Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Why Naftali Bennett Went to Moscow

Israel says it’s well positioned to mediate a truce between Russia and Ukraine. It also has interests to protect.

By , a journalist covering Middle East politics.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during their meeting in Sochi, Russia, on Oct 22, 2021. YEVGENY BIYATOV/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

TEL AVIV, Israel—When it comes to outward displays, Israeli leaders generally avoid desecrating the Jewish Sabbath, including the ban on motorized travel. It’s an unwritten rule so sacrosanct, one prime minister who violated it nearly a half century ago lost his governing majority.

So when Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett—not just any leader but Israel’s first Orthodox one—boarded a plane for Moscow on Saturday, it was clear something unusual was afoot. Halakhic exceptions are granted only when lives are at stake.

Bennett met with Russian President Vladimir Putin for three hours at the Kremlin and then flew to Berlin for talks with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. The Israeli leader is depicting the trip as a bid to mediate an end to the war between Russia and Ukraine, two countries with long-standing political and cultural ties to Israel. Bennett has also spoken with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky several times by phone in recent days and with French President Emmanuel Macron.

TEL AVIV, Israel—When it comes to outward displays, Israeli leaders generally avoid desecrating the Jewish Sabbath, including the ban on motorized travel. It’s an unwritten rule so sacrosanct, one prime minister who violated it nearly a half century ago lost his governing majority.

So when Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett—not just any leader but Israel’s first Orthodox one—boarded a plane for Moscow on Saturday, it was clear something unusual was afoot. Halakhic exceptions are granted only when lives are at stake.

Bennett met with Russian President Vladimir Putin for three hours at the Kremlin and then flew to Berlin for talks with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. The Israeli leader is depicting the trip as a bid to mediate an end to the war between Russia and Ukraine, two countries with long-standing political and cultural ties to Israel. Bennett has also spoken with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky several times by phone in recent days and with French President Emmanuel Macron.

But Israeli officials are clear that Bennett’s shuttle diplomacy is also meant to preserve Israeli strategic interests in the Middle East as the Ukraine conflict spirals out as well as ensure the safety of Ukraine’s large Jewish community.

Even Bennett isn’t optimistic about the odds of his ending the war—but he’s intent on trying.

“The situation on the ground is not good. The human suffering is great and is liable to be much greater,” Bennett told his cabinet on Sunday, hours after his return to Israel. “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.”

The meeting in Moscow was the first between Putin and a Western leader since Russia sent troops into Ukraine last month. Although Bennett would seem like an unlikely mediator—he’s held office for less than a year and remains largely untested—he is one of the few world leaders with open channels to all sides of the Ukraine conflict.

An official in Bennett’s office said the talks were conducted “in coordination and with the blessing of” Washington. The Israeli official told Foreign Policy the dialogue could serve as a key channel for the West in de-escalating the conflict and should remain on the table.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in Latvia on Monday, expressed appreciation for “the efforts that any of our close partners and friends and allies can make to see if there’s any opening to end the war.”

The trip grew out of a phone conversation between the two leaders conducted on Wednesday of last week, according to the Israeli official. Putin, widely criticized and sanctioned by Western nations since the invasion, might well have seen the meeting as a chance to break his political isolation.

Bennett also stood to benefit from framing the trip as a mediation effort. Israel has been criticized for not taking a stronger moral stand against Russia since the invasion. Bennett has refrained from uttering the word Russia, preferring more general expressions of sorrow and hopes for an end to the fighting, leaving the explicit condemnations to Lapid.

On Monday, Lapid again took a sharper tone in condemning “the Russian invasion,” adding “there is no justification for violating Ukrainian sovereignty and killing innocent civilians.”

But two Israeli officials close to Israeli leadership said Bennett and Lapid are fully coordinated on Israel’s response to the Ukraine crisis, including their public statements.

Israel voted alongside the United States and other Western countries at the United Nations General Assembly last week in condemning the Russian invasion. But it has also refused Ukrainian pleas to send military gear, including defensive supplies.

