On the day after Naftali Bennett’s surprise Shabbat visit to Moscow and Berlin, we’re still in the dark as to the details of his three-hour meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and subsequent dinner chat with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
Hours after he landed, the Israeli prime minister chaired the weekly cabinet meeting, where he reported blandly (at least in the open part of the meeting) that he flew “to assist the dialogue between all the sides,” and that Israel “will continue to assist as needed. 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.”
So it doesn’t sound very optimistic, and we still don’t know what the main focus of Bennett’s meeting was. Did Putin use up most of the time to harangue him with his revisionist version of history in which Ukraine doesn’t exist as a nation and the government in Kyiv is a “neo-Nazi junta”? Did Bennett try to help launch negotiations for an end to the war or at least a cease-fire, or was he more interested in Israel’s important, if narrower, interests: a rescue of Jews from the war zone and the Vienna talks on resuming the Iranian nuclear deal?
We have just one indication of the possible scope of the talks: the fact that within 12 hours of his meeting with Putin, Bennett spoke on the phone three times with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, so it seems that in part at least, there was talk in Moscow of wider negotiations or a cease-fire. But that’s still mainly speculation.
Whether Bennett has a chance of achieving a breakthrough, perhaps in concert with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaking to Putin on Sunday, remains to be seen. But the Putin meeting is already having ripple effects on Israeli politics.
Bennett’s trip was a surprise, and not just because he broke tradition to fly out on Shabbat. Despite his phone calls with both Putin and Zelenskyy the previous week, it seemed the Russia-Ukraine war was the last thing Bennett wanted to get involved in. Scared stiff into assuming a neutral position by both Putin and Joe Biden, it looked very much like a lose-lose situation for the Israeli leadership.
Since the war began, ministers and senior aides of Bennett have been arguing that there is something almost altruistic about sitting on the fence, that this will let Israel serve as a credible go-between and even save lives. That argument sounded rather self-serving until Saturday, when news of Bennett’s flight to Moscow was released, by the Russians first. It’s still too early to accept that argument, but at least now it’s plausible – at least plausible enough to get Bennett’s critics riled up.
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Typical of their response was a tweet from Likud’s floor leader in the Knesset, Miki Zohar: “While Bennett is making a laughingstock of himself, he’s making a laughingstock of Israel as well. It will take years to fix.” The very fact that the man who unseated their leader was acting as a global mediator was an affront. How could anyone but Benjamin Netanyahu be Israel’s statesman?
The bitterness at seeing Bennett on a global stage isn’t just about political rivalry. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of Israel’s diplomatic position.
Netanyahu managed to convince his people, and many of his opponents in Israel, that his frequent meetings with Putin and other world leaders were a manifestation of his own personal stature, that no one else could achieve that kind of standing and he was an irreplaceable asset for Israel.
But over the past eight months, Bennett has proved that you don’t need to be Netanyahu to represent Israel in the world’s capitals or get Putin on the phone. It’s a result of Israel’s unique geopolitical position and strength as an economic and tech power, and a military power in the region, not the work of one politician.
Bennett isn’t an experienced diplomat, but he’s Israel’s prime minister. And other world leaders respect the office before respecting the person. None of them seem to miss Netanyahu or have any problem dealing with his successor. And it’s driving the Bibi-ists mad.
Can this boost Bennett’s drooping ratings? It’s much too early to say, but the answer is probably no. Bennett’s political troubles are structural, not personal. His potential supporters are on the right wing, and even if he proves himself a capable prime minister, many of them won’t be able to forgive him for forming a government with left-wingers and Islamists. No matter what.
But a prime minister doesn’t just need voters in the next election. In Bennett’s case, he needs the wider public to take him seriously, whether or not they’re going to vote for him. Bennett still needs to prove to many Israelis that he’s a leader of consequence. And that’s what his long-shot attempt at high-level diplomacy is about.
It will be wonderful if any of this achieves something for the suffering Ukrainians, but even if it does, we may not know about it for a while. From Israel’s narrow internal perspective, Bennett has proved himself as someone who can operate at those levels, and that’s already an achievement for him and the new government. Netanyahu is no longer Israel’s indispensable statesman.