Israel and Ukraine locked in a delicate dance over defence

Dissonance between broad support from Israeli society towards invaded state and the government — which still refuses to supply military assistance — has remained


Ukraine's ambassador to Israel, Yevgen Korniychuk gives a statement to the media in Tel Aviv, on June 7, 2022. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni‎‏/Flash90 *** Local Caption *** פלישה אוקראינה תל אביב ישראלים רוסיה ישראל שגרירות שגריר מסיבת עיתונאים

February 23, 2023 11:22

As the Russian armoured columns began moving into Ukraine in the early hours of 24 February 2022 and air strikes were carried out across the country, Ukraine Ambassador Yevgen Korniychuk, awake in his residence in Herzliya, knew only from the media that his country was finally at war.

The phone calls he was expecting didn’t come through.

His foreign minister back in Kyiv was under fire and days passed until he received any formal instructions.

Neither was he hearing anything from the Israeli government in Jerusalem. Weeks passed before he was contacted by Israeli officials and then only with bland messages of support. 

It wasn’t totally bleak, though. “I was getting many calls from Israeli civilians and NGOs who wanted to know how they could help,” Mr Korniychuk recalls a year later, with a smile.

“Within days we were sending a plane to Poland with Israeli military veterans. I still can’t tell you the number who had volunteered to fight for Ukraine.”

The dissonance between the broad support from Israeli society and the government — which still refuses to supply Ukraine with any form of military assistance — has remained throughout.

These days Mr Korniychuk goes round Israel carrying a large fragment of one of the Iranian attack drones being used by the Russians against Ukrainian targets. “We have become the world champions at intercepting Iranian drones,” he boasts.

Ukraine’s requests that Israel supply it with a missile defence system remain unanswered. “These are the same drones which Israel will be facing,” he says.

When asked about the intelligence Israel has supplied to Ukraine, through the Americans, on how to counter Iranian drones, he answers wryly: “Yes, but Israel has also received from us first-hand intelligence we are constantly gathering. It’s a two-way exchange.”

Over the year of war, the ambassador has engaged with the governments of three prime ministers — Naftali Bennett, Yair Lapid and Benjamin Netanyahu, and while there have been changes of rhetoric, the policy has remained unchanged. He has yet to meet Mr Netanyahu since his return to office two months ago. 

Last week, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen became the first senior Israeli official to visit Kyiv since the war began. He was received by President Volodymyr Zelensky and taken on a tour of the town of Bucha, scene of Russian war crimes against Ukrainian civilians.

Mr Cohen condemned the war crimes but wouldn’t mention their Russian perpetrators.

In his meetings he promised that Israel would supply Ukraine with an advanced civil defence early warning system but, as Ambassador Korniychuk noted this week, former defence minister Benny Gantz promised such a system over four months ago — “and we’re still waiting.”

Coalition and opposition Knesset members who are quietly trying, along with President Isaac Herzog, to facilitate a dialogue to reach a compromise on the government’s plans to overhaul Israel’s judicial system, were cautiously optimistic at the end of last week.

The expectation was that Mr Netanyahu would find a way to delay the legislation process so that the two sides could get together with the president, who had already assembled a team of constitutional experts who would work on draft proposals.

Both in public and private the prime minister had hinted at the his desire for talks.
But as another Shabbat ended and tens of thousands took to the streets to protest, hope ebbed and then faded. 

“It sounds ridiculous but Netanyahu is a different person at the beginning of the week, after spending time with his family,” said one MK. “That’s why those in the coalition who are anxious to push the law through scheduled the first vote on Monday, before Netanyahu cools down and is more amenable to compromise.”

The MK was reflecting on a tweet by Yair Netanyahu accusing the Shin Bet security service of being involved in a “coup” against the prime minister. That was going too far even for the out-spoken prime minister’s son, and the tweet was deleted after a few hours, but it was just a taste of the paranoid atmosphere chez Netanyahu. 

Monday night, amid raucous scenes on the Knesset floor, saw the first reading of the laws changing the composition of the Judicial Appointments Committee and preventing the Supreme Court from disqualifying “Basic Laws”.

The next afternoon, Mr Netanyahu called for a “dialogue without preconditions”. It was a non-starter. There’s no way the opposition can agree to talks over the legislation while it’s still going ahead. 

“Netanyahu is trying to get his partners to take a pause, but the leaders of Religious Zionism and the ultra-Orthodox parties are adamant that the legislation has to go through now,” said one coalition source.

“At home his family are urging him on, and in the Knesset his partners won’t let him stop either.

“He has no control over the process and meanwhile is increasingly worried about how this looks on the financial markets and especially abroad.” 

On that front he suffered two more blows this week. First, a tweet by Foreign Minister Cohen on Monday criticised the Bank of Israel’s decision to raise interest rates and called on Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich to find a way to prevent such hikes in the future.

What looked like a call to limit the central bank’s independence was quickly followed by the most rapid slide in the shekel’s value in three years, forcing Mr Netanyahu to intervene publicly and express his unreserved support for the bank’s independence — which reminded many Israelis of similar utterances he had made in the past about the Supreme Court. 

The second PR blow was self-inflicted by the prime minister. In recent weeks he has been making personal calls to senior financial commentators in Britain and the US, hoping to find outside support for his assurances that Israel’s economy would remain robust despite the constitutional changes.

One of those he called was the Financial Times’ veteran columnist Martin Wolf. Mr Wolf then made his own enquiries and on Tuesday his column appeared with the scathing appraisal that “these dramatic reforms are unneeded in themselves and targeted at objectives other than the ostensible ones. Benjamin Netanyahu must think again before he does irreparable damage.”

Earlier that day, he had been confronted at the Likud Knesset faction meeting by his only open critic in the party, Danny Danon, who had said, “We are winning in legislation but losing in presentation.

“This campaign should have been more organised. The PR is negligent and faulty.” 

An intifada genie
The deaths of ten Palestinians (at least three of whom were members of terror groups) in a raid on Nablus to apprehend members of the “Lions Den” group who had killed Israeli soldier Ido Baruch last October, was a reminder that this government has other pressing issues to deal with.

With just four weeks to go before Ramadan starts — a month which includes Pessach and Israel’s 75th Independence Day — the IDF is warning of “an Intifada genie which is trying to escape its bottle”. 

This is the most serious security situation Mr Netanyahu has faced in the West Bank and east Jerusalem since the wave of attacks in late 2015, which some called “the stabbing Intifada”.

The IDF Chief of Staff then was Gadi Eisenkot — now a Knesset member of the opposition National Union Party — recalled this week that “we had full backing then from Netanyahu and the entire government, not just the IDF, but the Shin Bet and police, to work together on a nuanced approach targeting the perpetrators and not the civilian population, and we managed to tamp down the violence.

“Sadly, I don’t see this Netanyahu government focused on allowing the security forces to work.

“You’ve got [Defence Minister Yoav] Galant having to fight off [Bezalel] Smotrich and [Itamar] Ben-Gvir, who are trying to take powers away from the IDF, the Shin Bet having to get involved in trying to calm down the atmosphere inside Israeli society and prevent political violence, and Ben-Gvir like a child fighting with the police commissioner.

“I’ve already warned Netanyahu that he needs to start preparing his answers for a commission of enquiry.” 

February 23, 2023 11:22

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