Bennett holds back-to-back calls with Ukraine’s Zelensky, Russia’s Putin

Israel has sought an elusive middle ground on Ukraine, hoping to maintain ties with both West and Russia; Bennett has offered to mediate between Kyiv and Moscow

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky; Prime Minister Naftali Bennett; and Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Composite/AP)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky; Prime Minister Naftali Bennett; and Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Composite/AP)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett spoke with both Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin within a few hours of each other on Wednesday, his second set of public phone calls with the two leaders since Russia invaded Ukraine last week.

“The Prime Minister of the State of Israel expressed some thoughts [on the situation], taking into account his recent contacts with the leaders of a number of states,” the Kremlin said.

According to the Kremlin, Israel had initiated the call with the Russian leader. Putin told Bennett the key to ending the crisis in Ukraine was an agreement that would protect Russia’s security interests, the Russian presidency said.

“Putin outlined the principled position of the Russian side regarding the terms of the settlement conflict, including the unconditional consideration of Russia’s interests in the field of security,” the Kremlin said.

Earlier on Wednesday afternoon, Bennett spoke with Zelensky to discuss “Russian aggression,” the Ukrainian premier wrote on Twitter.

Bennett’s office produced a similarly short statement, saying that the phone call was a follow-up “to their conversation last Friday, in which they agreed to maintain continuous communication.”

According to a longer readout of the conversation carried by Hebrew media, the two leaders discussed Israeli humanitarian aid to Ukraine as well as the country’s needs. The two also reportedly addressed 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.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine last Thursday, 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.

Ukraine and Russia held a round of talks on the border between Ukraine and Belarus on Monday night, even as Russian forces advanced in an attempt to encircle major Ukrainian cities. The negotiations concluded without success.

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.

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

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. Israel also declined to co-sponsor a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the Russian assault.

“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.

The fragile balancing act has aroused the ire of some European diplomats, The Times of Israel reported on Wednesday morning.

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

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