Tensions in the relationship between Israel and Ukraine are escalating after the August 20th decision by Israel to deport dozens of Ukrainian citizens from its territories. In response, Kyiv signaled that it would terminate the visa-free agreement between the two countries and bar Israelis from visiting the Jewish holy city of Uman for celebrations of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. These developments are merely a symptom of several latent contentious issues between Ukraine and Israel that have yet to be resolved during the past two years. If allowed to carry on, these disputes could mean a diplomatic crisis between the two nations that will determine, in one direction or the other, the future of the Israeli-Ukrainian relationship.
Since the start of the Russian military operation in Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Israel’s position has remained "neutral," so to speak. For example, alongside its criticism of Russian military action and provision of significant humanitarian aid for Ukraine, Israel has refused to impose any economic sanctions against Moscow. This is a calculated position intended to maintain strategic cooperation with Russia, whose interests overlap with Israel in more than one country in the Middle East and Central Asia. Balance has remained the primary characteristic of the Israeli stance on the war. Nevertheless, contentious issues between Israel and Ukraine have multiplied since the beginning of the year. Chief among them are the following:
1. Deportation of Ukrainian refugees from Israel: Since the beginning of 2023, Israel has deported an estimated 2,037 Ukrainian citizens, absolutely barring them from stepping foot in the country, leaving families stuck in the airport, biding their time until their return to Kyiv. In 2022, 2,705 Ukrainian citizens were deported, and Israeli media placed a spotlight on other instances of mistreatment in the country, including undue difficulty obtaining work permits and health care coverage.
It was reported in March 2023 that some 100 Ukrainian women who arrived at Ben Gurion airport had been subjected to "human trafficking"; they were offered material compensation in exchange for "immoral" or "domestic service" work. This led to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy sending a message to Israel on August 20, 2023, stating that "Israel must stop the deportation of Ukrainians from its territories, otherwise Israelis will be barred from entering the city of Uman this year." In addition, President Zelenskyy threatened to revoke the visa waiver for Israeli citizens coming to Ukraine.
The Ukrainian ambassador to Israel, Yevgen Korniychuk, clarified that his nation "will not tolerate its citizens being humiliated upon entering Israel… because it is unthinkable that we would have to go out of our way to welcome tens of thousands of Israelis in Uman every year, with a high risk and a huge logistical effort, while the Israeli government abuses our citizens," and he called upon Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to personally intervene and find a solution to the matter at hand. Meanwhile, Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority has denied these claims and affirmed that "all Ukrainians that have entered the country have been able to obtain entry permits, except for about 5% who were denied entry because they came to work illegally," and a source at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused Korniychuk of harming the good relations between the two nations. It is worth noting that, since the beginning of the war, 15,000 Ukrainian Jews have moved to Israel and continue to reside there.
2. Crisis for Israeli Pilgrims to Uman: A holy site for Hasidic Jews, Uman lies in the center of Ukraine. The city’s significance is traced back to Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the founder of the Breslov Hasidic movement. He is buried in Uman, and pilgrims visit his grave every September during the Jewish New Year where they perform spiritual atonement rituals on the banks of the Umanka river. In 2022, it was impossible to complete the pilgrimage to Uman because of the security situation within the country resulting from the war. On August 8, 2023, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen took a trip to Moldova, while other Israeli officials visited Poland, to discuss facilitating passage from these countries to Ukraine for thousands of Israeli pilgrims hoping to observe the Jewish High Holy Days. There are no direct flights between Tel Aviv and Kyiv, so pilgrims will have to travel to neighboring countries, then complete their journey to Ukraine by land. If tensions continue between Ukraine and Israel, the pilgrimage for Israelis may be cancelled altogether, just as happened last year.
3. Criticism of Israeli-Russian rapprochement: In the latter part of June 2023, Andriy Yermak, the Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, publicly condemned Israel’s neutrality in the Ukrainian conflict. These comments were a result of Israel’s failure to make a statement on Russian president Vladimir Putin’s description of Zelensky as "a disgrace to the Jewish people."
Furthermore, on June 27, 2023, the Israeli Foreign Ministry summoned Ukrainian Ambassador Yevgen Korniychuk to appear in order to lodge a protest against his criticisms of Israeli policy on the war. This came in response to a Ukrainian embassy Facebook post criticizing the Israeli government for its choice to take a path of "close cooperation and strengthening of economic ties with Russia." The public statement accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of "justifying Israel’s complete inaction and failure to provide defense aid to Ukraine since the beginning of the war." Israel’s Foreign Ministry clarified that it wants to continue its cooperation with Ukraine, but the actions of its ambassador do not help with the effort. All of these situations are interpreted by Kyiv as Israel tightening relations with Russia and not just a stance of neutrality toward the Ukraine conflict.
4. Mutual Political Disregard: In mid-2022, Israel condemned the Russian offensive in Ukraine and received President Zelensky, hosting him as he delivered remarks in front of the Israeli Knesset. However, a political rift has pervaded relations between Ukraine and Israel ever since, leading each to vote against the other during sessions at the United Nations. In October 2022, Kyiv voted in favor of a resolution calling for the nuclear disarmament of Israel and, later, in favor of a resolution to open an international investigation into crimes committed during Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. In turn, Israel called on the Ukrainian ambassador to denounce these actions, and Israel’s foreign minister, Eli Cohen, announced in November of 2022 that he intends to "speak less about the crisis in Ukraine."