Instead, the Israeli foreign ministry is coordinating a broad humanitarian effort. Around 100 tons of aid have already been flown to the region, six mega-generators are set to arrive in the coming days to power a Lviv hospital, and a field hospital inside Ukraine near the Polish border—staffed by more than 80 Israeli medical personnel—is expected to begin treating people by the weekend.

Zelensky, for his part, has been less than impressed, castigating Bennett in a press conference last week for not being “wrapped in our flag.” In a Monday press conference in Tel Aviv, the Ukrainian ambassador to Israel, Yevgen Korniychuk, donned a combat helmet and wondered aloud why Israel was reluctant to provide lifesaving supplies to his people.

Yet the envoy also expressed gratitude to the Israeli leader for his diplomatic efforts and didn’t rule out Jerusalem as the site for future peace talks.

“We are not sure whether it is successful or not at the moment, but the fact itself that the prime minister left during the Shabbat to talk about peace is unprecedented….I don’t know another precedent in Israeli history where such a thing has ever happened,” he added.

Israeli officials said their balancing act in the Ukraine crisis has already proven itself, allowing for Bennett to serve as a mediator.

More to the point, Israel from the start has been clear that it needs to safeguard its own national interests vis-a-vis Moscow, namely its freedom to strike at Iranian targets inside Syria. And it has preemptively made significant efforts to protect some 200,000 Jews still residing in Ukraine who may need to be evacuated under Russian fire.

All Jews worldwide are eligible to emigrate to Israel and receive citizenship under the “Law of Return.” The government is now preparing for the arrival of tens of thousands of Ukrainian Jews—and perhaps more—if the conflict worsens. Since the start of the war, some 3,000 Ukrainian refugees have arrived in Israel, according to a Foreign Ministry spokesman.

One Israeli concern arising from the Ukraine crisis would be its ability to maintain its so-called deconfliction mechanism with Russia in Syria, in place since September 2015, when Russian forces intervened in the civil war on the side of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Israeli military officers in Tel Aviv communicate with their Russian counterparts in Syria’s Hmeimim air base ahead of Israeli Air Force’s work against Iranian assets, allied militias, and weapons shipments. Hundreds of such strikes have reportedly taken place in recent years.

Israeli officials told Foreign Policy that these airstrikes are crucial to stopping Iran’s military entrenchment inside Syria; deconflicting with Russia is therefore a strategic imperative.

The mechanism has been “very beneficial for the last seven years for both us and the Russians,” one security official told Foreign Policy. The deconfliction mechanism is still operational despite the fighting in Ukraine. On Monday, just two days after Bennett’s meeting with Putin, Israeli jets reportedly struck targets near Damascus, Syria.

Bennett also discussed with Putin the status of the Vienna nuclear talks between Iran and world powers—yet another issue important to Israel that stands to be affected by the Ukraine crisis. A U.S. return to the nuclear accord is in the offing, perhaps as early as this week. According to one Israeli official, Bennett stressed in his meeting with Putin that Israel continues to oppose such a move.

Whether or not the Israeli channel helps defuse the Ukraine crisis, Bennett appears already to have reaped some dividends.

His predecessor as prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, took great pride in his image as a global statesman. Through four successive elections between 2019 and 2021, massive billboards across the country showed the former premier alongside various world leaders, including Putin, with the tagline: “Netanyahu: A League Apart.”

But in recent days, Bennett has been able to portray himself as the real statesmen. His office released photos of the Israeli leader over the weekend wearing a serious expression as he jetted from one European capital to the next.

Analysts stress it’s too soon to tell whether this will translate into newfound public support for Bennett, whose public support has remained stagnant in the polls since becoming prime minister last June.

“Everything is happening moment to moment, and Bennett may stay an unpopular prime minister,” Tal Schneider, chief political correspondent for the Times of Israel, told Foreign Policy. “But many Israelis do greatly appreciate that he was smart enough to maintain an open channel with both sides in the conflict.”

Neri Zilber is a journalist covering Middle East politics and an adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is the co-author of State with No Army, Army with No State: Evolution of the Palestinian Authority Security Forces, 1994-2018. Twitter: @NeriZilber

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