Russia said to warn Israel not to be ‘unbalanced’ ahead of Zelensky Knesset speech

Moscow says Israel needs to remain ‘neutral’; Opposition leader Netanyahu, considered close to Putin, will ‘definitely’ attend Sunday’s Zoom address by Ukraine’s president.

Russia has issued Israel a warning not to become too “unbalanced” as it seeks to walk a fine line between Moscow and Kyiv, saying that too much support for Ukraine could see Israel lose its ability to mediate the conflict, Channel 12 reported Friday.

The warning was reportedly conveyed by Russian Ambassador to Israel Anatoly Viktorov during a meeting Wednesday with Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy ahead of a live video address that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will deliver to Israeli lawmakers on Sunday.

Viktorov asked Levy to allow Russian lawmakers to brief their Israeli counterparts before Zelensky’s speech — a request to which Levy apparently did not accede.

Channel 12 reported that during the “tense” meeting, Viktorov also warned Israel that “a mediator needs to be careful not to become unbalanced.”

Channel 12 said Russia was waving a “red flag” in front of Israel, telling Jerusalem not to take additional steps that could jeopardize Israel’s standing as a credible, “neutral” intermediary between the two sides.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has been holding talks with Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin in a bid to find a way to cease the hostilities.

The lead-up to Zelensky’s speech has been fraught, as Israel seeks to avoid embarrassment and controversy, Russia tries to preempt Zelensky’s comments by conveying its own views, and Ukraine smarts because its president was not allowed to address a formal Knesset plenary session as originally requested.

Russian Ambassador to Israel Anatoly Viktorov gives a statement to the media at the Russian Consulate in Tel Aviv, March 3, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni‎‏/Flash90)
Russian Ambassador to Israel Anatoly Viktorov gives a statement to the media at the Russian Consulate in Tel Aviv, March 3, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni‎‏/Flash90)

The speech is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Sunday. The preparations have been complicated because the Knesset is in recess, many lawmakers are traveling, and the building is undergoing renovations.

A special situation room has been set up in the Knesset complex in Jerusalem to handle the broadcast, Channel 12 reported on Thursday.

The speech will be shown in a hall at the Knesset, and lawmakers will be able to tune in from any location. They have been asked to be respectful in their appearances. Their microphones will be muted.

All Knesset members and ministers have been invited to watch. Efforts are underway to ensure that as many MKs as possible will participate.

It is hoped that by holding the event over Zoom, lawmakers who are abroad on delegations will be able to attend.

Meanwhile, Channel 12 reported Friday that Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who has long presented himself as a close friend of Putin, would definitely attend the speech.

The report said Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid would join in together from the Prime Minister’s Office.

Knesset Speaker Levy will host the event. Levy will deliver an opening speech from a committee room, and will make a closing statement after Zelensky’s speech.

The speech will also be screened simultaneously on a large screen at Tel Aviv’s Habima Square for the public to watch. Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai said he had suggested the idea to the Ukrainian embassy.

Zelensky has spoken to other groups of lawmakers around the world to drum up support, including in the US and UK, but Israel has attempted to remain somewhat neutral in the war, with Lapid repeatedly condemning the Russian invasion but Bennett refraining from doing so.

Zelensky had initially sought to give a more formal virtual address before the Knesset plenum, but the request was denied by Levy, who explained that the parliament would not be able to hold such a session while in recess.

Critics said Jerusalem’s decision was motivated by an unwillingness to be seen siding too closely with Ukraine as it seeks to maintain working ties with Russia and Bennett tries to mediate between Moscow and Kyiv.

Israel is reliant on coordination with Russia to carry out military strikes in Syria against Iranian proxies there.

Ukrainian MP Olga Vasilevskaya-Smaglyuk said Wednesday that during his Knesset address, Zelensky will invoke his Jewishness, as well as liken his country’s struggle to fight off Russia’s invasion to World War II and Nazi Germany. “He will talk about the Holocaust and the situation of the Ukrainians now, because it is really similar — killing Ukrainians only because they are Ukrainian,” she said.