After meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin on March 5, Bennett made two phone calls to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and ended the day with a dinner meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Berlin.
The urgency of his shuttle diplomacy – not only for Ukraine, but also for Israel and Bennett himself – was underscored by the fact that his efforts took place on the Jewish Sabbath. It is a day when Bennett, Israel’s first Orthodox Jewish leader, and at least one other practicing religious minister who accompanied him refrain from working or traveling unless, as Jewish tradition dictates, it is not is necessary to save a life.
On Monday, Bennett walked out of a Cabinet meeting to have a 90-minute call with Putin on ceasefire efforts and humanitarian issues, according to a senior Israeli official who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject. Bennett then spoke with Zelensky, who tweeted that the call included an exchange of “information on our joint moves and the moves of our partners in the context of Russian aggression” and agreements regarding “other shares”.
Describing Israel’s policy as “measured and responsible,” Bennett pledged to support Ukraine while avoiding harsh criticism from Russia. This approach has played well domestically for Bennett, but it has also drawn ire from Ukrainian officials and Israeli supporters of the Ukrainian cause who have watched in horror as Russian bombings of Ukrainian cities escalate.
Bennett himself sought to temper expectations about Israel’s peacemaking capabilities, saying that while Israel has unique strategic and cultural ties with Russia and Ukraine, the crisis is serious. “Even if the luck is not great – as soon as there is even a small opening, and we have access to all sides and capacity – I consider it our moral obligation to make every effort,” Bennett said after returning from his Europe. travel.
He also stressed that he would continue to prioritize Israel’s strategic interests in neighboring Syria, where Russia maintains a large military presence. Israeli forces are informally coordinating with Russia while carrying out airstrikes on targets that Israel says are involved in transferring arms to Hezbollah, its enemy in Lebanon.
Yevgen Korniychuk, Ukraine’s ambassador to Israel, told a press conference Friday that Israel was “afraid” of Russia. Korniychuk has repeatedly asked Israel to send defensive equipment to Ukraine such as helmets and bulletproof vests instead of the blankets, medicine and other medical and humanitarian equipment included in the aid package of 100 tons that Israel airlifted to Ukraine this month. He said Israel’s offers of mediation do not oblige him to maintain his neutrality.
“That’s not the name of the game,” he said, speaking at the Cultural Center of the Ukrainian Embassy in Tel Aviv.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has not spoken with Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid for three months, although Lapid has been in contact with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, according to Israeli media. Lapid and Kuleba were due to speak earlier this week, Israeli media reported.
Emmanuel Navon, a professor of international relations at Tel Aviv University, said Israel’s position – which he says includes offering insufficient support to Ukraine while making direct contact with Putin – risks placing Israel “in Putin’s club of useful idiots”. As the conflict continues, he said, Israel should publicly join its European and American allies in condemning Russia more forcefully.
“There’s a limit to how long you can sit on the fence,” Navon said.
He said Israel might also be able to play a small role in helping European countries diversify their energy supplies, as they try to wean themselves off Russian imports, by exporting Israeli-produced natural gas. The EU energy commissioner has asked Israel to supply liquefied natural gas to the continent, according to Israeli media.
In February, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters on a return flight from Ukraine that Turkey could buy Israel’s natural gas “and also engage in a joint effort for its passage to Europe”. Last week, Erdogan met Israeli President Isaac Herzog in the first visit to Turkey by an Israeli leader since 2008, after more than a decade of tensions between the two countries.
This month, Zelensky said relations with Bennett were “not bad at all,” but he didn’t think Bennett was “wrapped in our flag,” referring to a photo of Jews draped in the Ukrainian banner at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem. Since the beginning of the war, Zelensky asked Bennett to organize negotiations in Jerusalem but received no official response.
“We spoke to Mr. Bennett. I told him that it was neither fair nor constructive to meet in Russia, Ukraine or Belarus. These are not points where agreements can be reached to stop the war,” Zelensky said at a press conference on Saturday. “Do I think Jerusalem can be such a point? I think so.”
On Sunday, the Jerusalem municipal government lit up the walls of the Old City with images of Ukrainian and Russian flags, white doves and a biblical prayer for peace. But after protesters objected that the projection downplayed Russia’s role as an aggressor, the government removed the light show.
The city government later said in a statement that it would be “happy to respond to the request of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and to host diplomatic dialogue between the two countries here in Jerusalem.”
Bennett’s government has also been criticized for its refugee policy. Israel has said it is ready to absorb 100,000 Jewish Ukrainian refugees eligible for Israeli citizenship, but in recent weeks it has detained, deported and demanded bail from non-Jewish refugees, mostly women and children who have come in Israel to stay with friends and family.
On Sunday, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked announced a policy under which Ukrainians with Israeli parents will be allowed to stay “for a month or two to rest” and will be required to sign a statement saying they have no no intention of staying.