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The Mediator: Why Putin and Zelensky Chose Naftali Bennett

Note From the Editor, Vivian Bercovici:

It feels like years ago but it was only a few months. In early March, shortly after the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war, there was tremendous uncertainty globally. Indiscriminate Russian attacks on civilians led to fears that Russian President Vladimir Putin would stop at nothing to conquer Ukraine, including, possibly, the use of “tactical” nuclear or chemical weapons.

With the world just regaining its footing from COVID-related disruption, the prospect of a massive ground war in Europe, with impact far beyond, was to be avoided at all costs. On top of that, Russian deployment of chemical weapons in Syria and Chechnya in the last decade or so reinforced speculation as to possible worst-case scenarios.

It was into this breach that Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett placed himself, offering his services to mediate between Ukraine and Russia, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Putin. It was bold, risky and quite ironic that the leader of this tiny country in the Middle East fit the bill. But that he did.

To tell the story I turned to Moav Vardi, a marquee Israeli journalist.

Moav spoke with a wide range of senior security and political sources and a former prime minister or two in pulling together the backstory of the Bennett mediation moment.

Why did Naftali Bennett step into the breach and attempt to mediate an end to the Russia-Ukraine War?

I suggest you read his brilliant story to find out.

I. Breaking the Sabbath

Early on the morning of Saturday, March 5, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett travelled in a motorcade from his home in Ra’anana, a sleepy town north of Tel Aviv, to Ben Gurion airport.

This trip, in and of itself, was extraordinary. Bennett is the first Orthodox prime minister of Israel. For the religiously observant, like Bennett, all work is forbidden on the Sabbath. And work is defined quite broadly, to include not only income-generating activity but any act that causes the creation of, well, anything. Lighting fire, switching on an electric light, writing, turning on the television – these acts are all prohibited.

As is car or air travel.

Only when human lives are at stake is an observant Jew permitted to desecrate the Sabbath by “working.” The sanctity of life, after all, is paramount.

Clearly, considering the scrutiny applied to the nation’s highest elected office, for the prime minister to act so boldly, the national interest must require immediate action that cannot be deferred. Not even for one day.

Like a war, for example.

Aside from the flight crew and security personnel, the Prime Minister was accompanied by three aides: National Security Advisor Eyal Hulata; Diplomatic Advisor Shimrit Meir; and Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin.

They took off under a shroud of extreme secrecy. Not until they had arrived in Moscow, and had met with Russian President Vladimir Putin for several hours, was the mission made public.

This trip, it turned out, was an effort to mediate between Russia and Ukraine with the hope of finding some way to end hostilities between the two nations. Even though western military intelligence anticipated a Russian attack, there was an element of surprise when it actually happened on February 24.

Fears that this conflict might escalate into a world war, or even a nuclear conflict between Russia and the West, were at a fever pitch.

At this early stage of the war, Ukraine’s two largest cities, the capital Kyiv and Kharkiv, a major city in the east, were under massive air attack, and Russian tanks were already positioned on their outskirts.

The world was scrambling to understand: What did Putin really want? How far was he willing to go to bring Ukraine back into the Russian “sphere of influence”?

II. The Moscow Summit: the Back Story

Upon arrival in Moscow, Bennett and his advisers were whisked to the Kremlin where they were welcomed into the presidential suite.

When news of this extraordinary meeting broke internationally the shock was widespread. Come again? Naftali Bennett is the new Henry Kissinger?

But many astute observers, among them former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, told me recently that he was not at all surprised by the news.

“I had no doubt that Israel would be the preferred option for the role of mediator here,” said Olmert, who met frequently in the past with Putin. He continued:

The party that Russia really needs to negotiate with is the United States. But they can’t speak directly with the U.S., because Biden called Putin a murderer, and the Americans slapped sanctions on Russia from the first day of the war. From Putin’s perspective, therefore, to negotiate with Washington while under sanctions from Washington is a form of capitulation—it’s not an option.

For the same reason, there’s no point in talking with the leaders of France or Germany, which took a definitive anti-Russian stance. It is much more comfortable for Putin to negotiate through a party like Israel—which on the one hand knows how to pass messages from him to the West and vice versa in a precise and reliable way, because Israel is so close with Washington; and on the other hand Israel is not a member of NATO and poses no threat to Russia, such that Putin’s agreement to certain conditions would be interpreted as surrendering to external pressure.

The special standing that Israel enjoys with Russia also made it the preferred mediator for the Ukrainians. In recent years, the Ukrainians turned often to Israel to mediate with Russia. This became more pronounced following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, which inflamed the bilateral crisis.

The day after the invasion began in February, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke with Bennett and asked him to mediate with Russia about a possible ceasefire—and even suggested that a summit be held in Jerusalem. “The Ukrainians were the first to turn to us asking that we mediate between them and Russia,” a senior Israeli official involved in the Ukraine crisis, and familiar with Israel’s role in it, tells me.

