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Israel’s Ukraine policy encourages investigation of Russian-Israeli oligarchs

JERUSALEM – When Avigdor Liberman, Israel’s Soviet – born finance minister, condemned the apparent atrocities in Bucha, Ukraine, last week, he was careful not to blame Russia.

“Russia accuses Ukraine, and Ukraine accuses Russia,” and Israel should avoid judging in one way or another, said Mr. Liberman to a radio station last Monday. “We here need to maintain Israel’s moral stance on the one hand,” he added, “and Israel’s interests on the other.”

It was a commentary that emphasized two aspects of today’s Israel: the Israeli government’s cautious approach to the war in Ukraine and the political and social role played by Russian-speaking Israelis from post-Soviet countries, especially Kremlin-affiliated Russian-Israeli businessmen.

Israel has repeatedly expressed support for Ukraine, whose president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish. It has sent humanitarian aid, set up a field hospital in western Ukraine and voted on Thursday to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council. But it has not sent military equipment or enforced formal sanctions against Russian oligarchs.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has generally avoided direct criticism of Russia and has sharply left condemnations of the Kremlin to Foreign Minister Yair Lapid – most recently on Sunday, when the Foreign Ministry condemned a recent Russian air strike that killed at least 50 people. at a Ukrainian train station.

The delicate balancing act is seen as an attempt to allow Israel to mediate between the two sides, to avoid exposing Jews in both Russia and Ukraine to anti-Semitic attacks and to maintain its delicate relationship with the Russian military in Syria.

Israel’s reluctance to anger Russia has nonetheless increased control over the influence of Russian-speaking businessmen and politicians on Israeli politics and society.

Of Israel’s 9.2 million citizens, about 13 percent are from the former Soviet Union and qualified for citizenship through their Jewish ancestry. Some, like Mr Liberman or Zeev Elkin, another minister, have become major political figures. Others, such as Yitzchak Mirilashvili, who owns a right-wing Israeli television channel, control media that help shape public discourse. Several, most prominent Roman Abramovich, the billionaire punished in Britain for his links to President Vladimir V. Putin in Russia, have become major donors to Israeli institutions.

At least four other Russian-speaking Israelis have been sanctioned by other countries for their links with the Russian government.

But while Russian-Israeli oligarchs have influence, experts say they are not the cause of Israel’s neutral stance on the Ukraine war, which is driven by national security concerns.

“Honestly, I do not see an impact of these pro-Putin oligarchs on the government,” said Leonid Nevzlin, a Russian-Israeli billionaire who owns a minority stake in a major Israeli newspaper, the left-leaning Haaretz.

Instead, Israel’s position on Ukraine is based on “the common opinion of the Israeli establishment,” Mr. Nevzlin in a telephone interview. “The main priority is the interests of the state of Israel.”

Like many others in the Russian-speaking Israeli community, Mr. Nevzlin a longtime opponent of Mr. Putin, and he said he gave up his Russian passport shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

About a third of Israel’s Russian-speaking citizens are of Ukrainian descent, roughly the same number as those originally from Russia itself, according to government data.

Ihor Kolomoisky, a Ukrainian oligarch who is considered to be the protector of Mr Zelensky during his election campaign, is also an Israeli citizen. The brother of Mr. Elkin still lives in Kharkiv, a Ukrainian city that has been hit by violent Russian bombing. And Natan Sharansky, who spent nine years in Soviet detention after trying to emigrate to Israel, has been one of the loudest critics of the Israeli government’s Ukraine policy.

But while Mr Sharansky is opposed to the government’s approach to Russia, he said its position had “absolutely nothing” to do with the influence of Russian-Israeli oligarchs.

“I do not think the people who make decisions really know that this channel is owned by this or this channel by this one,” said Mr. Sharansky, a former Israeli Deputy Prime Minister.

“All the experts and ministers and leaders of the state explain to me time and time again that we have our challenge in Syria,” he added. Sharansky. “Unfortunately, the West gave Putin the keys to the Syrian sky. And because of this, we have no choice but to reach a strategic understanding with him. “

Analysts say prominent Russian Israelis have a broader social capital that gives them access to opinion makers and decision-makers. But they exert that influence in ways that are not very direct, tangible, or quantifiable.

