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Netanyahu signals affinity for Zelensky as Israel’s ties with Russia worsen

Israel intends to host Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for a visit to show solidarity in response to the Hamas terrorist attack last month despite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s careful management of ties with Russia.

“If President Zelensky comes, he will be welcomed with open arms,” an unnamed Israeli official told the Times of Israel.

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Zelensky had planned to arrive in Israel on Monday, according to reports, which would have positioned him to mark the passage of a month since the unprecedented rampage that ignited a major war in Gaza. The visit was canceled after his plans leaked, but points in any case to the worsening relationship between Israel and Russia.

“It’s kind of an extension of this rhetorical signaling … to the Russians that [they should] measure your support to the Palestinians or those who are supporting Palestinians,” former Estonian diplomat Peeter Raudsik, who specialized in Middle East issues at the Estonian mission to the United Nations from 2019 to 2022, told the Washington Examiner.

Russia Ukraine War EU Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky attends a press conference with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023.

That trip would have united two leaders trying to shore up international support for their respective causes at a time of growing international unease about Ukraine’s prospects and Israel’s tactics in separate devastating wars.

“[Zelensky] wanted the trip to be public when he stepped on Israeli soil,” a Ukrainian official told Israeli media. “He’s very disappointed.”

Netanyahu’s team reportedly rebuffed Zelensky’s initial attempt to visit in the first days after the Hamas attack in an apparent continuation of their long-standing effort to maintain a cordial relationship with Russia, which has a military presence in neighboring Syria. Yet Russia has hosted delegations from Hamas and Iran in Moscow in the weeks since the terrorist attack, with senior Russian officials criticizing Israel’s conduct in the war. The dispute escalated in recent days when Russian Ambassador Vasily Nebenzia, the top Russian envoy at the U.N., said Israel “does not have” a right to self-defense against the Palestinians, which outraged his Israeli counterpart.

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“Russia is using the Hamas attack in the most perverted way possible and only to distract the world’s attention from the invasion of Ukraine,” Israeli Ambassador Gilad Erdan said last week.

Nebenzia’s colleagues protested that rebuttal. “As regards statements being made by Israeli officials on Russia, this is unacceptable, and the Israeli ambassador to Moscow has been notified of that,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Tuesday, per Russian state media.

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