Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during a meeting in Sochi, on Oct. 22, 2021. Photo: Yevgeny Biyatov/Sputnik/AFP
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, a relatively inexperienced statesman who is little known outside of Israel, has emerged as a key mediator between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Why it matters: Bennett is the first-ever Israeli prime minister to attempt to directly mediate a major international crisis. That's burnishing his reputation at home as a major world leader. It's also a risky endeavor, given Putin's track record of manipulating and deceiving his interlocutors.
- Bennett decided to get involved when he realized almost no other country could speak credibly to both sides, his aides say.
- He has now had more known calls with Putin and Zelensky than almost any other leader since the war began.
Driving the news: Last Saturday, Bennett took the extraordinary step of flying to Moscow in secret — and on the Sabbath, although he is an observant Jew.
- After the meeting, Bennett traveled immediately to Berlin to brief German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. He has been in constant contact since with Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron through phone calls and WhatsApp messages.
- Scholz and Macron have also been speaking with both Putin and Zelensky, while President Biden has been talking only to the Ukrainian side since the start of the invasion. Israeli officials have briefed the White House on every call with Putin and Zelensky, a senior Israeli official tells me.
State of play: Bennett’s aides said he isn't making any proposals to the two presidents but is instead acting as a go-between.
- Still, they contend his efforts have helped give Zelensky and Western leaders more clarity on Putin's thinking. Putin's latest proposal wasn't fully known in Washington, Paris and Berlin before Bennett relayed it, the aides say.
- Israeli officials say the proposal includes demands that would be difficult for Zelensky to accept but are not as extreme as they anticipated, as they don't involve regime change or forfeiture of Ukrainian sovereignty. The Israelis feel there is now a critical window to reach a ceasefire.
- However, many U.S. and European officials have cast doubt on the idea that Putin is actually prepared to end the war.
Behind the scenes: Before Bennett's Moscow trip, Israeli officials made sure the White House would not object. National security adviser Jake Sullivan told the Israelis that Biden welcomed it, according to a senior Israeli official.
- Two U.S. officials tell me the Biden administration is skeptical about Putin's willingness to engage in serious diplomacy.
- Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid traveled to Riga, Latvia, to meet with Secretary of State Tony Blinken on Monday to brief him on the talks with the Russians and make clear that Israel stands behind the U.S. when it comes to the war in Ukraine.
- Blinken and White House press secretary Jen Psaki have both said the U.S. welcomes Bennett's efforts but noted the need for coordination with the U.S., consultations with Ukraine, and support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
The bottom line: Bennett's aides are playing down expectations that his mediation efforts will lead to a breakthrough while stressing that someone needs to talk to both sides and Israel is one of the few countries that can.
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