Ukraine says Iran’s help for Russia should push Israel out of neutral stance

Ukrainian officials say Iran’s war-time aid to Russia should convince Israel to abandon its position of withholding military assistance to Kyiv.

Ukraine also wants the Biden administration to step up pressure on Israel, which has condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion and delivered humanitarian support to Kyiv but refrained from offering arms. 

Officials in Kyiv are hoping that Tehran’s provision of suicide drones to Russia will lead to a shift in position for Israel. They are particularly pushing for Israeli help with air defenses that would provide protection against the Iranian drones.

And they are making clear that the Biden administration should play a role in the pressure campaign on Israel.

“The Americans are the only country that Israel is listening to,” Ukrainian Ambassador to Israel Yevgen Korniychuck said in a phone call with The Hill from Tel Aviv.  

Korniychuck said that relations with Israel have advanced in recent weeks, “on some technical issues related to defense,” including an advanced warning system to help alert civilians of incoming missile and rocket attacks from the Russians. 

“That’s a positive development, and we are expecting more from Israel of course,” he said. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has sought to further convince Israel by raising the possibility that Russia could help Iran with its nuclear program. The White House has declined to comment on the allegation, but said it remains committed to keeping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. 

“We know that Russia and Iran are growing closer together. … I don’t have anything to speak to with respect to Russia providing any tangible support to Iran or their nuclear program,” national security spokesperson John Kirby told The Hill. 

Israeli officials have generally been noncommittal, but say they are watching Iran’s involvement with Russia closely.

“Iranian drones, we’re definitely analyzing the situation,” Israeli President Isaac Herzog said in an interview with CNN this week. 

Israel maintains strategic relations with Moscow in part to carry out attacks against Iranian activities in Syria and to disrupt weapons transfers to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Officials also say Jerusalem has to maintain communication with Moscow over the Jewish diaspora in Russia.

Iran’s weapons shipments to Russia are a concern for Jerusalem, though it does present an intelligence gathering opportunity for Israel.  

Israeli officials are largely pointing to the closer ties between Russia and Iran as a further example of Tehran’s malign activity — from human rights abuses, most recently in its violent and deadly crackdown on women-led protests in the country, delivering weapons to proxy fighting forces in the Middle East, support for terrorism and increasing stockpile of nuclear material. 

“This is an example of the way Iran is working: crushing its own citizens, moving towards nuclear weapons, and supplying lethal weapons that are killing innocent citizens in Ukraine,” Herzog said in a meeting with President Biden on Wednesday.

“And I think the Iranian challenge will be a major challenge … we will be discussing.”

Korniychuck meets with U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides weekly and refers to the American envoy as a “secret weapon” in his campaign to push the Israelis to change tack and provide military and air defensive support to Kyiv.

“I’m joking, but I’m calling him [Nides] our secret weapon. This is why we discuss the different measures of support, and again, we need to change this major trend that makes Israel’s position different from the rest of the democratic world, and have more military technical cooperation,” he said.

Korniychuck also wants the Biden administration to more forcefully scrutinize how Israel is abiding by Western sanctions on Russia.

While Israeli officials say their absence of sanctions legislation prohibits them from joining the Western-led sanctions campaign against Russia, they had earlier promised the U.S. that they would abide by the international blacklists. 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, during a visit to Jerusalem in March, said Israeli officials promised him that the country would not be used as a “back door for sanctions evasion.”  

Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes at the Treausry Department, Elizabeth Rosenberg, traveled to Israel in May to meet with government officials and the private sector to brief them on the sanctions regime against Russia. 

A Treasury Department spokesperson told The Hill, “We work closely with partners around the world, including our Israeli partners, to cut off avenues for Russia to evade international sanctions and export controls.”

Korniychuck said the enforcement of sanctions on Russia by Israel is the second most important issue for him, behind acquiring military assistance from Israel. 

“The issue of sanctions is also important and the Americans are in a much better position to check whether the Israelis are following those sanctions or not,” he said. 

Israel is heading to national elections on Nov. 1, the fifth political contest in under four years. The political instability is a wrench in Korniychuck’s ability to press the government for missile and air defense equipment for Kyiv, he said. 

The Ukrainian Embassy in Israel earlier this month reportedly sent a letter to Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs calling for a list of air and missile defense equipment and technology. 

“Step number two is anti-missile system, is something that we’ve been looking for, that we’ve been asking the Israeli government to provide, and this is still on hold,” he said, and added that he understands the government will not address this again until after the election. 

“So presumably, Israel will have a sustainable government, we hopefully will be having … the anti-missile and drone defense,” he said.

“Especially now, when Russia started to collaborate with Iran, that triggers, of course, much greater tensions among the Israeli politicians and military experts, and the [people in the] street to help Ukraine, just because, eventually, Iran becomes part of the coalition against Ukraine.”

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