Israel has so far pursued a non-interventionist response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but that hard line may soon change as the nation faces mounting pressure from the West to act. In a sign of change to come, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said in Slovakia Monday that Russians would not be allowed to use Israel as “a route to bypass sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States and other Western countries.”
His comments came following reports that at least 14 private jets from Moscow had landed at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport since the beginning of March, raising international suspicion that leading Russian business figures and oligarchs are fleeing to Israel to evade sanctions.
Lapid asserted Monday that his office was coordinating with “the Bank of Israel, the Finance Ministry, the Economy Ministry, the Airports Authority, the Energy Ministry, and others” to prevent this from happening. This coordination includes the creation of a special commission to consider Russian sanctions, as well as increased monitoring of finances by banking institutions and the implementation of a 24-hour limit on all visiting private planes in the hopes of preventing fleeing oligarchs from establishing permanent ties in the nation.
Israel has not joined the Western sanctions against Russia as it finds itself in a perilous middle position on the international stage. While it has offered its support for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Ukraine, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has assumed the role of a middleman between the warring nations, having spoken via telephone with Zelensky, and in person with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Elise Brezis, director of the Azrieli Center for Economic Policy at Bar-Ilan University in central Israel, warned that “our situation is not simple,” as Russian troops maintain a presence in neighboring Syria. Putin and Russian forces in Syria, which borders northern Israel, have allowed forays by Israeli Defense Forces in pursuit of the militant terrorist organization Hezbollah.
Other Israeli organizations have also taken several actions to limit any fleeing Russian oligarchs from taking advantage of the current situation. For instance, the country’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial has ceased relations with Russian business leaders such as Roman Abramovich, owner of Chelsea football club and oligarch. Abramovich has been a major donor for the organization, but Yad Vashem recently announced that it has suspended his most recent donation of over $10 million.
Russian business leaders have taken an increased interest in Israel since the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea and the subsequent backlash from the international community, as Israeli citizenship offers the ability to skirt sanctions on Russia. Dozens of oligarchs of Jewish heritage have applied for Israeli citizenship since the invasion of Crimea and purchased homes, invested in key industries such as technology and defense, and made donations to philanthropic organizations. In the case of Abramovich, his Israeli citizenship began in 2018 after his British visa was not renewed as part of efforts to crack down on known comrades of Putin.
As an Israeli special commission is formed to investigate the question of Russian oligarchs, the international community must watch in anticipation for its final decision. While joining the sanctions would please the Western community, including the U.S. and the U.K., Israel would risk giving up its unique role as a potential mediator between Ukraine and Russia. By joining the sanctions, it may also risk dismantling its delicate relationship with Russia. Public support of Ukraine is high in Israel, and as the death toll rises in the conflict, the nation will likely take a stronger approach to the situation. For example, a former member of Israel’s parliament, Roman Bronfman, said last week, “Israel is realizing that the time is now for these oligarchs to pay for their crimes.”
For now, Israel will hold private planes to a 24-hour landing restriction and financial institutions will monitor for any suspicious activity.