Israel’s Bennett emerges as mediator in Russian-Ukrainian war
JERUSALEM (AP) — A year ago, Naftali Bennett struggled for political survival as Israel headed for its fourth straight election. Today, the Israeli Prime Minister is at the forefront of global efforts to end the war in Ukraine.
Just as Bennett took advantage of unique circumstances to become the most unlikely of prime ministers, he managed to leverage Israel’s good relations with Ukraine and Russia and his personal relationship with their leaders to turn himself into a mediator. unexpected.
Although he has yet to achieve a major diplomatic breakthrough, he is one of the few world leaders to regularly address both sides, offering a rare ray of hope. to end the 3 week war.
Bennett himself has spoken little in public about his mediation since his surprise visit to Moscow for talks with President Vladimir Putin on March 5. His office says there were two other phone calls with Putin and six with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Bennett describes his efforts as a moral obligation to do everything possible to end the fighting. Underscoring that message, Bennett flew to Moscow to meet Putin on the Jewish Sabbath, when observant Jews like him don’t travel unless it’s a life-saving situation.
“Israel will continue to act to prevent the bloodshed and bring the parties from the battlefield to the conference table,” Bennett said this week.
With Israel over 1,000 miles from the war zone, its involvement is not entirely surprising.
Israel’s ties to Russia and Ukraine run deep. Both countries have large Jewish communities, and more than a million Jews from the region have moved to Israel since the collapse of the Soviet Union three decades ago.
Zelenskyy, who is Jewish, appears to have an affinity with Israel, while the Israeli and Russian military have maintained close communications in recent years to avoid clashes in the skies over Syria. Russia has backed Syrian President Bashar Assad in the civil war, while Israel often strikes what it says are Iranian and Hezbollah enemy targets aligned with Assad in its neighbor’s territory.
Beyond Israel’s geopolitical forces, Bennett’s personality also appears to be a factor.
In last year’s elections, Bennett’s small Yamina party barely managed to enter parliament with just seven of the chamber’s 120 seats. But through creative maneuvering and dealing, Bennett positioned himself as a kingmaker, providing the critical votes to form a majority coalition. This allowed him to become prime minister in a power-sharing deal that ousted his former mentor, Benjamin Netanyahu, from the top job.
Bennett, a former tech executive who ran two companies that were later sold in nine-figure deals, showed similar creativity at the office. Long before the war, he moved quickly to establish good working relationships with world leaders, including President Joe Biden as well as Putin and Zelenskyy. His mediation efforts were initially encouraged by Germany, and he carefully coordinates his activities with Washington and other Western allies.
This calibrated approach seems to have won the trust of both parties. Zelenskyy’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, this week pinned his hopes on Israeli negotiation efforts.
“Israel has taken on the difficult but noble mission of mediating in the search for peace and an end to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine,” he said.
Zelenskyy had previously said he thought Bennett could play an “important role” and even suggested that Israel could host future ceasefire talks. This would mark a major achievement for Bennett.
To that end, Bennett was careful to maintain a relative air of neutrality. While Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has repeatedly condemned the Russian invasion, Bennett’s critics have remained silent. Israel has provided humanitarian aid to Ukraine, but has not joined its Western allies in sending military assistance or imposing sanctions on Russia and Russia’s many Jewish oligarchs who have second homes in Israel.
At times, Bennett’s refusal to be tougher on Russia has drawn criticism at home and abroad. But it seems to have allowed him to retain Putin’s confidence.
Israeli officials have been careful not to exaggerate Bennett’s role and say that he does not actively make proposals or pressure parties. Instead, they describe it as a channel of communication, getting messages across in what they describe as a candid and realistic way.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were discussing diplomatic efforts, say there has been a “positive shift” in rhetoric on both sides. They refused to elaborate. Zelenskyy acknowledged in the most explicit terms yet on Tuesday that Ukraine’s goal of joining NATO is unlikely to be achieved, while Putin appears to have walked away from earlier comments questioning the right of the Ukraine to exist as an independent country.
Vera Michlin-Shapir, who previously worked at Israel’s National Security Council and published a book on Russia last year, said Bennett’s main advantages are that he is seen as neutral and that Israel is a small country far from the conflict.
Putin “obviously has some sympathy for Israel,” she said, in part because of its large Russian-speaking minority and Christian holy sites. Military relations in Syria, while strained at times, have “added depth to the relationship”.
Nadav Eyal, an Israeli journalist and author of the book “Revolt: The Worldwide Revolution Against Globalization,” described Bennett as a good listener, a quick learner, and a straight shooter. These skills and his close ties to the White House position him as an effective mediator.
But he said ultimately only Putin will decide when to “come down the ladder” and end the war.
“Bennett could be a useful tool in bringing the Russian side back to some kind of civility in its approach to Ukraine,” he said.
Associated Press writer Joseph Krauss in Jerusalem contributed.
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