Israel’s Ukraine Policy Prompts Scrutiny of Russian-Israeli Oligarchs

JERUSALEM — When Avigdor Liberman, Israel’s Soviet-born finance minister, condemned the obvious atrocities in Bucha, Ukraine, this previous week, he was cautious to not blame Russia.

“Russia is accusing Ukraine and Ukraine is accusing Russia,” and Israel ought to keep away from adjudicating in some way, Mr. Liberman informed a radio station final Monday. “We right here want to keep up Israel’s ethical stand on the one hand,” he added, “and Israel’s pursuits on the opposite.”

It was a remark that underscored two features of at present’s Israel: the Israeli authorities’s cautious strategy to the battle in Ukraine and the political and social function performed by Russian-speaking Israelis from post-Soviet international locations, notably Kremlin-connected Russian-Israeli businessmen.

Israel has expressed repeated help for Ukraine, whose president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish. It has despatched humanitarian help, arrange a subject hospital in western Ukraine and voted on Thursday to droop Russia from the United Nations Human Rights Council. Nevertheless it has not despatched army gear or enforced formal sanctions on Russian oligarchs.

The Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett, has usually prevented direct criticism of Russia, pointedly leaving condemnations of the Kremlin to the international minister, Yair Lapid — most not too long ago on Sunday, when the International Ministry condemned a latest Russian airstrike that killed at the least 50 individuals at a Ukrainian prepare station.

That delicate balancing act is seen as an try to permit Israel to mediate between the 2 sides, to keep away from exposing Jews in each Russia and Ukraine to antisemitic assaults, and to keep up its delicate relationship with the Russian army in Syria.

Israel’s reluctance to anger Russia has however heightened scrutiny of the affect of Russian-speaking businessmen and politicians on Israeli policymaking and society.

Of Israel’s 9.2 million residents, about 13 p.c are from the previous Soviet Union and certified for citizenship by way of their Jewish ancestry. Some, like Mr. Liberman or Zeev Elkin, one other cupboard minister, have turn into main political figures. Others, like Yitzchak Mirilashvili, who owns a right-wing Israeli tv channel, management media retailers that assist form public discourse. A number of, most prominently Roman Abramovich, the billionaire punished in Britain for his hyperlinks to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, have turn into main donors to Israeli establishments.

At the very least 4 different Russian-speaking Israelis have had sanctions imposed towards them by different international locations for his or her connections to the Russian authorities.

However although Russian-Israeli oligarchs do wield affect, specialists say they don’t seem to be the explanation for Israel’s impartial stance on the Ukraine battle, which is pushed by nationwide safety considerations.

“Frankly, I don’t see an affect by these pro-Putin oligarchs on the federal government,” stated Leonid Nevzlin, a Russian-Israeli billionaire who owns a minority stake in a significant Israeli newspaper, the left-leaning Haaretz.

As an alternative, Israel’s place on Ukraine is predicated on “the frequent opinion of the Israeli institution,” Mr. Nevzlin stated in a cellphone interview. “The primary precedence is the pursuits of the State of Israel.”

Like many within the Russian-speaking Israeli group, Mr. Nevzlin is a longtime opponent of Mr. Putin, and he stated he was giving up his Russian passport shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

A couple of third of Israel’s Russian-speaking residents are of Ukrainian background, roughly the identical quantity as these initially from Russia itself, in accordance with authorities information.

Ihor Kolomoisky, a Ukrainian oligarch thought of to be a patron of Mr. Zelensky throughout his election marketing campaign, can be an Israeli citizen. The brother of Mr. Elkin nonetheless lives in Kharkiv, a Ukrainian metropolis that has come underneath heavy Russian bombardment. And Natan Sharansky, who spent 9 years in Soviet detention after making an attempt to to migrate to Israel, has been probably the most vocal critics of the Israeli authorities’s Ukraine coverage.

However whereas Mr. Sharansky opposes the federal government’s strategy to Russia, he stated its place had “completely nothing” to do with the affect of Russian-Israeli oligarchs.

“I don’t suppose the people who find themselves making choices actually learn about the truth that this channel is owned by this one or this channel by that one,” stated Mr. Sharansky, a former Israeli deputy prime minister.

“All of the specialists and ministers and the leaders of the state are explaining to me time and again that we now have our problem in Syria,” Mr. Sharansky added. “Sadly, the West gave the keys to the skies of Syria to Putin. And due to this we now have no selection however to return to a strategic understanding with him.”

Analysts say that distinguished Russian Israelis do have broader social capital that grants them entry to opinion makers and resolution takers. However they wield that affect in methods that aren’t notably direct, tangible or quantifiable.

“They’re inside this ecosystem of wealth, politics and media,” stated Vera Michlin-Shapir, an knowledgeable on Russia and Israel at King’s Faculty London and a former official of Israel’s Nationwide Safety Council.

