Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Russian President Vladimir Putin

Bennett emerges as an unlikely mediator in Russia-Ukraine war

In-Depth: PM's close ties with both Moscow and Kyiv, Israel's post-USSR community, as well as the two warring countries' sizable Jewish populations all placed Israel in a key position in the ongoing mediation efforts

Associated Press |
Published: 03.16.22, 19:54
Just a year ago, Naftali Bennett was struggling for his political survival as Israel headed toward its fourth consecutive election. Now the prime minister is at the forefront of global efforts to end the war in Ukraine.
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  • 6 צפייה בגלריה
    פוטין, בנט וזלנסקי
    פוטין, בנט וזלנסקי
    Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Russian President Vladimir Putin
    (Photo: Reuters, Yoav Dudkevitch, AP)
    Although he has not yet delivered any major diplomatic breakthroughs, he is one of the few world leaders to speak regularly to both sides, providing a rare glimmer of hope for ending the 3-week-old war.
    Bennett himself has said little in public about his mediation since making a surprise visit to Moscow for talks with President Vladimir Putin on March 5. His office says there have been two more phone calls with Putin and six with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
    Bennett describes his efforts as a moral obligation to do whatever is possible to end the fighting. Underscoring that message, Bennett flew to Moscow to meet Putin on the Jewish sabbath, when observant Jews like himself do not travel unless it is a life-saving situation.
    "Israel will continue to act to prevent bloodshed and bring the sides from the battlefield to the conference table," Bennett said this week.
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    נשיא אוקראינה ולדימיר זלנסקי  ו ראש הממשלה דניס שמיהל משבר מלחמה רוסיה אוקראינה
    נשיא אוקראינה ולדימיר זלנסקי  ו ראש הממשלה דניס שמיהל משבר מלחמה רוסיה אוקראינה
    Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in the war room
    (Photo: AFP)
    While Israel is well over 1,000 miles from the war zone, its involvement isn't entirely surprising.
    Israel's ties with Russia and Ukraine run deep. Both countries have large Jewish communities, and over 1 million Jews from the region have moved to Israel since the collapse of the Soviet Union three decades ago.
    Zelensky, who is Jewish, appears to have an affinity for Israel, while the Israeli and Russian militaries have maintained close communications in recent years to prevent clashes in the sky over Syria. Russia has provided support to Syrian President Bashar Assad in the civil war, while Israel often strikes what it says are enemy Iranian and Hezbollah targets aligned with Assad on the territory of its neighbor.
    Beyond Israel's geopolitical strengths, Bennett's personality also appears to be a factor.
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    שריפה בבניין מגורים בקייב
    שריפה בבניין מגורים בקייב
    A residential building in Kyiv engulfed in flames after a Russian attack
    (Photo: AP)
    In last year's election, Bennett's tiny Yamina party barely squeaked into parliament with just seven of the chamber's 120 seats. But through some creative wheeling and dealing, Bennett positioned himself as a kingmaker, providing the critical votes to form a majority coalition. That allowed him to become prime minister in a power-sharing agreement that ousted his former mentor, Benjamin Netanyahu, from the top job.
    Bennett has shown similar creativity in office. Long before the war, he moved quickly to establish good working relations with world leaders, including President Joe Biden as well as Putin and Zelensky.
    His mediation efforts were first encouraged by Germany, and he carefully coordinates his activities with Washington and other Western allies.
    This calibrated approach appears to have gained the trust of both sides. Zelensky's chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, this week pinned hopes on Israeli negotiating efforts.
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    נשיא רוסיה ולדימיר פוטין
    נשיא רוסיה ולדימיר פוטין
    Russian President Vladimir Putin
    (Photo: EPA)
    "Israel took upon itself the difficult but noble mission of mediator in the search of peace and an end to Russia's aggression against Ukraine," he said.
    Toward that end, Bennett has been careful to maintain a relative air of neutrality. While Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has repeatedly condemned Russia's invasion, Bennett's criticism has been muted.
    Israel has delivered humanitarian aid to Ukraine, but has not joined its Western allies in sending military assistance or imposing sanctions on Russia and the many Russian-Jewish oligarchs who have second homes in Israel.
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    חיילים אוקראינים
    חיילים אוקראינים
    Ukrainian forces look on a charred vehicle likely destroyed in a Russia attack
    (Photo: AP)
    At times, Bennett's refusal to be tougher against Russia has drawn criticism at home and abroad. But it appears to have allowed him to retain Putin's trust.
    Israeli officials have been careful not to exaggerate Bennett's role and say he is not actively making proposals or pressuring the sides. Instead, they describe him as a channel of communication, passing messages from the sides in what they describe as a frank and realistic manner.
    The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were discussing diplomatic efforts, say there has been a "positive shift" in the rhetoric from both sides.
    They declined to elaborate. Zelensky acknowledged in the most explicit terms yet Tuesday that Ukraine's goal of joining NATO is unlikely to be met, while Putin appears to have backed away from earlier comments questioning Ukraine's right to exist as an independent country.
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    רכב עם חורי קליעים באירפין
    רכב עם חורי קליעים באירפין
    A bullet-riddled car in the besieged Ukrainian town of Irpin
    (Photo: AFP)
    Vera Michlin-Shapir, who previously worked on Israel's National Security Council and published a book on Russia last year, said Bennett's main advantages are that he is seen as neutral and that Israel is a small country far removed from the conflict.
    Putin "obviously has some sympathy for Israel," she said, in part because of its large Russian-speaking minority and its Christian holy sites. The military relations in Syria, while sometimes strained, have "added depth to the relationship."
    Nadav Eyal, a Ynet contributor and author of the book, "Revolt: The Worldwide Revolution Against Globalization," described Bennett as a good listener, fast learner and straight shooter. These skills, and his close ties with the White House, position him to be an effective mediator.
    But he said ultimately that only Putin will decide when "to climb down the ladder" and end the war.
    "Bennett might be a useful tool in order to bring the Russian side back to some sort of civility in its approach to Ukraine," he said.
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