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Bennett claims ‘the various actors’ want Israel as a neutral Russia-Ukraine broker

Prime minister defends balancing act, denies West is unhappy with Jerusalem’s refusal to offer fuIl-throated backing for Kyiv

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett leaves his Knesset office, February 21, 2022. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett leaves his Knesset office, February 21, 2022. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett defended Israel’s lack of full-throated condemnation of Russia over its assault on Ukraine in comments aired Wednesday, saying those involved appreciate Jerusalem’s neutrality as a potential talks broker.

Some Western officials have expressed exasperation with Jerusalem’s attempts to balance its support for Ukraine with a desire to not spoil its relationship with Moscow, which is a main player in Syria to Israel’s north.

But Bennett told Channel 13 news that media portrayals of widespread anger at Israel over its balancing act were “incorrect.”

“Actually, there’s an advantage and the various actors want us in a place where we can manage a dialogue with everyone,” he said in excerpts of an interview scheduled to be aired in full on Thursday.

The comments were aired hours after Bennett held separate phone calls with both Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin, his second set of public phone calls with the two leaders since Russia invaded Ukraine last week. Bennett also discussed the conflict with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ynet reported.

Israel has offered on several occasions to mediate talks to end the invasion. Ukrainian officials have also said they support the idea, but the initiative has not yet gone any further.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin appears on a television screen at the stock market in Frankfurt, Germany, Feb. 25, 2022. (AP/Michael Probst)

Ukraine and Russia held a round of unsuccessful talks on the border between Ukraine and Belarus on Monday night, and Zelensky has openly doubted Russia’s sincerity, noting that the offensive has continued.

Bennett, who did not mention Russia or Putin by name in the aired excerpt, said his first call with Zelensky focused on Israeli offers of humanitarian aid. He touted the aid in the interview, saying that “whatever the Ukrainians need, we’ll help with.”

An El Al plane is loaded up with humanitarian aid for Ukraine on March 1, 2022. (GPO screenshot)

According to Hebrew media reports Wednesday, in the second call, Bennett and Zelensky discussed the aid to Ukraine and a Russian missile attack near the Babyn Yar Holocaust memorial site in Kyiv. A source briefed on the call told Haaretz that Zelensky reiterated his request for military aid from Israel, which Bennett has thus far withheld.

Other Western countries have provided direct military aid to embattled Ukraine. Germany decided to provide Ukraine with 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 surface-to-air missiles on Monday, breaking with decades of established German policy. Israel has limited its aid shipments to humanitarian purposes.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine last week, Israel has sought an elusive middle ground in the conflict: siding with its Western allies while avoiding a rift with Moscow. Russian forces control the airspace in neighboring Syria, where Israeli planes often operate against militias affiliated with Iran; Israel sees Iran as an existential threat.

On Tuesday, Bennett said that Israel was seeking to “help quietly” while maintaining its own strategic interests. Israel has expressed its support for the Ukrainian people and has sent a shipment of 100 tons of humanitarian aid. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid condemned the invasion as a “breach of the international order.”

Demonstrators carry placards and flags during a protest against the Russian invasion to the Ukraine, outside the city hall in Jerusalem, on February 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The fragile balancing act has aroused the ire of some European diplomats, and the US also reportedly expressed unhappiness with Israel’s position.

“Israel can’t decide not to be on the side of the European countries and the United States,” an EU diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity told The Times of Israel this week.

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