“They are within this ecosystem of wealth, politics and media,” said Vera Michlin-Shapir, an expert on Russia and Israel at King’s College London and a former official of Israel’s National Security Council.

Those with cultural influence include Mr. Mirilashvili, who owns Channel 14, a small right-wing TV channel, and various real estate and technology companies. Mr. Mirilashvili’s father, Mikhael Mirilashvili, still has significant energy and real estate investments in Russia and employed Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, now an oligarch close to Mr. Putin, who heads one of his restaurants in the 1990s.

Len Blavatnik, a dual U.S.-British citizen who earned his fortune in Russia, is a major shareholder in Channel 13, one of Israel’s two leading private television channels.

Viktor F. Vekselberg, a Russian-Israeli businessman who has been sanctioned by the United States, once financed a spyware company led by Benny Gantz, now Israel’s defense minister. The company collapsed after the United States punished Mr. Vekselberg in 2018.

Since becoming an Israeli citizen in 2018, Mr. Abramovich has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to Israeli groups, including a major hospital, a university, and a settler organization. And that philanthropy has won him favor: Recently, several leading Israelis, including recipients of his money, wrote to the US ambassador in Jerusalem to ask Washington to spare Mr Abramovich from sanctions.

Sir. Liberman, the finance minister, has long used his platform to divert criticism from Mr Putin. In 2011, while serving as Foreign Minister, he praised the Russian parliamentary elections as free and democratic despite widespread international concerns about their justice. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, he argued against joining US sanctions against Russia.

Over time, such interventions have inevitably had an effect on some Israelis and even on colleagues in the government, Mr. Nevzlin. Without it, the government’s “rhetoric might have been clearer, and support and assistance to Ukraine would have been more prominent,” he added.

In general, Soviet-born Jewish oligarchs generally have a warmer reception in Israel than in some other countries because their Jewish heritage means they are not necessarily considered outsiders, said Mitchell Barak, an Israeli analyst who conducts opinion polls in both Israel and Russia.

“The oligarchs feel a real connection to Israel, historically, culturally and religiously,” said Mr. Barak. “They also feel physically safe here,” and their philanthropy gives them “access and acceptance among all sections of Israeli society.”

But the prominent position of Russian-speaking businessmen does not authorize them to ask Israeli politicians to “listen to the Kremlin,” said Dr. Michlin-Shapir. “It simply gives them a platform to argue that ‘there are different sides to the story,’ let’s listen to all sides, let’s wait and see what the Russians have to say about this,” she said.

The Israeli government has not enforced formal sanctions against Russian Israelis linked to Mr Putin, despite frequent requests from Ukrainian and some US officials. But Israel has nevertheless signaled that it does not want to become a hub for money laundering Russian money.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry publicly warned its embassies this week not to accept donations from people facing sanctions. Israeli officials say Israeli banks are aware of the sanctions they could incur from US authorities if they process money from these individuals.

And Israel has banned foreign-registered yachts and planes from staying in Israel for more than 48 hours – a measure aimed at deterring Russian oligarchs from moving to Israel.

“Israel will not be a way to circumvent sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States and other Western countries,” Foreign Minister Mr. Lapid said in March.

Russian-speaking Israeli businessmen are also not necessarily richer than immigrants with other national backgrounds. Of those mentioned in a recent list of the 100 richest Israelis, published in Forbes magazine, only 10 were of post-Soviet origin – relatively smaller than the size of the Russian-speaking population in Israel.

Most major foreign donors to leading Israeli institutions are still from North America and Western Europe. And Yad Vashem recently refused to take Mr Abramovich’s money and suspended a planned donation worth tens of thousands of millions of dollars after Mr Abramovich was punished by Britain.

It is perhaps most telling that Russian-owned news media in Israel have not taken a pro-Kremlin stance, and two Russian-language news sites were even blocked by Moscow in March because of their coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In fact, it would be “absolutely impossible” for a Russian-Israeli media chief to pressure journalists to take a pro-Kremlin line, Mr. Nevzlin, the Putin billionaire critic.

The leaders will face both a local and an international setback at a time when they are seeking to keep a lower profile, he added.

“Sanctions would probably be imposed on them,” he said. Nevzlin. “Why would rational people do such a thing?”

Reporting is 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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