Bennett’s mediation has significant implications for Israel and the Jewish people.
By Pesach Benson, United With Israel
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett returned to Israel on Sunday morning after making a surprise visit to Moscow to discuss the Russia-Ukraine crisis with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
From Moscow, Bennett headed to Berlin where he updated German chancellor Olaf Scholz before flying back to Israel in time to lead Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting.
Israel has historically kept a low diplomatic profile in international power games. So despite days of buzz about possible Israeli mediation — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had been calling for it — Saturday night’s news still stunned Israelis.
An Israeli premier was the first Western leader to meet with Putin since Russia invaded Ukraine. The mission had American and European blessings. Underscoring the gravity of the gravity of the situation, the Sabbath-observant Prime Minister departed for Moscow on Saturday morning.
It’s too soon to know if Bennett’s trip will bear any fruit. Certain aspects of his three-hour meeting at the Kremlin may not be known for years, if ever.
But the talks clearly have significant implications for Israel and the Jewish people. Here are four takeaways.
1. Israeli diplomacy is on the map.
No European country is suited to mediate. Russia is their neighbor. The European Union’s decision to send arms to Ukraine is the first time it has ever sent weapons to a conflict zone. Finnish public opinion suddenly supports joining NATO — which prompted menacing comments from Moscow to Helsinki.
Even ever-neutral Switzerland is freezing the assets of Russian individuals and organizations on the EU blacklist.
Spearheading an effort to end the war in Ukraine carries great rewards and great risks. Israel has opened the door on a new level of international diplomacy, which reflects three particular changes.
• Buoyed by the Abraham Accords, Israel has more secure standing in the Mideast.
• American and European trust in Israeli mediation seems to reflect that Washington, Paris and Berlin don’t believe that so many world problems will disappear if Israel would just make peace with the Palestinians.
• Israel’s insistence on striking Iranian targets in Syria — despite Moscow’s occasional objections — has apparently earned Putin’s grudging respect.
Those are all reasons to be optimistic.
2. Israel will be better poised to evacuate Jews from the Ukraine.
The biggest perk of being mediator is the extra access and leverage it provides.
If Russia is trying to extricate itself from the conflict, what better goodwill gesture than to create humanitarian corridors and safe zones for refugees — including Jews?
And if Russia proves to be insincere, having Putin’s ear will be all the more important if an emergency evacuation of Jews proves necessary. According to Haaretz, Israel had contingency plans in the late 1980s for an emergency airlift of large numbers of Jews from the Soviet Union. Those plans are being dusted off and updated now.
Israel’s last major airlift was Operation Solomon, a covert operation in which 14,000 Ethiopian Jews were evacuated within 36 hours amid a civil war in 1991.
3. Israel will be better poised to influence Iran nuclear deal.
Israel’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program were never taken seriously by the West. That could change.
That’s because Moscow created a new linkage between the Iranian nuclear deal and its own interests. Specifically, Russia wants written guarantees that its own trade and military cooperation with Iran won’t be impacted by sanctions the West is levying in response to the Russian invasion. Washington and Tehran panned Moscow’s demand as “unrelated” and “not helpful.”
But the U.S. is relying on Russian help to finalize the nuclear agreement. That could give Israel room to exploit improvements in the deal.
Putin also has leverage over Iran’s presence in Syria — when it chooses to exercise it. Once upon a time, in 2018, Russian officials talked of keeping Iran and its proxies at 85 km (53 miles) from the Israeli border.
Iran has also endangered Russians by smuggling weapons through the Syrian port of Latakia. Perhaps Putin will take Tehran’s recklessness more seriously now that Israel has his attention.
4. This is Bennett’s chance to shine.
When news broke from the Kremlin, plenty of Israelis imagined Benjamin Netanyahu eating his heart out. After all, It wasn’t so long ago that Netanyahu’s re-election campaign prominently featured him with Putin and then-President Donald Trump.
The campaign’s message was powerful. Netanyahu was the only heavyweight Israeli capable of standing up for Israel’s interests with the world’s super powers.
Yes, Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid have paid historic visits to the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco. But they were building on the Abraham accords which were finalized on Netanyahu’s watch.
Bennett put himself in this position by navigating between U.S. and popular Israeli demands for stronger criticism of Russia with sensitivity to Jerusalem and Moscow’s security coordination in Syria. Whether or not Netanyahu could’ve done it too is beside the point. Bennett pulled it off.
Mediating the Ukraine crisis is Bennett’s accomplishment and his opportunity to put a unique stamp on Israeli and international diplomacy.
What will that look like? Will he succeed?
Only time will tell.