Israeli diplomat condemns Russia and backs Ukraine in exclusive interview on invasion

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As the world continues to watch the Ukraine crisis unfold, Israeli diplomat and spokesperson for the Israeli Consulate General in New York, Itay Milner, paid a visit to Syracuse University and WAER. Almost every country in the world has condemned Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, including Israel.

But Milner told WAER’s Scott Willis that the Middle Eastern country has a complicated history and relationship with Russia, finds itself in a delicate balancing act as it backs Ukraine.

Editor’s Note: This transcript is an abridged version of the interview. You can listen to the full interview above.

ITAY MILNER: We can all agree that this is a huge tragedy for everyone, especially for the people of Ukraine when it comes to, you know, being on the right side of history. It’s very clear. Where is the bright side of the story and Israel is taking a very strong stance. He condemned Russia at the UN and as a spokesman I personally condemn Russia for the invasion.

With regard to the strategic alliance, our first strategic alliance is with the United States, but there is also another side to the story. Israel is a country located in a very difficult region of the world. We have northern neighbors like Syria and Lebanon which are very chaotic. There are actors out there who are bad actors in every standard you check. They are also good actors there. The only actor who is there and it is the strongest actor, they are the Russians.

They pretty much control. They have a military presence there. So whenever Israel protects itself to defend itself, and also defends other countries in the region, it must do so by getting along with the Russians. Now, obviously, that puts us in a very difficult situation. You know, we understand where we’re supposed to be right now. We are sending humanitarian aid to Ukraine. We have just built a field hospital in Ukraine. The Israeli government announced that it would receive not only Jewish refugees, but also non-Jewish refugees… Ukrainians.

And we condemn Russia. But we are doing all this in such a way as to maintain our relations with Russia as well. Just last Saturday Prime Minister Bennett, the Prime Minister of Israel, flew to Moscow and met with President Putin. He is the first leader of a Western country to meet Putin since the beginning of this whole crisis. So I think it’s very important that we have this relationship with Russia, because we can all benefit from it.

SCOTT WILLIS: Do we know what Israelis think about the conflict every day?

ITAY MILNER: So that’s a very interesting question because I’m not sure a lot of people or a lot of listeners know that out of 9 million citizens in Israel, one million were born in the former Soviet Union. It’s a crazy number. That’s more than 10% of the population. Many of them have children and families. That’s almost 20% of the population that identifies as the former Soviet Union. Many, many of them still have families in Ukraine and Russia. There are still many Jews living in Ukraine and in Russia and in Ukraine itself there are over 50,000 Jews. 200,000 Ukrainians are eligible to immigrate to Israel through the right of return.

In Russia it is even more, it is almost half a million, mainly the population of the former Soviet Union. They are extremely pro-Ukrainian in this situation, even though they come from, from areas that used to be Russia and they have families in Russia, they still support Ukraine. So we had many demonstrations in Israel, many rallies in front of the Russian Embassy, ​​in front of the Ukrainian Embassy. And it’s a very hot topic. I think we can now say that this is a conflict of public opinion more so than any conflict we have seen in recent decades or at all in history.

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