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Zelenskyy evokes Holocaust, asks Knesset for weapons, sanctions

In a scathing video-screened speech, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy likened the war in his country to World War II and to the Nazi persecution, asking Israel to help Ukraine with weapons and with immediate economic sanctions against Russia.
Demonstrators gather to watch Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's speech to the Knesset, broadcast at Habima Square, Tel Aviv, Israel, March 20, 2022.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy hailed on the evening of March 20 Israeli mediation efforts with Russia and suggested mediation could take place in Jerusalem. Speaking in his daily video appeal to his fellow citizens, Zelenskyy said, "Of course, Israel has its interests, strategy to protect its citizens. We understand all of it. The prime minister of Israel, Mr. Bennett, is trying to find a way of holding talks. And we are grateful for this. We are grateful for his efforts, so that sooner or later we will begin to have talks with Russia, possibly in Jerusalem. That's the right place to find peace. If possible.”

Earlier in the evening, Zelenskyy addressed Israeli lawmakers via Zoom. Most Knesset members joined the broadcast, despite the Knesset being in winter recess. Only members of the Arab Joint List abstained, noting they did not wish to take sides in the conflict. Last week, after the announcement of the speech, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said they would attend the Zoom meeting. Apparently both men were concerned that only few legislators would join the video speech because many of them are vacationing abroad.

The Zoom meeting was hosted by Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy, who welcomed Zelenskyy with warm words. Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai decided a day earlier to broadcast Zelenskyy’s speech on a huge screen at the city’s Habima Square, drawing thousands of residents who came to watch it outside. It was also streamlined live on social media networks. Zelenskyy spoke in Ukrainian, with simultaneous translation into Hebrew.

Zelenskyy opened his remarks by paraphrasing what Israel's Ukrainian-born fourth Prime Minister Golda Meir said years ago. "We want to live alongside our neighbors; they want to see us dead, so that doesn’t leave a lot of room for compromise," said Zelenskyy. He then sought to draw a comparison between Russia and the Nazi regime, drawing criticism in Israel. The Ukrainian president, who is of Jewish origin, noted that Feb. 24 — the date Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine — was also the date of the founding of the National Socialist German Workers Party (the Nazi party) in Germany 102 years ago. Later in the speech, he referred to the same issue, noting, “The Russians use the terminology of the Nazi party, they want to destroy everything. The Nazis called this ‘the final solution to the Jewish question.’ And now … in Moscow … they’re using those words, ‘the final solution.’ But now it’s directed against us and the Ukrainian question.”

“Our people are now wandering the world, searching for a place, just as you once wandered … seeking security, trying to stay alive, and in peace. Exactly what you have sought. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is not a military operation as it’s presented in Moscow. It is an all-out war, illegitimate, intended to destroy our people, our country, our cities, our culture and our children. Everything that makes Ukrainians Ukrainians,” he noted.

Zelenskyy criticized Israel for its reluctance to supply Ukraine with weapons and for its reluctance to apply the Western sanctions against Russia. "Everybody knows that your missile defense systems are the best and that you can definitely help our people, save the lives of Ukrainians, of Ukrainian Jews. We can ask why we can't receive weapons from you, why Israel has not imposed powerful sanctions on Russia or is not putting pressure on Russian business. Either way, the choice is yours to make, brothers and sisters, and you must then live with your answer, the people of Israel."

Lapid hailed Zelenskyy’s speech, tweeting, “I reiterate my condemnation of the attack on Ukraine and thank President Zelenskyy for sharing his feelings and the plight of the Ukrainian people with members of the Knesset and the government. We will continue to assist the Ukrainian people as much as we can and we will never turn our backs to the plight of people who know the horrors of war.”

Other Israeli parliamentarians, including National Religious party leader Bezalel Smotrich, criticized Zelenskyy’s comparison of the Ukraine war to the Holocaust, calling it outrageous.

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