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Israeli foreign minister speaks with Russian counterpart after vowing to ‘speak less’ on Ukraine

Cohen’s predecessor, former Prime Minister Yair Lapid, publicly condemned Russia for its actions on several occasions

Incoming Foreign Minister Eli Cohen at a ceremony at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem, Jan. 2, 2023. (Photo: Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called Israel’s new foreign minister, Eli Cohen, on Tuesday to congratulate him on his role.

Cohen will serve as foreign minister for one year, then his fellow Likud member Israel Katz will take over in a rotation agreement. 

The two foreign ministers discussed “bilateral and regional issues,” according to the Israeli readout of the call. 

Days after Moscow’s former chief rabbi warned Russian Jews to flee the country or face “rising anti-Semitism,” Cohen emphasized to Lavrov Israel’s connection to the Jewish community in Russia, and to ex-Soviet Jews who have made aliyah (immigrated to Israel), as well as their importance to relations between the countries.

According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, Lavrov debriefed Cohen on Russia’s fighting in Ukraine and discussed the situation in the Middle East, particularly in Syria. The Russian minister expressed his willingness to work with Cohen towards strengthening cooperation between Russia and Israel. 

The ministry’s statement stressed Moscow’s readiness to continue assisting in the restart of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians on a “generally recognized international legal basis.”

Though former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was the first foreign leader to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin since Russia’s war on Ukraine began in February, this was the first phone call between Israel’s and Russia’s foreign ministers since the outbreak of the war.

Cohen’s predecessor in the foreign ministry post, former Prime Minister Yair Lapid, publicly condemned Russia for its actions on several occasions, breaking away from Israel’s earlier presentation of a somewhat “neutral” position. 

Lapid also clashed with Lavrov over his controversial remarks in May, saying in an interview: “So what if Zelenskyy is Jewish? The fact does not negate the Nazi elements in Ukraine. I believe that Hitler also had Jewish blood.”

Since Russia launched the war on Ukraine, Israel tried to be reticent in its criticism of Russia, citing Russian-Israeli military coordination in Syria preventing unintentional skirmishes between their respective forces, and its concern for the safety of Jews in Russia and Ukraine. 

As the war progressed, the Jewish state sent humanitarian supplies and protective gear to Ukrainian medical teams and first responders, and deployed a field hospital to western Ukraine. 

In his inaugural speech on Monday, Israeli Foreign Minister Cohen said the new Israeli government would “talk less in public” about Ukraine but vowed to continue to send humanitarian aid to the war-torn country.

U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, R-SC, reacted to Cohen’s remark on social media: “To stay quiet about Russia’s criminal behavior will not age well.”

“I’m glad to see Mr. Cohen, the new Israeli foreign minister, is prioritizing the U.S.-Israel strategic relationship and supports continued humanitarian aid to #Ukraine. However, the idea that Israel should speak less about Russia’s criminal invasion of Ukraine is a bit unnerving,” Graham wrote. 

“I hope Mr. Cohen understands that when he speaks to Russia’s Lavrov, he’s speaking to a representative of a war criminal regime that commits war crimes on an industrial scale every day,” he said. 

Cohen’s comment stirred speculation in Israel about whether the government plans to change Israel’s policy towards the Russia-Ukraine war, but an unnamed diplomatic official who spoke to The Times of Israel firmly denied that. 

Before Israel held its last elections, in November, then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu told USA Today that, if elected, he would re-evaluate Israel’s help to Ukraine and would consider supplying Kyiv with weapons. 

“If I become prime minister, that question [of mediation] presumably will come up again,” Netanyahu said in the interview. 

Tal Heinrich is a senior correspondent for both ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS. She is currently based in New York City. Tal also provides reports and analysis for Israeli Hebrew media Channel 14 News.

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