Israel faces high stakes as Russia go-between
Israel has offered to serve as a go-between with Russia and the West as the U.S. and Europe scramble to reinforce Ukraine’s resistance against Moscow’s unprecedented assault.
There’s little hope that Israel can achieve significant breakthroughs with Russia, but the offer represents an about-face for Jerusalem, which initially sought to maintain neutrality in the conflict.
A surprise visit by Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to Moscow last week, followed by consultations with European leaders and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, yielded no tangible measures in softening Russian President Vladimir Putin’s resolve to overrun Ukraine.
But Bennett’s trip underscored Israel’s fragile position as Jerusalem is pulled between the United States, and its security relationship with Moscow.
“This is no joke. This is high stakes for Israel,” said Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “There are core Israeli national interests at stake here, and they are trying to figure out how to preserve them while also trying to avert a crisis.”
Israel relies on communication with Russian forces controlling Syria’s air space to avoid confrontation as it carries out counterterrorism operations against Iranian proxies and forces.
Hundreds of thousands of Russian-Israelis and Ukrainian-Israelis, and Israeli’s concerns over Jewish communities in Ukraine, further complicate its role.
Moscow is also a negotiator and participant to the Iran nuclear deal, which Israel opposes.
Bennett met for three hours with Putin in Moscow on Saturday, an extraordinary signal to Israelis of the importance of the trip because it required the Orthodox Jewish prime minister to violate the Sabbath.
“In Israel, it was very notable,” said Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, who added that it “projects it to others that this is major.”
An Israeli official told The Times of Israel that Bennett also discussed the nuclear deal with Putin during the meeting in Moscow.
“Israel has an interest to have good relations with Russia because it is against the nuclear deal and it is worried about the conclusion of a new nuclear deal that is not in Israel’s interest,” said Raffaella A. Del Sarto, associate professor of Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins SAIS Europe.
“Certainly that is the aspect of maintaining this working relationship with Russia,” she added.
Bennett’s meeting in Moscow came as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov issued new demands over the Iran deal amid negotiations to relaunch it. The demands on Friday forced European negotiators to announce a “pause” on the talks.
Bennett coordinated his Moscow trip with the U.S., Germany, France and Ukraine. He met with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Berlin following his talks with Putin and called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is in Kyiv.
“I went there to assist the dialogue between all of the sides, of course with the blessing and encouragement of all players,” Bennett said in a Cabinet meeting the day after his Moscow meeting.
Bennett has so far refused to outrightly condemn Russia for invading Ukraine, though Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has done so. The two are in a power-sharing agreement to rotate the premiership.
“Israel is totally committed to do everything possible to stop the war in Ukraine. We have condemned the Russian invasion, and we still do,” Lapid said in a meeting with Blinken in Latvia on Monday.
“Israel is speaking with both sides, both with Russia and Ukraine, and we are working in full coordination with our greatest ally, the United States, and with our European partners,” Lapid added.
Ukrainian officials have harshly criticized the Israeli government’s stand, and Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.S. said Israel refused a request to deliver military assistance.
Zelensky reportedly said in response to a question at a press conference, “I don’t feel the Israeli prime minister has wrapped himself in the Ukrainian flag.”
On Twitter, however, Zelensky offered muted gratitude for Bennett’s offers of mediation.
“Talked to [Naftali Bennett]. Thanked for Israel’s mediation efforts. Discussed ways to end the war and violence,” he tweeted on March 8.
The Biden administration has welcomed Israel’s most recent efforts to play a more active diplomatic role.
“We very much appreciate the efforts that any of our close partners and friends and allies can make to see if there is any opening to end the war,” Blinken said during the meeting with Lapid.
Blinken’s remarks appeared to smooth over rare criticism from staunchly pro-Israel lawmakers of Jerusalem.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), for example, pulled back on his previous criticism after Ukraine alleged that Israel had rejected sending military assistance, telling The Hill that what he was told “may not have been accurate.”
“I’m pleased after having met with them [the Israelis]. I was concerned before,” he said.
Israel’s diplomatic efforts and Lapid’s condemnation also appear to move Jerusalem out of a grouping of countries that had held back from joining President Biden’s push to isolate Putin, a group that included India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
“Our Israeli partners made very clear to us that they stand in stark opposition to the naked use of force, naked aggression against a sovereign state. They’ve made — they made that very clear in private. They’ve made that very clear in public,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Thursday.
“When it comes to other countries, to other entities that may have been or may be guarded or may not have made such a clear statement, look, we’ve said before that now is not the time to sit on the sidelines,” he added.
Israel may face increasingly stark choices in confronting Russia’s aggression in Ukraine as atrocities mount.
The Israeli government on Thursday reportedly reversed course on a request from Zelensky to address its parliament, the Knesset, originally saying it couldn’t host the embattled Ukrainian leader virtually because of scheduling and technical challenges. Zelensky has previously addressed the European Union Parliament and the British Parliament.
Jerusalem also may have to take action to avoid U.S. sanctions as various countries punish Russian oligarchs abroad. Israeli businesses with Russian and Belarusian investors are likely to be forced to divest from those partnerships.
Sanctions announced Thursday by the United Kingdom on Roman Abramovich forced Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Memorial Museum, to announce it was suspending its partnership with the Russian Israeli billionaire, who was reportedly preparing a donation worth tens of millions of dollars as recently as late last month.
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