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What does the Ukrainian-Russian crisis mean for Israel? 

With the United States retreating from the Middle East, Jerusalem is hard pressed to maintain neutrality as Russian influence grows in the region

Ukrainian soldiers conduct tactical exercises at one of the all-military training grounds of the southern Ukraine's Kherson region, just north of annexed Crimea on Jan 19, 2022. (Photo: Ukraine Military TV/EYEPRESS)

While Russia is amassing ground troops on the Ukrainian border in preparation for a possible invasion, Israel is concerned with the geopolitical implications of the situation and also its potential impact on the large Jewish populations in both those nations. 

While many Western nations, including the United States, are firmly backing Ukraine, Israel has refrained from taking sides.

Jerusalem cannot afford strained relations with Moscow as it flexes its military muscles in the Middle East while Washington simultaneously retreats from the region. 

Russia’s military presence in Syria is among Israel's considerations. Russia has stayed in Syria since its intervention in the nation’s civil war in order to prop up President Bashar al-Assad. Jerusalem and Moscow have come to an understanding about both countries’ military operations in Syria. The Israeli Air Force frequently targets Hezbollah positions which Moscow largely accepts as long as Russian troops are not placed in danger.

Israel is also concerned with Russia’s position in the international nuclear talks with Iran. Russia recently proposed an interim nuclear deal for Tehran with Washington’s knowledge. If the Ukrainian crisis leads to escalated tensions between Washington and Moscow, Russia could potentially undermine Western negotiation efforts by embracing Iran’s radical positions – to Israel’s detriment. 

At the same time, Jerusalem is keen to maintain its strong relations with the pro-Western Ukrainian government, which views Israel as an extension of the American-led Western sphere. 

Israeli authorities are reportedly preparing to potentially evacuate tens of thousands of Jews residing in eastern Ukraine in the event that Russian forces invade.

Representatives of the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, the Defense Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, the Diaspora Affairs Ministry and the Jewish Agency reportedly met on Sunday to discuss the growing crisis, according to the Israeli daily, Haaretz. Up to 75,000 individuals in eastern Ukraine are believed to be eligible for immigration to Israel. 

It is unclear whether, or for how long, the Israeli government will be able to maintain neutrality in the Ukraine-Russian crisis.

Ksenia Svetlova, director of the program on Israel-Middle East relations at the Israeli Mitvim think tank, believes that Jerusalem could soon be pressured to abandon its position. 

“The moment of truth is coming, and Israel has to think about what it’s doing,” Svetlova said. “If there is a war, with civilians killed, there will be pressure from the U.S. and the very large Ukrainian community in Israel. Many thousands of Israelis have family in Ukraine, and they are preparing to hold protests.“

Nevertheless, Israel’s Aliyah and Integration Ministry is not expecting a dramatic influx of Ukrainians seeking to relocate. 

“At this time, there is no increase in the number of immigrants from Ukraine compared to last year. If there will be, the ministry is prepared to handle it as it has in the past and is in contact with the relevant parties, including the Jewish Agency and Nativ,” the ministry said. 

Israel’s Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata is staying up to date on the evolving situation.

Clearly, with high-stakes in the growing Ukrainian-Russian crisis, Israel must tread carefully in its effort to maintain strong ties with both nations for as long as it can. 

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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