Why Israel Is Staying On The Sidelines In Ukraine Crisis

Israel has been largely silent about Russia's muscling in on Ukraine. The tiny country — with a Russian Jewish foreign minister — seems to want to preserve its good relations with Moscow.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Russian President Vladimir Putin this week to talk about Ukraine. Israel has stayed neutral on the crisis there. And last month, they did not show up to vote on a U.N. resolution, backed by the U.S., that condemned Russia's actions in Ukraine.

As NPR's Emily Harris reports from Jerusalem, Israel sees reasons to stay on Moscow's good side.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: A top Israeli defense official was pressed on Israeli radio this week to explain why Israel has not criticized Russia's takeover of Crimea, or its support of separatists in eastern Ukraine. Major General Amos Gilad put it this way.

MAJOR GENERAL AMOS GILAD: (Through translator) We don't need to define our interests as identical to anyone else's, even the U.S.

HARRIS: And Ukrainian-born Israeli scholar Olena Bagno-Moldavsky says it is not in Israel's interest to alienate Russia because Moscow holds sway in places Israel would love to influence, especially Iran.

OLENA BAGNO-MOLDAVSKY: Israel is very interested in not allowing Iranians to develop nuclear capabilities, obviously.

HARRIS: Bagno-Moldavsky says Moscow has worked very closely with Iran on its nuclear program so far, which Tehran says is peaceful. So Israeli leaders want Moscow to ensure that.

BAGNO-MOLDAVSKY: They need Russians to control this kind of a line that would not be crossed between having the capabilities and allowing Iranians to develop the strategic weapons. They need at least a kind of open channel with Russia, and that a friendly relations with Russia.

HARRIS: Israel sees Russia as strategic ally. In Syria, Moscow backs Bashar Assad, who Israel finds at least more stable than any opposition figures. And Russia may develop gas projects with Israel. The State Department said it was surprised that Israel did not vote to condemn Russia at the United Nations, but also said it's not a major concern.

It is a concern for Nachman Shai, a Labor Party member in Israel's parliament.

NACHMAN SHAI: We have to maneuver very carefully between the two superpowers. But at the end of the day, when we look at the strategic relations, the common interest, it's quite obvious that we have to support the United States.

HARRIS: Israel has said it expects the situation in Ukraine to be resolved peacefully. Russia expert Bagno-Moldavsky thinks Russia may use chits from Ukraine to gain more influence in the Mideast later.

BAGNO-MOLDAVSKY: They will come to the West and say, you know, if we are pulling back our forces then we would need more say in the peace talks. I mean these are all in multi-stage games, and this is like a chess game.

HARRIS: A chess game played all over the world.

Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem

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