“Ukrainian officials told us: ‘you know how to talk to the Russians, we have messages to send them. See if you can find out if Moscow is willing to listen.’ Then we spoke with the Russians, and Putin said, ‘Come.’”

Any negotiation between Russia and Ukraine is, in essence, a negotiation between Russia and the United States. Many see the Russia-Ukraine war as the battleground of a much wider conflict, the outcome determining the world order between Russia and the U.S., and the West, going forward.

Major Western leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who met with Putin at the Kremlin in the days before the war, were seen by Russia not as potential mediators at all, but as parties adverse in interests.

The German public and broader EU community believed that stopping the flow of natural gas to Germany would shut down Putin’s expensive war machine rapidly. But Germany was deeply dependent on Russian energy, and such a harsh move would ravage the German economy. So, Scholz was quite desperate for an alternative.

Before embarking on this mission, it was imperative that key western leaders bless Bennett’s initiative. And they did. His meeting with Putin was coordinated with the U.S., France, and Germany before he even took off for Moscow.

But it was Scholz who was particularly on edge. Three days before the meeting, he made a quick visit to Israel. “Mr. Chancellor, you come here at a very fateful and sensitive time,” Bennett told his German counterpart in a press conference.

Drawing by Ioan Szabo
Drawing by Ioan Szabo

“We just spoke at length on the situation in Ukraine,” Bennett continued. “Our obligation as leaders is to do our utmost to stop the bloodshed, to bring what is going on from the battlefield to the negotiating table as quickly as possible; it is still not too late.”

Scholz, it later turned out, was one of the most active proponents of Bennett’s Moscow mission. Just three months earlier, he succeeded Angela Merkel, who had finished an extraordinary sixteen-year run as chancellor. Every day that the war in Ukraine continued and the images of death and destruction were broadcast, public pressure in Germany mounted.

At the time that Bennett intervened, the Russians and Ukrainians had already been at the negotiating table in Belarus for five days. But there was a hitch.

Those negotiations were revealed to be a bit of a charade. The Russian representatives feared Putin and were unwilling to suggest anything that diverged from Moscow’s official line. To do so risked being accused by “the state” of weakness and endangering Russian interests.

For the same reasons, Putin’s emissaries did not transmit Ukrainian positions to their boss, fearing his reaction upon hearing them. The only way to have a real exchange of views was through a direct conversation between a Western leader and Putin.

Enter Naftali Bennett.

This is one article you don't want to miss!

This article you don't want to miss!

III. The Moscow Summit: In the Room

Bennett and his advisers entered the conference room at the Kremlin with the prime minister, taking their seats across from president Putin.

As Israel’s minister of housing, Ze’ev Elkin’s official role was utterly irrelevant to the discussions in Moscow. He was neither personally nor politically close to Bennett, coming as he did from another party. But in some ways, Elkin was the most important Israeli in the room.

Born and raised in Kharkiv in the eastern Ukraine (which was being bombed to smithereens as he sat in the room with Putin), Elkin moved to Israel in 1990 as part of the massive wave of immigration that continued for a decade. Since 2009 Elkin has accompanied former PM Netanyahu and virtually every Israeli leader on official visits to Moscow. He has also attended meetings including Putin on his visits to Israel. His primary function has always been to serve as an interpreter.

Elkin and Putin are no strangers to one another.

The language part was reasonably straightforward. More importantly, Elkin was there to interpret the nuance of Putin’s words and gestures. Expressions. His familiarity with Russian culture, and with this particular Russian leader, was his ticket to the main event.

Any successful outcome of this mission would turn on the ability of the Israeli team to interpret Putin’s unspoken intentions. To read between the lines.

It fell mainly to Elkin to decipher whether Putin genuinely wanted to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis or was just trying to buy time and legitimacy to continue his military operation in Ukraine. Was Putin “playing” Bennett and the West?

I have spoken with numerous Israeli officials involved in the preparation and analysis of the meeting, and their consensus view is that Putin was, at that time, genuinely open to a diplomatic solution.

The Israeli delegation also used the opportunity to confirm that the Russian leader was receiving accurate information regarding the ground war in Ukraine.

There was ample evidence at the time that a Stalinist-like chill had pervaded the upper echelons of the power elites in Russia. What were they telling Putin? Was he informed or being coddled with false information that would stoke his fantasies of a quick conquest?

The Russian military is believed to have planned on a two-day blitz to take over Kyiv and a few more to completely conquer the rest of Ukraine. Instead, the soldiers were quickly bogged down in mud, saddled with poor equipment, and stymied by disastrous logistical failures. A rapid advance was also prevented, quite unexpectedly, by stiff Ukrainian military and civilian resistance.

