Israeli PM meets Putin on Ukraine in ‘risky’ diplomatic gamble


Israel’s prime minister stepped into the role of mediator on Saturday as the Russian invasion of Ukraine intensified, holding a three-hour meeting in the Kremlin with Vladimir Putin before calling the Ukrainian president and flying to Berlin.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s meeting with Putin was the first for a foreign leader since the day Russian forces invaded Ukraine last week, and came after Kiev urged Israel to start a dialogue with Moscow .

Bennett has so far toed a cautious line on the Ukraine conflict, seeking to preserve delicate security cooperation with Russia, which has a large military presence in Israel’s northern neighbor Syria.

Bennett did not join Western leaders – notably key ally the United States – in forcefully condemning the invasion, instead stressing Israel’s strong relationship with Russia and Ukraine.

Prior to his trip to Moscow, Bennett spoke by phone several times with Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

“Bennett’s action is bold but also risky. Everything will depend on Putin’s state of mind,” former Israeli ambassador to Washington Michael Oren told AFP.

Oren noted that while Putin rebuffed heavy diplomatic efforts before the invasion, “Russia is in a different position today and Putin may be looking for a way out of his predicament. Naftali Bennet may well provide the ladder.”

Traveling on Shabbat

Bennett’s office said he left Israel for Moscow early Saturday, which in itself is an extraordinary move for a religious Jew who does not attend to affairs of state on the Jewish Sabbath except in extraordinary circumstances.

Bennett and Putin met for three hours, during a visit coordinated with the United States, Germany and France, an Israeli official said.

Bennett’s delegation included his housing minister, Russian-speaking Zeev Elkin, who was born in Ukraine when it was part of the Soviet Union.

The Kremlin said “different aspects of the situation in Ukraine” were discussed at the meeting.

After the Putin talks, Bennett called Zelenskiy – who is Jewish, has family in Israel and has visited the country several times.

Bennett then traveled to Germany for talks with Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

The French presidency said Emmanuel Macron also spoke with Bennett before he left for Moscow on Saturday, as part of joint efforts to “achieve a ceasefire in Ukraine”.

Times of Israel editor David Horovitz said Bennett’s trip had “extraordinarily high stakes.”

“The Prime Minister’s insistence on attempting the near impossible – trying to maintain not neutral, but warm relations with both sides in a war – threatens to infuriate the United States and has the potential to do profound harm to the position of the United States. ‘Israel in the free world,’ Horovitz said Saturday.

Citing an unnamed source, prominent Israeli journalist Barak Ravid tweeted that the White House had told Israel it doubted “Bennett’s chances of influencing Putin’s position.”

Iran

The Bennett-Putin talks also “addressed the progress of the (Iranian) nuclear talks in Vienna,” the Israeli official said.

Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency said earlier on Saturday after talks in Tehran that they had agreed on an approach to address critical issues in efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal. country.

Bennett is a vocal opponent of global efforts to revive the deal that gave Iran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.

The prime minister has argued that Tehran will use increased revenue from the lifting of sanctions to buy weapons that can harm Israel, while pursuing a nuclear weapons capability, an ambition Iran denies.

Russia, which has itself been hit with Western sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine, said on Saturday it would seek guarantees from Washington before backing any renewed deal, complicating efforts for a quick deal.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia has asked the United States to give it written guarantees that Ukraine-related sanctions “will in no way affect our rights to trade and economic cooperation and free and full investment, military-technical cooperation with Iran”.

There was no immediate comment on a connection between the new Russian position and Bennett’s visit.


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