JERUSALEM — On the surface, it seems like a doomed diplomatic gambit — the untested leader of Israel, which is known for its unresolved conflict with the Palestinians and wars with its neighbors, tries to help end the most serious combat in Europe since the end of World War II.
That’s what happened when Prime Minister Naftali Bennett flew to Moscow on Feb. 26, a Saturday, two days after Russia invaded Ukraine, despite being an observant Jew for whom travel on the Sabbath is forbidden unless it’s a matter of life and death.
Once there, he met with President Vladimir Putin for three hours in a bid to help end the war. Leaders from other top negotiator countries — NATO members France, Germany and Turkey — have spoken with Putin only by phone, according to Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the United States.
On Thursday, just before the start of an emergency NATO summit attended by President Joe Biden, Bennett again spoke with Putin, according to the Kremlin.
Israel, which has failed to negotiate a two-state resolution with the Palestinians, could seem poorly cast as a diplomatic powerhouse in efforts to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The close ally of Washington has also been criticized for not having taken a stronger stance and joining many of its Western allies in sanctioning Russia.
“Bennett is out of his element.”
Alon pinkas, Israel’s former consul-general in New York
But, according to former Israeli national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, the fact that Israel, a country of 9 million people, is able to maintain a productive relationship with Russia while keeping close ties with the U.S. makes it effective as a mediator.
“Israel’s assets stem from the trust it enjoys from all parties involved in the conflict: Russia, Ukraine, the United States and NATO countries,” said Ben-Shabbat, a researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University
He pointed in particular to a deconfliction mechanism Russia and Israel have established that allows the Israel Defense Forces to operate aerially in neighboring Syria against Iran and its proxies without harming Russia’s military.
Putin’s military intervention in the ongoing 11-year civil war in Syria saved President Bashar al-Assad’s government, enabling the latter to brutally reassert control over much of his country. Russian airstrikes hit hospitals, schools and markets, and the war killed around half a million people and sent more than 5 million fleeing to neighboring countries.
Israel has for decades had warmer relations with Moscow than many Western nations partly because of the country’s large Russian-speaking community comprising some 15 percent of the population.
According to Zvi Magen, who has served as Israel’s ambassador to Ukraine and Russia and is also a researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies, Putin asked Israel to be an interlocutor because it is “accepted by the international community ... and is not part of an anti-Russian bloc.”
France, Germany and Turkey are part of NATO, and for Putin, “NATO is an enemy,” Magen said.
Bennett would also be willing to travel to besieged Kyiv, if necessary, once the talks have reached a serious level, according to a report confirmed by a spokeswoman for his office.
Ukraine has also highlighted Israel’s role in the conflict, with the country’s ambassador to Ukraine, Yevgen Korniychuk, referring to Israel’s “unique” status as a mediator. Korniychuk separately has said that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Jewish roots gave him a special emotional tie to Israel.
Kyiv, meanwhile, also feels an affinity with Israel because it’s home to many Ukrainian immigrants, while the Jewish community that remains in Ukraine dates back more than a millennium.
But on Sunday, Zelenskyy himself called out Israel for not doing more to support his country.
“One can ask for a long time why we can’t accept weapons from you or why Israel didn’t impose sanctions against Russia, why you are not putting pressure on Russian business,” he said in a speech to Israel’s parliament, echoing calls he’s made to governments around the world.
Mediation efforts should not come at the cost of a strong moral stance, Zelenskyy said, explaining “mediation can be between states, not between good and evil.”
He later backtracked, praising Israel’s role as a negotiator and raising the prospect of Jerusalem as a venue for a Russia-Ukraine summit.
The next day, Bennett defended his role as a mediator and said that some progress has been made toward resolving the conflict, but that the gaps were too large to ensure a resolution.
Bennett’s efforts to help end the war have been met with skepticism by some at home. Veteran journalist Nahum Barnea asked him earlier this week “if the mediation efforts really have any significance.”
The prime minister has been accused in particular of over-inflating his negotiator status to magnify his political stature and to provide a fig leaf for policies of neutrality toward Russia, such as a refusal to send arms to Ukraine and a failure to join international sanctions.
Meanwhile, Israel’s former consul-general in New York, Alon Pinkas, said he was skeptical of the entire negotiation process between Russia and Ukraine given his belief that significant progress could ultimately only be made between Moscow and Washington.
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“Bennett is out of his element” he said. “Russia is not negotiating with Ukraine. Russia is interested in negotiating with NATO and the U.S. Anyone who thinks Russia wants to negotiate with Ukraine is missing the point on why Putin invaded. He doesn’t recognize Ukraine.”
Both Zelenskyy and Putin are using Israel for their own gains, Pinkas said.
“Zelenskyy is talking to anyone who will listen,” and Putin is “using Bennett to score public relation points,” he added.
But it is Israel’s long-standing relationship with the U.S., which allows for openness and cooperation on delicate diplomatic issues, that may make it an effective mediator, according to U.S. officials. In this case, Israel has closely coordinated its mediation efforts with the Biden administration.
Oren, who served as the Israeli ambassador from 2009-2013, said that during his time in Washington, Israel was a known channel to Russia.
“I would frequently be asked by Washington officials about Putin’s thinking and policies because Israel had far better communications with Putin than America did,” he said.
He gave an example of Israeli mediation between the two countries dating back to 2012 when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, ignoring then-President Barack Obama’s red line.
“Israel negotiated with the Russians a deal where the Russians removed a large part of Assad’s chemical arsenal from Syria.
“We did that. We resolved that conflict. We didn’t resolve it very well, because Assad then used chemical weapons [again]. We were able to do that because we had an open channel to Putin,” Oren said.
Israel has also served as a public venue for direct U.S.-Russia communications. In 2019, Russian national security adviser Nikolai Patrushev met with his U.S. and Israeli counterparts in Jerusalem, John Bolton and Ben-Shabbat, to discuss Iran’s presence in Syria. Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presided over the meeting, which communicated the unity of the three countries over Iran.
Nevertheless, Oren said, he was worried that the risks could outweigh the benefits, noting that Bennett was now “playing with the big leagues.”
The neutrality that is necessary for such a mediator role could give the perception that Israel is not standing strongly with Ukraine, the U.S. and the West, he said.
“At what price neutrality?” he asked. “How much is an open channel to Moscow worth?”
“Israel can’t afford to be seen as not standing by a democracy that is fighting for its freedom, to say nothing of one that is led by a fellow Jew,” Oren said.
“Morally, politically and militarily, Israel can’t afford to weaken its alliance with the West.”