Bennett’s attempts at neutrality on Russia-Ukraine spell trouble for Israel on Iran

The PM may have unique access to Putin but he has no unique leverage; he risks being seen as appeasing one regional bully precisely when Israel seeks world support against another

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett shuttling between Russia and Germany on March 5, 2022 (PMO)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett shuttling between Russia and Germany on March 5, 2022 (PMO)

This Editor’s Note was sent out Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

Does nobody in the Prime Minister’s Office recognize the irony, and the danger?

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has decided to try to help mediate a deal between the invading, nuclear, would-be reviving empire of Russia and its besieged, defiant neighbor Ukraine — a country that Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared has no right to exist and that he is now trying to quash. At the very same time, Bennett and the Israeli leadership are imploring the international community not to finalize a deal with regional heavyweight Iran, which is seeking nuclear weapons, says Israel has no right to exist, and wants to quash us.

While the US-led free world attempts to thwart Russia without sparking World War III, Bennett has resolutely refused to take sides — declining the US invitation to co-sponsor a UN Security Council resolution to condemn Russia last month; staying out of the international sanctions effort, and not even declaring a determination to ensure Israel is not abused by Russia and Russians seeking to circumvent the sanctions.

Yes, Israel backed the subsequent non-binding UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia, but so did almost the entire rest of the world, with only North Korea, Syria, Belarus, Eritrea opposed. Yes, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has directly condemned Russia, but Bennett’s is the voice that counts most.

And yes, Israel is providing considerable humanitarian aid to Ukraine and may be about to open a field hospital there, but it has even managed to make a resonant hash of its refugee policy. Until Tuesday, it was demanding that arrivals who do not have citizenship eligibility under the Law of Return provide a $3,000 security deposit — a measure introduced by Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked and only canceled amid mounting outrage.

Shaked has now also imposed a 25,000 cap on the number of non-citizenship-eligible Ukrainians we will temporarily take in. Since some 20,000 of them were here before the war began, and another 3,000 have arrived since, that is hardly generous. (It’s also quite the symbolic contrast to 1977, when Menachem Begin, in one of his first acts as prime minister, ensured Israel was one of the first nations to provide refuge and asylum to Vietnamese boat people.)

Russian President Vladimir Putin visits the Aeroflot Aviation School outside Moscow, Russia, Saturday, March 5, 2022. (Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Seeming to belie even the prime minister’s self-declared unique status as an honest broker, Bennett’s office briefed a handful of journalists on Tuesday night that while it was not for Israel to tell Ukraine’s (Jewish) president whether to cave to Putin’s “denazification” demands — including ceding part of the country and agreeing to stay out of NATO — or fight on for the survival of Ukraine’s full sovereignty at terrible cost, Volodomyr Zelensky does need to know that Ukraine now faces what amounts to a critical choice: capitulation or calamity.

Bennett has reportedly decided that Israel “is not going to be the Chamberlain of 1938.” Well, that’s precisely the concern. The parallel is not exact, but it certainly highlights the monumental folly of appeasing a megalomaniacal bully, and the disastrous consequence of playing a prime role in that process.

American officials have said much the same thing, but the US administration, while it is not providing Ukraine with all the military support Zelensky would want and is not risking American lives in Ukraine, is emphatically siding with Ukraine and is leading the effort to thwart Russia via mounting sanctions and economic pressure.

Bennett, according to Hebrew news site Ynet’s account of Tuesday night’s briefing, has decided that Israel “is not going to be the Chamberlain of 1938.” Well, that’s precisely the concern. The parallel is not exact, but it certainly highlights the monumental folly of appeasing a megalomaniacal bully, and the disastrous consequence of playing a prime role in that process.

According to one unconfirmed report, Israel this week even sent “a stiff message” to the Ukrainians, declaring itself unwilling to tolerate a situation in which, as it attempts to mediate a solution to the crisis, it is criticized and attacked by Ukrainian officials. This was an apparent reference to Zelensky’s declaration last week, days after he asked Bennett to try to help broker an end to the war, that he doesn’t feel the Israeli prime minister “is wrapped in our flag,” and to a since-retracted false allegation by Ukraine’s foreign minister that Israel’s national airline El Al was taking “blood-soaked money” by enabling the use of a Russian payment system.

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

If Bennett, who broke Shabbat to fly to the Kremlin and meet Putin on Saturday in the cause of what he reasonably considered was a potentially life-saving mission, can somehow help extract an agreement that ends the loss of life while ensuring that the Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian people retain “their sovereignty, their independence, and their territorial integrity,” as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken put it in his meeting with Lapid in Riga on Monday, then his diplomatic efforts will have been more than worthwhile.

But if Putin were prepared to agree to such an outcome, he would not have invaded in the first place. And the difficulties he is having in taking control of the unified and resilient Ukraine are prompting him to ratchet up his aggression, including by despicably targeting civilians, rather than moderate his demands.

A pregnant woman walks downstairs at the Russia-bombarded maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

Israel does have a fairly unique status as a warm ally to both sides of this conflict. But Israel has no unique leverage over Putin — no pressure points that it and it alone can bring to bear. Quite the opposite: Putin has leverage over Bennett, who seeks to maintain Israel’s freedom of action in the skies over Syria, and who is concerned for the safety of Israelis and Jews in Russia and Ukraine.

Bennett thus risks lending legitimacy to Putin while harming Israel’s status and interests in the eyes of its free world allies. He seems to be placing Israel not firmly in the camp of the free world, the Ukraine-supporting world, the sanctions-backing world, in the standoff against a rapacious, mass-murdering autocrat, but somewhere troublingly, uniquely, in-between.

Quite apart from the moral intolerability of this position, and the dangerous daylight it places between Israel and its core allies, most especially the United States, this undermines Israel’s own vital need: that the international community, standing together with Ukraine in resisting a warmongering regional power’s devastating agenda, will do precisely the same for Israel when it comes to Iran.

Related: Why Israel must stand squarely with Ukraine

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