Ukrainian "karma" of the 2022 Israeli elections

Yair Lapid (Photo credit: GPO of Israel)

The eight-month-long war in Ukraine has triggered a range of reactions among various strata of the Israeli population and political parties. How did the "Ukrainian question" affect the outcome of the elections to the Knesset in November 2022? What are the chances that Israel will change its policy toward Ukraine following the change of power and the formation of a new government led by Benjamin Netanyahu?

Russia's invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 happened when Israel was ruled by the center-left government of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who did not have a parliamentary majority without the support of the Arab-Israeli party. In late June 2022, Yair Lapid became prime minister, but the composition of the coalition did not change. Right-wing and Jewish religious parties remained in the opposition and were unable to influence the government's course vis-à-vis Ukraine.

Below is a concise review of the reactions and actions (as well as inaction) of key Israeli ministers and political parties, as seen through the prism of the war in Ukraine.

 —  Yamina, the party led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennet and Minister of Interior of Israel Ayelet Shaked.

From the first days of the war, Bennett tried to keep his comments about it to a minimum; in his remarks about the Russian invasion, he avoided addressing harsh words to Moscow, although he condemned the very fact of the war and called for a speedy end to military actions.

Bennett's sudden flight to Moscow to meet Putin on Saturday, 5 March 2022, was officially described as "an attempt at mediation to end the war." A few months later, we learned from an interview with Bennett's political advisor, who resigned, that after his meeting with the Russian president, the prime minister of Israel submitted a proposal to President Zelensky calling for Ukraine to make concessions and surrender its positions. Zelensky refused.

Bennett's mediation between Russia and Ukraine ended in complete failure, but throughout all of spring 2022, Bennett's government explained its refusal to give serious assistance to Ukraine, declaring that "if we do this, we will lose our status as mediator between Moscow and Kyiv."

Naftali Bennett, 5 March 2022, Moscow.

Two weeks later, Israel's interior minister Ayelet Shaked closed Israel's border to Ukrainian refugees. During the first weeks of the war, the ministry required Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war to pay a huge deposit as a condition of entry.

Through her instructions, Shaked de facto cancelled the visa-free regime between Ukraine and Israel. Entry — and only after special verification — was permitted only to those citizens of Ukraine with first-degree relatives in Israel (husband, wife, parents, children).

Because of these restrictions, I was unable to invite my Ukrainian friend, an academic from Kharkiv National University, to Israel. This refusal also violates my rights as an Israeli citizen.

The Ministry of Interior deliberately closed the gates, frightening Israeli society with the prospect of a wave of Ukrainian refugees. But in July 2022, when the High Court of Justice abolished the harsh rules for Ukrainians entering the country, no "flood" occurred, as Ukrainian citizens fleeing the war preferred to seek shelter in the EU, not Israel.

The finale was that the Yamina Party imploded. Bennett left his post as prime minister and did not even run in the November 2022 elections. Shaked switched to another party, which did not even meet the electoral threshold.

Shaked's policies toward Ukraine and its citizens exemplify the cold-blooded indifference and complete lack of mercy for suffering people. This is how many Israelis — natives of Ukraine — remember her time in office as interior minister.

 —  Yesh Atid, the party led by Yair Lapid (who was first the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and later, prime minister and head of the Ministry of  Foreign Affairs of Israel from June to November 2022).

During the first months of the war in Ukraine, Bennett and Lapid played "good cop/bad cop." While Bennett avoided passing judgment, Lapid condemned Russia's invasion. His condemnation of the mass murders of Ukrainians in Bucha was even harsher. Israel's Minister of Foreign Affairs also expressed his condolences in connection with the deaths of civilians after Russian missiles struck a shopping center in Kremenchuk.

When he became prime minister, Lapid declared that "Israel is on Ukraine's side and supports the people of Ukraine."

But the problem was that Lapid's words were mostly just beautiful but empty talk.

