Eli Cohen speaks at the foreign affairs ministry in Jerusalem, Jan. 2, 2023. (Photo/JTA-Olivier Fitoussi-Flash90)
Eli Cohen speaks at the foreign affairs ministry in Jerusalem, Jan. 2, 2023. (Photo/JTA-Olivier Fitoussi-Flash90)

In first speech, Israel’s new foreign minister signals a closer relationship with Russia

In his first speech, Eli Cohen, Israel’s new foreign minister in Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government, has signaled that he will be pursuing less fractious ties with Russia, despite the ongoing war in Ukraine.

In a speech on Jan. 2, Cohen announced he would be meeting the next day with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, something his predecessor, Yair Lapid, had avoided since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Cohen also said, “On the issue of Russia and Ukraine we will do one thing for sure — speak less in public.”

During his term as foreign minister and six-month stint as prime minister, Lapid publicly condemned Russian attacks on civilians in Ukraine and refused to engage with Lavrov or Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I strongly condemn the Russian attacks on the civilian population in Kyiv and other cities across Ukraine,” Lapid wrote in October. “I send our sincere condolences to the families of the victims and the Ukrainian people.”

Cohen said that after speaking with Lavrov he will draft a “responsible” new policy on the war and brief security officials about it. He added that Israel’s humanitarian aid to Ukraine — reportedly in the millions of dollars — will continue.

Israel’s geopolitical position puts it in a difficult position in terms of openly challenging Russia, which has a large military presence in Syria and has so far turned a blind to Israel’s military targeting of Hezbollah positions and Iranian weapon shipments there. Were Russia to change its mind on that policy, Hezbollah — a Lebanese militant group and an avowed enemy of Israel — would operate more freely on Israel’s northern border.

Ukraine’s Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has repeatedly called out Israel for not providing more aid and weaponry, and for not joining Western nations in placing heavy sanctions on Russia.

Israel eventually sent “strategic materials,” the Israeli daily Haaretz reported, after urging from the United States. Former Defense Minister Benny Gantz also offered Ukraine air missile alert systems, to warn citizens about attacks, but Kyiv balked at the move, saying the technology was “not relevant any more.”

Cohen also noted that he will attend a summit in Morocco in March focused on the Abraham Accords, the normalization agreements signed between Israel and some of its Arab neighbors, which have been in effect since 2021.

David I. Klein

JTA correspondent


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