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Cohen passed US messages to Russia’s Lavrov during phone call — Israeli diplomat

Official does not reveal what the American communication was, as Jerusalem faces criticism for agreeing to hold talks with Moscow’s foreign minister

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

New Foreign Minister Eli Cohen speaks at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, January 2, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
New Foreign Minister Eli Cohen speaks at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, January 2, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken asked new Foreign Minister Eli Cohen to convey messages on to Russia in a Monday phone call, a senior diplomatic official told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

Cohen spoke to his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on Tuesday afternoon, and passed along the messages.

The Israeli official would not reveal what the American messages were.

Neither the Israeli nor the US readouts mentioned any talk of the 10-month-long war in Ukraine. The State Department did not respond to a request for confirmation.

The Israeli official said that Blinken was aware of the scheduled call with Lavrov before he spoke with Cohen on Monday. The Russians had requested the call, the Israeli official told The Times of Israel.

Speaking to Israeli diplomats on Monday, Foreign Minister Cohen revealed that he would be talking to Lavrov the next day. He did not indicate any scheduled call with his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba. Around midday Tuesday, Israel requested a call with Kuleba.

Critics of the Monday speech, including a senior Republican lawmaker in the US, saw it as a possible sign that the new government in Jerusalem would shift in a pro-Kremlin direction.

A senior Ukrainian official had said that Kyiv would expect Cohen to delay or cancel his call with Lavrov, and speak to Kuleba first — which did not happen. The official indicated that if Cohen were to hold a conversation with Lavrov first, Kuleba might refuse any call with Cohen in the near future.

There was no request from Kyiv about a call between Kuleba and Cohen.

File: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the G20 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia, July 8, 2022. (Willy Kurniawan/Pool Photo via AP)

‘No shift toward Moscow’

The Israeli diplomatic official firmly rejected  the notion that Israel was changing its policy on the Russia-Ukraine war, calling it “confusion.”

Cohen stressed in his Monday address that Israel’s humanitarian aid to Ukraine would continue, but noted that while additional details of Israel’s policy on the matter were still being crafted, “one thing for certain is that we will talk less about it in public.”

File: Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba is seen following a meeting of NATO foreign ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels, on April 7, 2022. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool Photo via AP)

The official said that “when the minister said we would talk less, the intention was Israel’s attempts at mediation, the public nature of which — in his opinion — harmed Israel.”

At the start of the invasion, then-prime minister Naftali Bennett held a handful of calls with both Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky, seeking to exploit Israel’s working ties with both countries to help mediate a ceasefire to end the war. He even traveled to Moscow in March 2022, where he became the first foreign leader to meet in person with Putin since the invasion began on February 24.

But he failed to make headway after several weeks and eventually put aside the effort to focus on political turmoil back home.

Israeli sources told The Times of Israel that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be open to mediate if one of the sides asked him to.

File: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Russian President Vladimir Putin cut the ribbon to unveil the Memorial Candle monument in Jerusalem on January 23, 2020 to commemorate the people of Leningrad during the World War II Nazi siege on the city. (Amit SHABI / POOL / AFP)

During Netanyahu’s last term, prior to the war, Zelensky asked Netanyahu to speak with Putin about arranging a conversation, but the Kremlin showed little interest in talking to Kyiv at the time.

Republican US Senator Lindsey Graham, an outspoken Republican voice in support of aiding Ukraine, was among those who saw Cohen’s remarks as an indication the Netanyahu government would avoid denouncing Russia publicly over its invasion of Ukraine.

“The idea that Israel should speak less about Russia’s criminal invasion of Ukraine is a bit unnerving,” Graham said in a tweet.

FILE – In this March 10, 2016, photo, Sen. Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

“I hope Mr. Cohen understands that when he speaks to Russia’s Lavrov, he’s speaking to a representative of a war criminal regime that commits war crimes on an industrial scale every day. To stay quiet about Russia’s criminal behavior will not age well,” Graham added.

The previous government headed by Bennett and Yair Lapid had refused Ukrainian requests for weapons, but Lapid spoke out repeatedly against the Russian invasion, accusing the Kremlin of carrying out war crimes. The comments won praise in the West but stoked tensions with Moscow, even as Jerusalem attempted to maintain a semblance of neutrality.

Kyiv has said it needs Israel’s help in air defense technology to counter Russia’s ongoing strikes on its civilian infrastructure. Israel has so far refused to provide such aid, out of apparent concern for Russia’s reaction.

During his previous terms in office, Netanyahu touted his close relationship with Putin and insisted that it was critical to maintaining the IDF’s ability to operate freely from the Russian-controlled skies over Syria in order to prevent the entrenchment of Iranian forces on Israel’s northern border. As opposition leader, he initially criticized the previous government for neglecting ties to Russia as Jerusalem took several limited steps in support of Ukraine following the invasion by Putin’s forces in February.

Rescuers clear debris of homes destroyed by a missile attack in the outskirts of Kyiv, on December 29, 2022, following a Russian missile strike on Ukraine. (Genya Savilov/AFP)

However, Netanyahu changed his tune more recently. In an interview ahead of the November election, he characterized the Bennett-Lapid government’s Ukraine policy — which has seen Israel supply humanitarian aid, operate a field hospital in Ukraine and take in a limited number of largely Jewish refugees while stopping short of providing Kyiv-requested military aid — as “pragmatic.”

Netanyahu even said he would consider arming Ukraine if he returned to the premiership, and told Zelensky after the election that he had not yet determined Israel’s policy. He also assured the Ukrainian president that he would remain in the loop.

Netanyahu said in the October interview that the mediation offer “presumably would come up again” if he returned to power.

Netanyahu and Putin spoke last week in a congratulatory call that the Israeli prime minister agreed to take while Zelensky was giving an address to a joint session of US Congress, in which he implored for additional American aid to push back the Russian invasion.

Netanyahu and Zelensky spoke by phone on Friday. According to a report, Netanyahu pressed the Ukrainian leader to vote against an upcoming UN resolution, but would not commit to any steps when asked about a quid-pro-quo involving transferring defensive aid to intercept Russian strikes.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report. 

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