It has been a week since Prime Minister Naftali Bennett took upon himself to mediate between Ukraine and Russia. He secretly travelled to Moscow for a three-hour meeting, after which he held several phone conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, as well as talks with European leaders thought the week.
But in contrast to the impression created, Bennett’s mediation efforts are irritating a number of senior Ukrainian officials who don’t like Bennett’s declaration of intent. They don’t like his style, his motives or his achievements. Ukraine and the United States have been signaling to Bennett in recent days that he has to move forward: He either has to become a serious mediator and present some accomplishments, or to stand by Ukraine, providing it with military aid and joining the sanctions imposed on the Russian government by Western states.
Most of the messages have been delivered behind the scenes. Zelenskyy has a direct and positive relationship with Bennett and the two leaders have spoken again on Saturday night. However, senior Ukrainian officials have signaled Israel in recent days that the meeting between Bennett and Putin in the midst of war was not to their liking. Ukraine's Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov warned also Israel's refusal to take a clear position against Russia will harm the trust between Kyiv and Jerusalem.
Over the weekend, a senior Ukrainian official harshly criticized in a sharply worded message, which was coordinated with government officials, that Israel’s mediation is nothing more than a cover which allows Bennett to maintain Israeli neutrality and avoid imposing sanctions on Moscow while continuing to attack Syria. The official also expressed his disappointment with the mediation efforts so far, labeling them as “postal services.”
Israel did not appreciate the criticism. Bennett, it was said in recent days, is genuinely willing to help calm the situation. Officials in Jerusalem have already identified primary signs of success for the Israeli efforts, partly shown in the willingness of Russia and Ukraine to change the definition of the conflict from being about Ukraine's existence and the future of Zelenskyy, to a more germane discussion of borders, NATO membership and the future of the breakaway regions.
The Ukrainians are not alone in criticizing Bennett. Last Friday, in an interview to Israel's Channel 12 news, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland said that the Biden administration expects of Israel. She hinted that Bennet should emerge from his “comfort zone” and provide Ukraine with military aid while joining the sanctions against Putin. Her words, in a TV broadcast, are not very different from messages the U.S. has been sending Israel behind closed doors.
Israel has made clear in recent days that it would not help oligarchs bring in private planes and yachts and would act to stop the transfer of funds to Israel from accounts that were frozen in Russia due to the sanctions to banks. However, senior Israeli officials have said that current legislation does not allow the government to compel private companies to stop their business with Russia.
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Israel has said several times in recent week that Ukraine and the U.S. were sympathetic of Israel’s efforts to maintain its relationship with Russia, and that criticism of Israeli mediation efforts emanated from circles that were not close to key Ukrainian leaders. The conflicting messages from Ukraine – and the U.S. – in recent days indicate that the situation is much more complicated.