Everyone wondered: How was Putin processing this humiliation of the Great Russian War Machine?

As a senior Israeli official told me recently: “It was important for us to find out how accurate the information was that he had regarding his own situation and that of Russia. Part of what we did there was to discuss with Putin the real facts and what he was facing. We made clear the international community was strongly against his actions, and that the West was determined to impose heavy sanctions on Russia.”

One outcome of the meeting was to confirm that Putin and his advisers were surprised by the cohesiveness of the western response, according to this official.

When Bennett, and his small group left the meeting with Putin, they possessed a significant and singular asset: direct knowledge of Putin’s position regarding a possible diplomatic solution as well as just how far he may be prepared to go to achieve his goals in Ukraine.

The West, frozen out of the Kremlin, waited anxiously for Bennett’s report.

Initially, there was optimism, but that dissipated quickly. As Russian barrages intensified, Ukraine lost faith in the possibility of a negotiated outcome, not to mention the very high and humiliating price demanded by Russia for a cessation of hostilities.

IV. A Supreme Historical Irony

Putin’s predecessors in the Kremlin, the leaders of the Soviet Union, spent decades providing sponsorship to certain Middle Eastern countries which aspired to destroy Israel, like Syria or Egypt before it changed Cold War teams in the 70's. In quite the turn of events, in March, 2022, the prime minister of Israel was now traveling to Moscow to discuss with the Russian leader ways to end a conflict. A Russian conflict.

The irony has not been lost on many observers.

“I compare it to the Jews of eighty years ago,” says Amos Yadlin, former chief of IDF military intelligence and director of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.

“Nobody in Europe wanted the Jews, and they ended up exiting through the smokestacks of Auschwitz,” Yadlin says. “Now, suddenly, the German chancellor comes to the Israeli prime minister asking him to mediate a war threatening Europe. And the Israeli leader is the first one to be received by Putin. I think this has implications for the stature of the state of Israel.”

But Yadlin doesn’t just view Israel’s mediation efforts through the lens of geo-strategic interests. “I also have a moral consideration,” he adds. “If it’s possible to end this war, which has taken the lives of tens of thousands, so I support the Israeli effort to help.”

V. The Morning After

In the memoir Bennett will likely one day write, March 2022 will appear as the moment of change in how the freshman prime minister was perceived, both in Israel and abroad.

His major handicap throughout multiple election campaigns in recent years in Israel was the sense that while he and the other aspiring Israeli leaders were in training camp, Benjamin Netanyahu was peerless. A big-league all-star.

Even after entering the office that Netanyahu had occupied for the previous twelve years, Bennett was still seen by many as young, inexperienced, and unknown to the rest of the world. He became prime minister only through a bizarre fluke while commanding a mere 6 of 120 Knesset seats.

So, for Bennett to suddenly – however briefly – take center stage in the Russia-Ukraine crisis, it was beyond quite something. He was transformed, immediately, into a leader of global stature who might, actually, be in the same league as Netanyahu. Or close.

“It suddenly gave him a kind of global recognition,” said Olmert about Bennett’s moment of ascension on the international stage. “He suddenly became a fact of the international system. Somebody who’s there.”

He also seems to have handled a very delicate situation with great finesse.

VI. Epilogue

Israel intervened with the laudable goal of brokering a diplomatic solution to a bloody war. But soon enough Russia’s actions in Ukraine began to look much more like monstrous war crimes, and Israel could no longer maintain its role as a neutral mediator. It had to choose side.

That was not a simple thing. Israel’s value to both sides in this war as a reliable negotiator was due to its strong diplomatic relations with Russia and Ukraine. Going against Russia would be a game changer. Bennett was acutely aware of the possibility of angering Putin and the danger that could pose to Israel’s immediate security interests, especially in Syria.

Many Israeli political and military leaders staunchly opposed any engagement – diplomatic or otherwise – that might risk aggravating Russia. In the Syrian theater, Russia provides air cover for Iran’s and Hezbollah’s ongoing attempts to solidify a forward position from which to attack Israel directly. Russia also cooperates with Israel in permitting air attacks on targets as long as they do not put Russian personnel in harm’s way. It’s a delicate status quo.

Another camp believes that Israel must unreservedly stand with the West, with which its values align. This group takes the position that Israel is a strong enough regional power to withstand any change in the air or ground game initiated by Russia in Syria.

The tension between these sharply divergent views of Israel’s strategic dilemma and the possible outcomes for the region, and the world, will be the subject of Part II of this series. Half measures are not an option, and the stakes are enormous.

This is one article you don't want to miss!

This article you don't want to miss!

Author image
About Moav Vardi
Veteran Israeli journalist Moav Vardi is the Chief International Correspondent for the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation, Kan, and host of the foreign affairs news show “Your World Today.”
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