featured in a number of diplomatic moves arising from last week’s surprise invasion. Russia on Friday summoned Israel’s ambassador in Moscow to challenge the Jewish state’s support for the “Nazis” in Ukraine, an apparent reference to president Vladimir Putin’s patently false claims that Ukraine needs to be “de-Nazified”. Historians have seen the use of the Holocaust in Moscow’s justifications for war as a form of disinformation and a ploy to further Russian aims.
The invasion of Ukraine has also prompted improved relations between Israel and Poland, as Jerusalem sent an ambassador to Warsaw after a six month break in ties over Polish legislation to limit Holocaust restitution. The decision was made to “enhance assistance for Israelis leaving Ukraine into Poland and in view of the importance of events and the central role Poland is playing in them”, a statement said.
Perhaps most significantly, an Israeli offer to mediate talks between Russia and Ukraine was rejected by Putin over the weekend, during an Israeli-initiated phone call in which prime minister Naftali Bennett appealed to Putin to “find the optimal points for dialogue”. By contrast, president Zelensky had emphasised his readiness for peace talks in a call with Bennett on Friday.
On the ground
Israel’s primary response to the attack on Ukraine has focused on defending vulnerable people in Ukraine itself.
- Israel has allocated almost $3 million in aid for Ukraine’s Jewish community in the form of food, medicine, transport for refugees, and security guards for Jewish centres to protect them from rioting and looting.
- The Jerusalem-based Jewish Agency has established six processing stations across four countries to deal with thousands of inquiries from Ukrainian citizens considering immigration to Israel in the wake of the invasion. Some 200,000 people in Ukraine are eligible to emigrate under Israel’s law of return, which requires a person to have at least one Jewish grandparent to receive Israeli citizenship.
- Israel has also helped citizens of Arab states to leave Ukraine, including at least two countries which do not recognise Israel. Citizens of Lebanon and Syria, as well as Egyptians and Palestinians, were among a group of students met by the Israeli ambassador in Moldova upon their successful evacuation on Sunday.
The Middle East reacts
Reactions from the wider Middle East have been much less supportive of the Ukrainians than Israel’s most recent statements.
- Both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas have kept quiet regarding the invasion, in an apparent attempt to balance their friendly relations with Russia and the broadly pro-Ukrainian sentiment among the Palestinian people. One exception included Hamas political bureau member Mousa Abu Marzouq, who tweeted to celebrate what he called the end of American global hegemony and to appeal to the Palestinian Authority to “seize this opportunity to […] give free rein to resist the occupation”.
- Iran – a regional Kremlin ally – blamed “NATO’s provocations” for the invasion and appealed to both Moscow and Kyiv to “exercise restraint and avoid any actions that could aggravate tensions”.
- Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, whose continued grip on power owes much to Russian military support, openly praised Moscow’s decision to invade, calling it a “correction of history”.
- The UAE, currently a member of the UN security council, abstained in last week’s vote to condemn the invasion, likely due to Russia’s importance as a trade partner, source of tourism, and regional military player.
- In a surprise move, Lebanon’s foreign minister forcefully condemned the invasion, prompting a swift rebuke from Moscow. The Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah, which holds significant sway in Lebanon, subsequently attacked the government’s condemnation.
What happens next
The Middle East’s geographic, military and economic situation between both the West and Russia puts it in an uncomfortable position following Russia’s attack on Ukraine. However, with one of the Western leaders who has acted most dramatically to punish Moscow – German Chancellor Olaf Scholz – visiting Israel on Tuesday, it is clear that ties with the West remain as important as ever.