'He's a leader battling for the life of his country'

Bennett empathizes with Zelensky, rejects Holocaust parallel, says mediation ongoing

Responding to Ukraine president’s caustic speech, PM says Israel managing crisis in ‘sensitive, benevolent, responsible manner,’ but ‘Holocaust should not be compared to anything’

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaking at a conference organized by the Ynet news site in Jerusalem, March 21, 2022. (screenshot)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaking at a conference organized by the Ynet news site in Jerusalem, March 21, 2022. (screenshot)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Monday responded with a mixture of empathy and criticism to Volodymyr Zelensky’s caustic address to Israeli lawmakers on Sunday, during which the Ukrainian president repeatedly invoked the Holocaust.

Bennett said that he believes the Holocaust should not be compared to anything, but also that he understands the Ukrainian people’s suffering.

“He’s a leader battling for the life of his country,” Bennett said, speaking at a conference organized by the Ynet news site. “Many hundreds of dead, millions of refugees. I cannot imagine what it is like to be in his shoes.

“However, I personally believe that the Holocaust should not be compared to anything,” he went on. “It is a unique event in the history of nations, of the world — the systematic, industrial destruction of a people in gas chambers.”

Bennett also said that while there have been advances in Israel-mediated ceasefire talks between Russia and Ukraine, “very large” gaps remain between the two sides.

“We will continue, together with other countries, to try to bring an end to the war,” Bennett said.

“There is still a long way to go because there are controversial issues, some of them fundamental issues. Recently, there has been progress between the parties, but the gaps are still very large,” he said.

According to a report last week by the Financial Times, Bennett has been the “primary international mediator” during the talks.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivers a nightly video address, March 21, 2022. (Screenshot)

Zelensky criticized Jerusalem bitterly in a speech to Israeli lawmakers on Sunday, evening repeatedly invoking the Holocaust — comparing the plight of Ukraine under Russian assault to that of European Jews under the Nazis — and criticized Israel for failing to arm his country, impose sanctions on Russia, and open its doors wider to refugees.

But he changed tack later Sunday and thanked Bennett for his role as mediator in his nightly video address.

“The prime minister of Israel, Mr. [Naftali] Bennett, is trying to find a way of holding talks. And we are grateful for this. We are grateful for his efforts, so that sooner or later we will begin to have talks with Russia, possibly in Jerusalem,” Zelensky said, according to a translation by Reuters.

Earlier Monday, Bennett insisted that Israel was providing Ukraine with a large amount of aid, at a scale not provided by most other countries, while balancing a number of “complex considerations.”

Speaking at Ben-Gurion Airport, where an Israeli delegation was flying out to set up a field hospital in Ukraine, Bennett said that Israel “has been reaching out with aid in the crisis in Ukraine for several weeks, right from the first moment, through various channels.”

Israel also operates “in other dimensions; there are not many countries that operate on such a scale,” he added.

Ukraine has criticized Israel for its failure to provide arms, or even send defensive military gear such as flak jackets and helmets, since Russia launched its invasion.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the departure ceremony for an Israeli delegation flying out to set up a field hospital in Ukraine at Ben Gurion Airport, on March 21, 2022. (Haim Zach / GPO)

Israel, meanwhile, has been seeking to avoid antagonizing Russia, which has a strong presence in Syria where Israel carries out military action against Iran-linked groups.

“We are managing this unfortunate crisis in a sensitive, benevolent and responsible manner, while balancing the various considerations – and they are complex,” Bennett said.

The prime minister pointed out that Israel has sent planeloads of humanitarian aid and has opened its doors to Ukrainian Jewish immigrants and some non-Jewish refugees.

“I want to say this in the clearest way possible: The people of Israel ought to be proud of the aid and assistance Israel is providing to Ukraine,” he said.

Also in attendance at the airport was Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who said that Israelis “must know that Israel is not staying silent. In a place where there is suffering and horror, we will stretch out a comforting hand and do everything to help.”

“We are sending with this hospital not only the best medical staff in the world but our hearts, our support, and our identification. This is a cruel and unnecessary war, and it must stop,” he said.

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