Analysis: Israel mediates between Ukraine and Russia

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett, and Russian president Vladimir Putin > Composite/AP, via Times of Israel

Naftali Bennett made a dramatic trip to Moscow last weekend to meet with Vladimir Putin as Israel found itself attempting to help mediate an international crisis for the first time. The prime minister’s trip on the Sabbath came as Israel increases its humanitarian aid to Ukraine and began to receive the first of what is expected to be several thousand refugees.

What happened

  • Bennett spent three hours with Putin on Saturday in a trip closely coordinated with Israel’s US and European allies. He is the first western leader to meet the president since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began. Bennett also spoke with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine by phone several times on Saturday evening and Sunday morning. He also spoke with Putin again on Sunday.
  • Zelensky tweeted on Tuesday afternoon that he had spoken again with Bennett, thanking Israel for its mediation efforts. The president said the two men had discussed “ways to end the war and violence”.
  • Israel’s foreign minister, Yair Lapid, briefed the US secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, when the two men met in Latvia on Monday.
  • Israel co-sponsored a UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia which passed overwhelmingly and gathered support from a number of other Middle Eastern states. Syria joined a handful of counties backing Russia while Iran abstained and laid the blame for the conflict at the door of the west.
  • Israeli humanitarian aid continues to flow to Ukraine, while there were large demonstrations against Russia in Tel Aviv for the second weekend running.
  • Israel has also begun accepting thousands of refugees from the conflict.
  • An apparent breakthrough in the Iran nuclear deal talks in Vienna has been complicated by Russia’s last-minute insistence that its trade with Tehran be exempt from sanctions imposed by the west following the invasion of Ukraine.

Why Israel?

  • Zelensky spoke to Bennett shortly after the Russian invasion began nearly two weeks ago, asking him to mediate with Putin. Ukraine’s ambassador to Israel later explained that “Israel is the only democratic state in the world that has great relations with both Ukraine and Russia”. The request, relayed to Moscow by Bennett, was initially turned down by Putin.
  • On Saturday, however, the prime minister spent three hours with Putin at the Kremlin. Scant details were released although Israeli officials said they discussed the war in Ukraine and the situation of Israelis and Jews caught up in the fighting. “According to the sources knowledgeable about the content of the talks, Bennett’s trip to Moscow … was meant to get a sense of what Putin’s position was, what his state of mind was and what his redlines were, and report them to the west,” reported the Jerusalem Post.
  • Bennett was briefed by President Emmanuel Macron before flying to Moscow. After meeting Putin, the prime minister spoke by phone with Macron and Zelensky and then travelled to Berlin where he met the German chancellor Olaf Scholz.
  • Despite being an observant Jew, aides said Bennett broke the religious stricture not to travel on the Sabbath because Judaism allows an exemption when the aim is to preserve human life.
  • “Even if the chance is not great, as soon as there is even a small opening, and we have access to all sides and the capability, I see this as our moral obligation to make every effort,” Bennett said at a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday.
  • While Bennett has faced some domestic criticism for not taking a stronger line with Russia, Israel has clearly opposed the invasion from the outset. “The Russian attack on Ukraine is a serious violation of the international order. Israel condemns the attack,” Lapid said on the day Putin ordered the attack. Bennett, who has sometimes refrained from mentioning Russia by name, told Zelensky the following day that Israel “stands by the Ukrainian people in these difficult times”.
  • Israel’s position is complicated by several factors: its desire to protect the Jewish populations of Russia and the Ukraine; the presence of large Russian and Ukrainian immigrant populations in Israel; and Putin’s continuing strong military presence in Syria. Throughout the Syrian civil war – in which Russia and Iran have salvaged the Assad regime – Israel has launched strikes designed to slow Tehran’s efforts to entrench itself and transfer advanced weaponry to Hezbollah. Russia and Israel have coordinated to ensure their forces don’t come into direct conflict.

Insider’s take

Bennett was joined by housing minister Ze’ev Elkin. Ukrainian-born, Elkin had previously accompanied former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu during several meetings with Putin. “Elkin is much more than a mere interpreter,” one analyst suggested. “If there’s anyone who can compose the political-psychological profile of Vladimir Putin for western intelligence agencies, it’s Elkin. Few understand Putin better than he does. He has spent dozens of hours and heard him speak in his own language, without any need for a translator. He has heard the nuances, has observed his body language and has clocked his behaviour patterns, his reactions, his crisis management, his strengths and his weaknesses.” Elkin, who quit Likud to join the opposition prior to last year’s elections, has family in the heavily attacked Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. He is reported to have met with both the Russian and Ukrainian ambassadors to Israel last week. Elkin is also believed to have been offered a cabinet post by Zelensky after his election in 2019.