These with cultural sway embody Mr. Mirilashvili, who owns Channel 14, a small right-wing tv channel, and varied actual property and expertise corporations. Mr. Mirilashvili’s father, Mikhael Mirilashvili, nonetheless has appreciable power and actual property investments in Russia and employed Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, now an oligarch near Mr. Putin, as a supervisor in certainly one of his eating places through the Nineties.

Len Blavatnik, a twin American-British citizen who made his fortune in Russia, is a significant shareholder of Channel 13, certainly one of Israel’s two main personal tv retailers.

Viktor F. Vekselberg, a Russian-Israeli businessman who has had sanctions imposed on him by america, as soon as funded a spyware and adware agency headed by Benny Gantz, now Israel’s protection minister. The agency folded after america punished Mr. Vekselberg in 2018.

Since turning into an Israeli citizen in 2018, Mr. Abramovich has donated a whole lot of tens of millions of {dollars} to Israeli teams, together with a significant hospital, a college and a settler group. And that philanthropy has received him favor: Not too long ago, a number of main Israelis, together with recipients of his cash, wrote to the American ambassador in Jerusalem to request that Washington spare Mr. Abramovich from sanctions.

Mr. Liberman, the finance minister, has lengthy used his platform to deflect criticism of Mr. Putin. In 2011, whereas international minister, he praised Russian parliamentary elections as free and democratic, regardless of widespread worldwide considerations about their equity. After the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, he argued towards becoming a member of American sanctions on Russia.

Over time, that sort of intervention has inevitably had an impact on some Israelis and even on colleagues in authorities, Mr. Nevzlin stated. With out it, maybe the federal government’s “rhetoric would have been extra clear, and the help and assist to Ukraine would have been extra distinguished,” he added.

Typically, Soviet-born Jewish oligarchs usually have a hotter reception in Israel than in another international locations as a result of their Jewish heritage means they don’t seem to be essentially thought of outsiders, stated Mitchell Barak, an Israeli analyst who conducts public opinion analysis in each Israel and Russia.

“The oligarchs really feel an actual connection to Israel, traditionally, culturally and religiously,” Mr. Barak stated. “In addition they really feel bodily secure right here,” and their philanthropy affords them “entry and acceptance amongst all segments of Israeli society.”

However the prominence of Russian-speaking businessmen doesn’t empower them to inform Israeli politicians to “hearken to the Kremlin,” Dr. Michlin-Shapir stated. It merely provides them a platform to argue that “there are completely different sides to the story, ‘Let’s hearken to all sides, let’s wait and see what the Russians should say about this,’” she stated.

The Israeli authorities has not enforced formal sanctions on Russian Israelis linked to Mr. Putin, regardless of frequent requests from Ukrainian and a few American officers. However Israel has however signaled that it doesn’t need to turn into a hub for laundered Russian cash.

The Israeli International Ministry publicly warned its embassies this week to not settle for donations from people dealing with sanctions. Israeli officers say that Israeli banks are conscious of the penalties they could incur from American authorities in the event that they course of cash from these people.

And Israel has banned foreign-registered yachts and planes from staying in Israel for greater than 48 hours — a measure aimed toward deterring Russian oligarchs from relocating to Israel.

“Israel won’t be a path to bypass sanctions imposed on Russia by america and different Western international locations,” Mr. Lapid, the international minister, stated in March.

Russian-speaking Israeli businessmen additionally aren’t essentially any wealthier than immigrants from different nationwide backgrounds. Of these named in a recent list of the 100 richest Israelis, printed in Forbes journal, solely 10 had been from post-Soviet origins — proportionally lower than the dimensions of the Russian-speaking inhabitants in Israel.

Most main international donors to main Israeli establishments are nonetheless from North America and Western Europe. And Yad Vashem not too long ago refused to take Mr. Abramovich’s cash, suspending a deliberate donation price tens of tens of millions of {dollars} after Mr. Abramovich was penalized by Britain.

Maybe most tellingly, Russian-owned information media retailers in Israel haven’t taken a pro-Kremlin place, and two Russian-language information web sites had been even blocked by Moscow in March due to their protection of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In actual fact, it might be “completely unattainable” for a Russian-Israeli media govt to push journalists to take a pro-Kremlin line, stated Mr. Nevzlin, the billionaire Putin critic.

The executives would face each an area and a world backlash at a time when they’re searching for to maintain a decrease profile, he added.

“There would most likely be sanctions imposed on them,” Mr. Nevzlin stated. “Why would rational individuals do one thing like that?”

Reporting was contributed by Gabby Sobelman from Rehovot, Israel; Myra Noveck and Jonathan Rosen from Jerusalem; and Carol Sutherland from Moshav Ben Ami, Israel.

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