Russia's invasion of Ukraine puts Israel in a tricky spot

(R to L) Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett chairs the weekly cabinet meeting, with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem on February 20.

Jerusalem (CNN)In Israel, when someone is trying to tread carefully, it is said that they are "walking between the raindrops" -- trying not to get wet.

For several weeks now, Israel has been walking between the raindrops as Russia wages war on Ukraine.
On the one hand is Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who regularly condemns Russia's invasion. Shortly after meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday, Lapid said: "There is no justification for violating Ukrainian sovereignty and killing innocent civilians."
    On the other hand is Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. Although he has called for a ceasefire, is sending humanitarian aid and has personally welcomed Ukrainian refugees landing in Israel, he has barely mentioned Russia or its President Vladimir Putin in public speeches.
      The reason is complicated and down to a combination of economic, cultural, political and, most importantly, security considerations.
      And while the pressure has been building on Israel internationally and domestically to do more to help Ukraine and push back against Russia, Israel is arguing it should use its unique position as one of the few Western-allied countries that has an open channel of communication with both Ukraine and Russia.
      Bennett is in regular contact with both Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Putin, attempting to broker negotiations. An observant Jew, he broke Shabbat on Saturday to fly to Moscow for an unannounced meeting with Putin. On Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath, work and the use of electrical objects is forbidden from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday for those who observe it. But there's a caveat in Jewish law that a rule can be broken if it saves a life.
        How is Israel's relationship with Russia?
        Israel and Russia have had a relationship of convenience after re-establishing ties following the end of the Cold War.
        Israel has a large Russian-speaking population. From the fall of the Soviet Union until the mid 2000s, more than one million immigrants arrived from the former Soviet Union under Israel's "Law of Return," which allows any Jew, or anyone with at least a Jewish grandparent, to obtain citizenship along with their families.
        But beyond cultural connections, what Israel cares most about with Russia is its influence on Iran and its presence in Syria.
        Russia is a party to negotiations to revive the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement, which Israel opposes. Although his trip to Moscow on Saturday was focused on the Ukraine invasion, Bennett brought up Israel's position on the deal as nuclear talks continued in Vienna, according to an Israeli official who spoke with CNN.
        But in the more immediate view, Israel considers that its northern border with Syria, "for all intents and purposes is a border with Russia," in the words of Lapid. "Because the Russians are there and there is security coordination with the Russians."
        Israel regularly carries out airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria, which it regards as critical to prevent the transfer of precision-guided missile technology to Lebanon's Hezbollah militant group.
        Israel coordinates with the Russians ahead of strikes in Syria and there are concerns that if the relationship with Moscow goes sour, so does Israel's freedom of action in Syria -- something Israel sees as vital for its security.
        How is Israel's relationship with Ukraine?
        Israel's relationship with Ukraine is personal. As a European democracy with one of the few Jewish heads of state in the world, Israel sees itself as a natural ally.
        Ukraine has a large Jewish population and Israel also hosts a large Ukrainian-born population. Economically, Ukraine provides at least 40% of Israel's grain imports and is an important hub of outsourced engineering work for Israel's high-tech industry.
        Although some officials have condemned the invasion and Israel is providing humanitarian assistance, like a field hospital, and sending airplanes full of aid, it has stopped short of committing to providing military equipment.
        Yevgen Korniychuk, Ukraine's ambassador to Israel, puts on a protective helmet at a press conference on March 7.
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