Words of thanks

Ukraine and the US both thanked Israel for its efforts.

  • Meeting with Lapid on Monday, Blinken said the US “very much appreciates” Israel’s attempt to explore “any opening to end the war”.
  • Zelensky said he was “grateful to Israel for their support for Ukraine”.
  • Referencing previous calls by Ukraine for Israel to supply it with arms, Kiev’s ambassador to Jerusalem, Yevgen Korniychuk, said on Monday: “The peace effort is priceless for us. This is much more important than sales of weapons or munitions, which we are still fighting about with the Israeli government as a side issue.” He also said Ukraine viewed Jerusalem as a potential site for negotiations with Russia.

View from Ramallah

The Palestinian Authority and Hamas have avoided condemning the Russian invasion. The Palestinian prime minister, Mohammad Shtayyeh, told his cabinet on Monday that Israel’s attempt to mediate between Russia and Ukraine was “a mockery of international politics”. He continued: “We hope that the war will come to end in a way that ensures international security and safety, and protects civilians, who are the victims of wars.” While many Palestinians sympathise with Ukraine, a small pro-Putin rally in Bethlehem on Sunday attracted social media attention and underlined the historic ties between the Palestinian cause and the former Soviet Union.

Back in New York  

Russia’s embassy in Tel Aviv this week rebuked Israel for its UN General Assembly vote condemning the invasion of Ukraine. A letter delivered to the Foreign Ministry said Russia was “very disappointed” by Israel’s position. Israel co-sponsored a resolution which was overwhelmingly passed with only Russia, Syria, North Korea and Eritrea voting against. Iran and Iraq were among the 35 abstentions. Moderate Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Jordan, all voted to condemn Russia. In its statement, Iran said that “the current complexities in the fragile region of Eastern Europe have been exacerbated by the provocative actions and decisions of the US and NATO. The security concerns of Russia must be respected”.

Nuclear talk fallout  

The reverberations from Russia’s attack on Ukraine have been felt in Vienna where the Iran nuclear talks are believed to be close to a conclusion. On Saturday, the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, demanded “guarantees at least at the level of the secretary of state” that the US sanctions would not affect Moscow’s relationship with Tehran. Blinken dismissed Lavrov’s demand as “irrelevant”. But while Russia has thrown an apparent wrench in the talks, Iran is believed to be uninterested in Moscow’s concerns and is keen to conclude an agreement as soon as possible. With sanctions on Russia, it spies an opportunity to earn much-needed foreign currency by selling its reserve of 80 million barrels of oil (a move which could help lower consumer energy prices within weeks) and attract investment from international companies which are abandoning Russia. “The confluence of interests between Iran and the United States is looking stronger than the one between Iran and Russia,” observed Haaretz columnist Zvi Bare’el.

Aid, refugees and protests

Israel announced an increase in humanitarian aid to Ukraine over the weekend. An Israeli-staffed field hospital will begin operating this week, while generators that can continue to function without a power supply are also being transferred to the country. In the first week of the war, Israel flew 100 tons of aid to Ukraine, including medical supplies, winter clothing and water purification systems. As of Monday, over 2,000 Ukrainian refugees had arrived in Israel. “Israel is the western country without a land border with Ukraine that has absorbed the most Ukrainians per capita since the outbreak of fighting,” interior minister Ayelet Shaked said. Her ministry believes 15,000 Ukrainians may arrive in Israel by the end of the month.

On Saturday, demonstrators took to the streets of Tel Aviv, chanting slogans including “Putin is a fascist” and “Stop the war in Ukraine”. Last weekend, thousands marched to the Russian embassy in the city.

What happens next  

Israel is currently uniquely placed to keep open a line of communication between the Kremlin and Zelensky. However, its likely this window of opportunity will close if the Russian offensive further intensifies. Russia’s evident irritation at Israel’s vote at the UN indicates it may soon no longer regard the Jewish state as in any way neutral in its bloody war of aggression.