Analysis |

Bennett's Ukraine-Russia Strategy: Have Your Cake and Eat It Too

Israel is trying to align with the world against the Russian invasion while still maintaining dialogue with Moscow, and that's allowed Naftali Bennett to serve as a surprise mediator between Putin and Zelenskyy

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in Jerusalem last week.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in Jerusalem last week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Saturday’s secret meeting between Bennett and Putin in Moscow is an unusual political event by any measure: a religious Israeli prime minister traveled on the Sabbath, covertly, on an international mediation mission in the midst of a war in which Israel is not a side. Bennett is the first Western leader to meet Putin since the latter ordered his army to invade Ukraine ten days ago. The veteran Russian leader freed his busy schedule for holding a prolonged meeting lasting three hours with a young prime minister with no proven diplomatic experience.

Both Putin and Bennett gained something from Saturday’s meeting: Putin signaled to the West his supposed willingness to listen and talk. Bennett, on the other hand, upgraded his international stature in one fell swoop, holding endless talks with Arab leaders before and after the meeting.

Putin clobbers Ukraine, and Israel's Holocaust museum fights its own war. LISTEN

However, in the absence of concrete information on the content of the dramatic meeting, it’s important to remember that the unfolding of an “Israeli axis” will ultimately be judged by results. The meeting may turn out to have been inconsequential if it doesn’t yield anything. It isn't clear if Israel will continue serving as a link between the two sides, nor is it clear if Bennett is capable of serving as a mediator who could deescalate the situation.

In recent weeks, Jerusalem found it hard to believe that Israel would play a significant role in mediation efforts. “This is a political flash in the pan” said one senior official in regard to Bennett’s talks with Zelenskyy and Putin, with another official clarifying that “there are no expectations of Israel in this matter.” Political sources have repeatedly emphasized that Israel’s caution in ascribing responsibility to Russia stems mainly from two needs: the security coordination in Syria and concern for the welfare of the Jewish communities in Russia and Ukraine.

But the Russia-Israel-Ukraine axis heated up. Israel enjoys the confidence of both leaders, on the one hand because of its direct link to the White House, and on the other because it is not identified with European interests that bother Putin. Zelenskyy did voice some hinted criticism at Bennett and Israel’s aid, but messages continued to pass between the two sides. Bennett and the team which accompanied him to Saturday’s meeting have the Kremlin’s trust. They include the head of Israel’s National Security Council Eyal Hulata, foreign policy adviser Shimrit Meir, and Minister Zeev Elkin, likely the Israeli who’s clocked the most “Putin hours” in recent years. Elkin met the ambassadors of Russia and Ukraine this week, ahead of the mission to Moscow.

The Moscow trip, immediately followed by a visit to Chancellor Scholz in Germany, will grant Bennett some breathing space vis-à-vis the scathing criticism, at home and abroad, of his clumsy conduct since the battle in Ukraine started. Bennett, who refused to publicly mention the words “Russia” or “Putin,” or to criticize the aggressive invasion, is now reaping the political fruit of his conduct.

Bennett with Vladimir Putin in Sochi last year.Credit: Yevgeny Biyatov/AFP

However, an Israeli source familiar with the negotiations said on Saturday that there was no vagueness. “We have openly chosen sides,” he said, noting Israel’s open support for the public condemnation of Russia at the United Nations. With that being said, the parallel efforts not to annoy Russia enabled the maintaining of open channels of communication, the source added.

On the backdrop of renewed efforts to sign the nuclear accord with Iran already this week, Bennett’s hopping between the two leaders, who can influence the deal's clauses, has the potential of yielding some limited gains in this arena as well. Bennett proved on Saturday that doors are open in important capitals in Russia, Europe and the United States. For now, Israel’s impact on the accord these countries are nearing with Iran seems negligible.

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