Yair Lapid (Photo credit: Knesset website)

Even though the humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, which was overseen by the Israel Embassy in Ukraine, was beneficial, its scope was small considering Israel's possibilities. This assistance was restricted by the foreign ministry's modest budget. With regard to larger questions, Lapid consistently refused all military and financial aid to Ukraine during his four months in power.

However, even just the mere statements of support sparked sympathy for Lapid among many pro-Ukrainian Israelis. According to my estimates, during the November 2022 elections, Lapid's party received a substantial number of votes from people for whom the issue of Ukraine is important. This center-left party gained more seats in the Knesset, from 17 to 24, but lost the elections to the center-right Likud Party, headed by Netanyahu.

 —  State Camp, the party led by defense minister Benny Gantz

The substance of this party's position on the war in Ukraine was formulated by its leader. Gantz stated briefly and clearly: "As long as I am the Israeli defense minister, there will be no military assistance for Ukraine." In the summer of 2022, after a lengthy delay, Gantz gave the green light to the delivery of several thousand helmets and bulletproof vests for first responders.

The question of supplying Israeli defense technologies to Ukraine to combat Iranian UAVs only began to be discussed in mid-to-late October. Gantz's party did poorly in the November elections, and he will soon leave his post as defense minister. His successor will consider the complex issue of military deliveries to Ukraine, in coordination with the new Israeli prime minister.

 —  Israel Is Our Home, the party led by former finance minister Avigdor Lieberman

During the first phase of the war against Ukraine, the leader of this party tried, like Prime Minister Bennett before him, not to make any harsh judgments, opting instead to emphasize the need for Israel to be removed from this conflict, explaining that "Israel has its own security concerns." In early April 2022, Lieberman was forced to issue a comment about Bucha. What he said was that "Ukraine and Russia were trading accusations there" and that "the situation is not clear."

The Ukrainian government's request for a 500-million-dollar loan was ignored. Ukraine's Ambassador to Israel, Yevhen Korniichuk, emphasized in an interview that the position of the Israeli finance minister was the reason.

All this led to the outflow of that part of the electorate, which is sympathetic to Ukraine. Within his own close circle, this author counted five people, including relatives, who had voted for this party in previous years, but in 2022 decided to make a different choice — precisely because of their dissatisfaction with Lieberman's stance on Ukraine.

Member of the Knesset Alex Kushnir, who was born in Drohobych and studied in Kryvyi Rih, offered his personal assistance to émigrés and refugees from Ukraine, and organized the delivery of humanitarian aid to Ukraine. But, according to the election results, Kushnir (no. 7 on the list of parties) did not make it into the Knesset. Israel Is Our Home gained six parliamentary seats instead of seven.

 —  Meretz, the ultra-left party led by Nitzan Horowitz

The Ministry of Health of Israel, together with two large Israeli hospitals, set up a temporary hospital in Lviv oblast, which functioned from 22 March to 29 April 2022, treating nearly 6,000 patients, all of them civilians.

On 18 May, in a statement that was widely circulated in the media, health minister Nitzan Horowitz said that "Israel will receive for treatment a group of wounded Ukrainian soldiers and officers." This turned out to be a false promise because, during the three summer months, Israel did not receive a single wounded soldier from Ukraine. In September and October, only six wounded fighters were received, compared to the hundreds and thousands of wounded who have received treatment in EU countries.

Horowitz stepped down as party leader. In October, his successor, Zehava Galon, issued a statement about the need for Israel to provide military assistance to Ukraine, but the party's influence on the government's actions was already minimal. During the November elections, Meretz was totally crushed, having failed even to meet the electoral threshold.

 —  Avoda, the left-wing party led by transport minister Merav Michaeli, limited itself to issuing general statements in support of Ukraine.

 — Arab parties with seats in the Knesset were totally uninterested in the topic of Ukraine.

However, it is widely known that the Arab communist party Hadash (not part of the government) has close ties with Russia and supports Moscow in many questions. For example, the Consulate General of the Russian Federation in Haifa organized a "rally in support of Russia" near its building; it was attended by Arab communists who had obtained a tuition-free education in Russian universities in keeping with a quota set by the Communist Party.

