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Premier heads to Berlin for meeting with German chancellor

Bennett flies to Moscow, meets with Putin about Ukraine war, Iran nuke talks

Orthodox PM makes rare trip on Shabbat to meet with Russian leader, having offered to mediate between Moscow and Kyiv; later speaks with Ukrainian President Zelensky

File: Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (left) meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia, on October 22, 2021. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
File: Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (left) meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia, on October 22, 2021. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett traveled to Moscow on Saturday for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the war in Ukraine.

The meeting at the Kremlin lasted for 3 hours.

“The prime minister took off for Moscow early this morning, after the conversation between the leaders last Wednesday,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the two discussed “the situation around Ukraine,” according to Russian news agencies. The statement from the Prime Minister’s Office did not mention Ukraine or Russia’s invasion of the country.

An Israeli official diplomatic source said the meeting was coordinated with the United States, Germany, and France, “in continuous dialogue with Ukraine.”

It was Putin’s first sit-down with a foreign leader since the day Russian forces invaded Ukraine last week.

The source said Bennett spoke with Putin about “the situation of Israelis and the Jewish communities as a result of the conflict” and the ongoing talks in Vienna to restore the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which Russia is a signatory to.

“The prime minister expressed the position of Israel, which is opposed to a return to the nuclear deal,” the source said.

Earlier Saturday, Russia said it would demand guarantees from the US before backing the Iran nuclear deal, citing the current wave of Western sanctions against Russia.

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

Russia’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mikhail Ulyanov, stands in front of the Grand Hotel Vienna where closed-door nuclear talks with Iran take place, in Vienna, Austria, on Wednesday, June 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Lisa Leutner)

Bennett’s office said the premier was accompanied by Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin, acting as a translator and advisor. Elkin, a Russian speaker and native of Ukraine, served a similar role under former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata, senior policy adviser Shimrit Meir, and Bennett’s spokesman Matan Sidi also traveled with the prime minister, his office said.

Bennett, Israel’s first Orthodox premier, made the flight to Moscow on Shabbat, which observant Jews are barred from doing under Jewish law, though exceptions are made for medical or security situations in which life is threatened. Elkin is also religious.

Following the meeting with Putin, the Prime Minister’s Office said Bennet spoke with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky. It did not specify what the two discussed.

The Ynet news site cited the Ukrainian president’s spokesman as saying it was not yet clear what, if anything, the meeting had achieved in efforts to negotiate an end to the fighting.

According to the website, Sergey Nikiforov said that in Bennett’s phone call with Zelensky, the Ukrainian leader did not hear anything particularly new.

“We cannot assess the results of Prime Minister Bennett’s mediation until we get a clear indication from Bennett or Putin on an agreement to a meeting [with Zelensky],” he said.

From Moscow, Bennett flew to Berlin to meet with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz before returning to Israel.

The premier’s spokesman did not say what the two would discuss; Germany is a party to the Iran nuclear deal and has also called for an end to Russia’s invasion, while moving to provide Ukraine with some military aid. Scholz was in Israel on Wednesday for a visit.

A statement from the French presidency said Emmanuel Macron also spoke to Bennett before he left for Moscow on Saturday, as part of joint efforts to “obtain a ceasefire in Ukraine.”

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (right) and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz give a joint press conference in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, on March 2, 2022. (Government Press Office)

The trips to Moscow and Berlin came after Bennett held two back-to-back phone calls with Putin and Zelensky in recent days, as Moscow pressed on with the invasion of its neighbor.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky gestures as he speaks during a press conference in Kyiv, on March 3, 2022 (Sergei Supinsky/AFP)

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.

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.

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.”

But Bennett has avoided calling out Putin by name, refused Ukrainian requests for military equipment, and vowed to stake out a cautious policy.

“From the beginning, the State of Israel has taken a measured and responsible approach, which allows us not only to protect our interests but also to be useful, to be a reliable player — one of the few that can communicate directly with both parties — and assist as required,” Bennett said in a Tuesday speech.

Russia and Ukraine are expected to hold a third round of talks to end hostilities on Monday, Ukrainian negotiator David Arakhamiya said in a Saturday Facebook post, without providing further details.

The first two rounds of talks on resolving the Russia-Ukraine war produced no breakthrough, though the two sides agreed to meet again.

AFP contributed to this report.

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