Israel has ignored every request from Kyiv to issue public statements condemning Russian aggression and confirming its support of Ukrainian sovereignty over all of its territory, in addition to requests for a 500-million-dollar loan, the opening of Israeli hospitals to wounded Ukrainian soldiers, and an Israeli-made Iron Dome defense system to combat Russian airstrikes. President Zelensky also expressed his frustration with Netanyahu in June 2023 over his failure to visit Ukraine, despite having invited him and both of his predecessors, Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid. In fact, no senior Israeli official has visited Kyiv since the start of the Russian invasion, except for Eli Cohen in February of 2023, a year after the start of the war, which only further exacerbated tensions.
5. Israel’s refusal to arm Ukraine: Kyiv requested defense and attack weapons from Israel immediately after Russian attacks began on February 24, 2023, and Israel did in fact provide humanitarian aid, including helmets and vests, to Ukrainian rescue forces. Kyiv repeated these requests, and Zelensky expressed his interest in obtaining Israeli air defense equipment and the "Iron Dome" missile defense system. Officials in Washington called on Israel to send to Ukraine some of the "old" American missiles in their possession, and 250,000 artillery rounds were eventually transferred to Ukraine from Israel.
Despite Netanyahu’s assurance during his election campaign that he would provide military aid to Ukraine if he won, he has not provided any weaponry, "defensive or lethally offensive," to Kyiv since he regained his position as Prime Minister in December of 2022. The Russian ambassador to Israel affirmed that "Israel refuses to supply Kyiv with weapons, and Moscow is pleased with this stance." Of course, Israel is motivated to ignore Ukraine’s request for armament by its desire to avoid provoking Russia. Specifically, officials in Israel aim to maintain strategic interests and informal security arrangements with Moscow, especially in Syria. Russia turns a blind eye to ongoing Israeli airstrikes targeting weapons caches and Syrian, Iranian, and Hezbollah-linked bases in the heart of the country.
Considering the continuing tensions in the Israeli-Ukrainian relationship, a number of factors remain that will eventually determine the future of cooperation between the two sides. These include:
1. The nature of Israeli mediation in the Ukrainian war: Kyiv relies heavily on the military aid that Israel can provide it; however, Israel intends to solve the crisis through mediation between Kyiv and Moscow instead. On June 22, 2023, Netanyahu renewed his offer to act as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine to settle the conflict and stop "the tragedy unfolding in Ukraine. The balanced position we are taking is the right one." Last April, Israel’s ambassador to Moscow, Alexander Ben Zvi, reaffirmed his country’s readiness to provide a platform for negotiations between Russia and Ukraine because of their good relations with both. It is worth noting that, on March 12, 2022, the former Prime Minister of Israel, Naftali Bennett, visited Moscow and met with Russian President Vladimir Putin only two weeks after the war began, offering to mediate a resolution to the crisis.
Of course, Israel’s goal in ending the war is related to its attempt to end the polarizing tug of its allegiances to which it is subjected by Moscow, Washington, and Beijing. Moscow warns of the implications of support for Ukraine, while Washington calls for Israel to arm Kyiv. Israel will be unable to maintain its balanced stance if the conflict is prolonged much further, and it will have to align with one side or the other, leading to either a crisis in its foreign policy or a straining of its relationship with Washington.
2. Trajectory of relations between Israel and Russia: During recent years, Israel has taken good care to maintain strategic and tactical cooperation with Russia, especially as it pertains to Syria, in order to ensure the security of its military operations in the heart of Syria, to prevent Damascus from acquiring Russian S-400 missiles that could allow it to repel Israeli strikes, as well as to reduce Iranian influence in the country – a shared objective between Russia and Israel.
Russian-Israeli relations involve a number of major issues that both sides are keenly aware of, including the freedom for Russian Jews (estimated at 600,000) to immigrate to Israel. Moscow has already threatened to take steps to hinder Jewish emigration. Additionally, cooperation across military, technology, and economic domains between the two nations remains significant. Both nations also have a close eye on stability within the borders of Israel, because 15% of the Israeli population – most of them found in Jerusalem – are immigrants from the former Soviet Union with many ties to Russia.
3. Impact of Regional and International Variables: Regional and international dynamics remain a determining factor for the fate of any region, especially Israel’s Middle East and Ukraine’s Eastern Europe, because the two regions exist in the center of ongoing unrest and international polarization between Moscow and Washington. Israel’s position on Ukraine is intimately connected to its arrangements in the Middle East as a whole, and to every American or Russian reaction to it. Israel will not change its neutral stance on the war in Ukraine unless doing so will strengthen its strategic interests. For example, if Washington and Tehran reach a new nuclear agreement, perhaps that would push Israel to scale up its cooperation with Russia to limit Iranian influence in Syria. If Russia’s partnership with Iran becomes closer on the military and technology front, perhaps Israel will be more inclined to support Ukraine militarily as a response.
If the war in Ukraine continues for much longer, or spreads to any neighboring countries, perhaps Israel will resort to supporting Ukraine and change its stance on the war to preserve its strategic interests, especially if Russia is ultimately defeated. Furthermore, the indicators consistently point to a shift in the balance of power in the Middle East, and in the world at large. The persistent Russian and Chinese effort to change the international system from unipolar, dominated by Washington, to a multipolar system with competing powers, foreshadows major changes in the way many countries will respond to international crises. This holds especially true for diplomatic relations between Israel and Ukraine.
The relationship between Israel and Ukraine is three dimensional: it is closely linked to and affected by Israel’s relationship with Russia. An increase in cooperation between Israel and Russia leads to a decline in cooperation between Israel and Ukraine, and vice versa. Therefore, Israel and Ukraine must resolve their differences so they may together better preserve their common interests.