It would appear to be the case that the parties which took part in formulating the government's policy on Ukraine between February and November 2022 were defeated in the elections. Some of these parties completely disappeared from the new composition of the Knesset (Yamina and Meretz).

I understand perfectly that "after" does not mean "as a result of." The reasons behind the defeat of the Bennett-Lapid bloc were connected with problems within Israel.

Nevertheless, I cannot help noting the effect of a certain Ukrainian "karma" in the 2022 elections in Israel. The bloc of parties that refused to offer Ukraine full-scale assistance during the most difficult period of its struggle for existence, freedom, and independence lost power.

How was the Ukrainian question perceived by the parties belonging to the right-wing and religious opposition that came to power after the November elections?

 —  Likud, the party led by Benjamin Netanyahu

The former, long-standing prime minister of Israel (and, from November 2022 — the head of government for the third time) remained silent about Russia's invasion of Ukraine. He also refrained from commenting or critiquing the Bennett-Lapid government actions vis-à-vis Ukraine. After seven months of ignoring the biggest war in Europe in 75 years, Netanyahu made a few brief statements in October — right before the elections to the Knesset.

At first, Netanyahu said that he considered the decision of the Lapid government not to supply weapons to Ukraine a "wise" one. But three days later, Netanyahu gave an interview in which he said, "When I become prime minister, I will weigh the possibility of military shipments to Ukraine." What led the leader of the largest party to change his position in the space of three days?

Three things:

  1. Russia's massive use of Iranian UAVs and the statements of Israeli experts who pointed out that the Iranian drone attacks on Ukrainian cities are frontline tests for future potential attacks against Israeli cities;
  2. Public opinion surveys indicating that on the eve of the elections, the Likud Party lost the vote of the pro-Ukrainian electorate;
  3. Benjamin Netanyahu's meetings with the Chief Rabbi of Ukraine, Moshe Azman, who was able to convince the leader of the Likud about the crucial need to support Ukraine.

Rabbi Azman, who flew in from Kyiv, did a huge amount of work with the leaders of right-wing and religious parties of Israel. Before the elections, Moshe Azman met not only with Netanyahu, but also with Bezalel Yoel Smotrich, the leader of the Religious Zionist Party, and Michael Malkieli, the leader of the Shas Party. At every meeting, Azman explained the Ukraine issue to the Israeli politicians, demanding that Israel increase its assistance to Ukraine. As a result of the elections, both parties will hold the most important ministerial portfolios.

After one such meeting with Rabbi Azman, Member of the Knesset and former mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat (Likud), made an unannounced visit to Kyiv. Barkat is the first — and so far the only — high-ranking Israeli politician to visit the capital of Ukraine during the war. Barkat saw with his own eyes the destruction around Kyiv; he visited Bucha and issued statements about the need to review Israel's policies in favor of active support of Ukraine. It is expected that Barkat will obtain a ministerial portfolio in the new Netanyahu-led government.

Michael Malchieli, Rabbi Moshe Azman, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Nir Barkat at a meeting in Jerusalem in support of Ukraine. (Photo credit: Moshe Azman's office)

It must be emphasized that in the run-up to the elections, not a single Israeli party raised the issue of Ukraine in its election campaign. The war in Ukraine remains a secondary problem for the majority of voters.

A paradoxical situation has emerged in the wake of the elections. A considerable number of pro-Ukrainian votes were cast for the parties that ended up losing power. Where the Ukraine topic is concerned, the victors now forming the government have no sense of obligation toward their voters. Everything will depend on Israel's pragmatic security concerns and the ability of Ukraine's leaders to come to an understanding with the new players in Jerusalem.

Five days before the elections, Netanyahu attended a meeting with Ukrainian émigrés organized by Rabbi Azman. At the time, the leader of Likud declared: "When I become prime minister, Ukraine will get some good news." Let's give the new Israeli government a chance to make good on this promise.

Text: Shimon Briman (Israel).

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.