Israel’s Ukraine Policy Prompts Scrutiny of Russian-Israeli Oligarchs

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

“Russia is accusing Ukraine and Ukraine is accusing Russia,” and Israel should avoid adjudicating one way or the other, Mr. Liberman told a radio station last Monday. “We here need to maintain Israel’s moral stand on the one hand,” he added, “and Israel’s interests on the other.”

It was a comment that underscored 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, particularly Kremlin-connected Russian-Israeli businessmen.

Israel has expressed repeated 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 United Nations Human Rights Council. But it has not sent military equipment or enforced formal sanctions on Russian oligarchs.

The Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett, has generally avoided direct criticism of Russia, pointedly leaving condemnations of the Kremlin to the foreign minister, Yair Lapid — most recently on Sunday, when the Foreign Ministry condemned a recent Russian airstrike that killed at least 50 people at a Ukrainian train station.

That 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 antisemitic attacks, and to maintain its delicate relationship with the Russian military in Syria.

Israel’s reluctance to anger Russia has nevertheless heightened scrutiny of the influence of Russian-speaking businessmen and politicians on Israeli policymaking 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 cabinet minister, have become major political figures. Others, like Yitzchak Mirilashvili, who owns a right-wing Israeli television channel, control media outlets that help shape public discourse. Several, most prominently Roman Abramovich, the billionaire punished in Britain for his links to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, have become major donors to Israeli institutions.

At least four other Russian-speaking Israelis have had sanctions imposed against them by other countries for their connections to the Russian government.

But though Russian-Israeli oligarchs do wield influence, experts say they are not the reason for Israel’s neutral stance on the Ukraine war, which is driven by national security concerns.

“Frankly, I do not see an impact by those 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 said in a phone interview. “The main priority is the interests of the State of Israel.”

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

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

Ihor Kolomoisky, a Ukrainian oligarch considered to be a patron 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 come under heavy Russian bombardment. And Natan Sharansky, who spent nine years in Soviet detention after trying to emigrate to Israel, has been one of the most vocal critics of the Israeli government’s Ukraine policy.

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

“I don’t think the people who are making decisions really know about the fact that this channel is owned by this one or this channel by that one,” said Mr. Sharansky, a former Israeli deputy prime minister.

“All the experts and ministers and the leaders of the state are explaining to me again and again that we have our challenge in Syria,” Mr. Sharansky added. “Unfortunately, the West gave the keys to the skies of Syria to Putin. And because of this we have no choice but to come to a strategic understanding with him.”

Analysts say that prominent Russian Israelis do have broader social capital that grants them access to opinion makers and decision takers. But they wield that influence in ways that are not particularly 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 sway include Mr. Mirilashvili, who owns Channel 14, a small right-wing television channel, and various real estate and technology firms. Mr. Mirilashvili’s father, Mikhael Mirilashvili, still has considerable energy and real estate investments in Russia and employed Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, now an oligarch close to Mr. Putin, as a manager in one of his restaurants during the 1990s.

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

Viktor F. Vekselberg, a Russian-Israeli businessman who has had sanctions imposed on him by the United States, once funded a spyware firm headed by Benny Gantz, now Israel’s defense minister. The firm folded 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 American ambassador in Jerusalem to request that Washington spare Mr. Abramovich from sanctions.

Mr. Liberman, the finance minister, has long used his platform to deflect criticism of Mr. Putin. In 2011, while foreign minister, he praised Russian parliamentary elections as free and democratic, despite widespread international concerns about their fairness. After the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, he argued against joining American sanctions on Russia.

Over time, that kind of intervention has inevitably had an effect on some Israelis and even on colleagues in government, Mr. Nevzlin said. Without it, perhaps the government’s “rhetoric would have been more clear, and the support and help 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 public opinion research in both Israel and Russia.

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

But the prominence of Russian-speaking businessmen does not empower them to tell Israeli politicians to “listen to the Kremlin,” Dr. Michlin-Shapir said. 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 on Russian Israelis linked to Mr. Putin, despite frequent requests from Ukrainian and some American officials. But Israel has nevertheless signaled that it does not want to become a hub for laundered Russian money.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry publicly warned its embassies this week not to accept donations from individuals facing sanctions. Israeli officials say that Israeli banks are aware of the penalties they may incur from American authorities if they process money from those 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 relocating to Israel.

“Israel will not be a route to bypass sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States and other Western countries,” Mr. Lapid, the foreign minister, said in March.

Russian-speaking Israeli businessmen also are not necessarily any wealthier than immigrants from other national backgrounds. Of those named in a recent list of the 100 richest Israelis, published in Forbes magazine, only 10 were from post-Soviet origins — proportionally less 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, suspending a planned donation worth tens of millions of dollars after Mr. Abramovich was penalized by Britain.

Perhaps most tellingly, Russian-owned news media outlets in Israel have not taken a pro-Kremlin position, and two Russian-language news websites 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 executive to push journalists to take a pro-Kremlin line, said Mr. Nevzlin, the billionaire Putin critic.

The executives would face both a local and an international backlash at a time when they are seeking to keep a lower profile, he added.

“There would probably be sanctions imposed on them,” Mr. Nevzlin said. “Why would rational people do something like that?”

Reporting was 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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