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Lapid said pressing for Israel to 'condemn dictators'

‘One hour before midnight’: In call with Putin, Bennett proposes Israeli mediation

PM says ready to help in any way, in light of Israel’s unique ties with Russia and Ukraine; avoids condemning Moscow at cabinet meet; set to send more humanitarian aid to Ukraine

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 proposed that Israel serve as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine during a phone call with President Vladimir Putin on Sunday, according to a readout released by the Kremlin, which did not say how the latter responded to Jerusalem’s offer. Israeli sources confirmed Bennett’s offer.

According to the Russian readout, Putin told Bennett that Russia has sent a delegation to Gomel in southern Belarus to conduct peace talks with Ukrainian officials.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, who had proposed the idea of Israeli mediation to Bennett on Friday, emphasized the country’s readiness for peace talks.

Initially refusing to hold peace talks in Moscow’s ally Belarus, which has allowed Russia to use its territory as a staging ground for the invasion that began Thursday, Zelensky agreed later Sunday that the Ukrainian delegation would meet with the Russian delegation without preconditions on the Ukrainian-Belarusian border.

Bennett initiated the call to Putin, which was held at around noon and lasted 20 minutes, Channel 12 news reported citing Israeli sources. The prime minister updated the United States and Ukraine both before and after the conversation.

Bennett first expressed sorrow regarding the situation, which he said he hoped would not develop into a grave humanitarian crisis.

Putin told Bennett he had no choice but to act, since Ukraine broke its obligations, the TV news report said.

He said he is ready to negotiate, and that his representatives were in Belarus, but the Ukrainians were spurning the opportunity to do so.

At that point, Bennett said Israel is ready to assist in any way possible in bringing the sides together, now or in the future, in light of its unique relationship with both countries. “We are at one hour before midnight; it’s important to find the optimal points for dialogue,” said Bennett, according to the TV report.

Bennett and Putin agreed to remain in close contact, an Israeli official said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speak during their meeting in Sochi, Russia, on October 22, 2021. (Evgeny Biyatov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

The phone call marked the first time Bennett and Putin have spoken since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Earlier Sunday, Bennett said that Israel will be sending additional humanitarian aid to war-torn Ukraine, as the Russian invasion into the Eastern European country enters its fourth day.

“In the next two days a plane will arrive in Ukraine with 100 tons of Israeli humanitarian equipment for civilians in the combat zones and those who are trying to leave,” the premier said during a weekly cabinet meeting.

The delivered equipment will include “water purification kits, medical equipment as well as drugs, tents, blankets, sleeping bags and additional equipment for civilians who are not in their homes in the cold winter weather,” he added.

Bennett also thanked the Foreign Ministry and its personnel for “working around the clock to assist the Israelis who are at the border and want to leave there and come home.”

He said Israel and the entire world were watching “the difficult events” unfold in Ukraine and said he hopes the conflict is resolved “before the war develops further and the humanitarian consequences will be much worse than we can even imagine.

“We are praying for the wellbeing of the citizens of Ukraine and hope that additional bloodshed will be avoided. We are conducting a measured and responsible policy,” he told cabinet members.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid during a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on February 27, 2022. (Yoav Ari Dudkevitch/POOL)

Bennett said the cabinet would convene in the evening for a “comprehensive” discussion to examine “the implications of the situation for Israel,” including diplomatic and economic repercussions, as well as the issue of absorbing immigrants from Ukraine.

But despite expressing concern for Ukraine and warning of humanitarian consequences, Bennett refrained from condemning Russia or even mentioning it by name, as he did on Thursday when addressing the Russian invasion for the first time.

“The world order as we know it is changing,” he said Thursday. “The world is much less stable, and our region too is changing every day. These are difficult, tragic times,” he added, expressing sorrow for Ukrainian citizens “who were caught up in this situation.”

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid told a private meeting during a discussion on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that Israel must condemn dictators, Army Radio reported earlier Sunday.

“Israel must be on the right side and condemn dictators who attack democracies,” Lapid reportedly said. Lapid’s office said it will not comment on a private gathering.

Israel has been careful in its comments on the conflict and Bennett has avoided criticizing Moscow publicly. This is believed to be at least partly due to its need to work with the Russian military presence in neighboring Syria.

Lapid last Thursday called “the Russian attack on Ukraine” a “serious violation of the international order,” however, in a statement said to be coordinated with Bennett. Lapid added: “Israel condemns that attack, and is ready and prepared to offer humanitarian assistance to Ukrainian citizens.”

Lazar Berman contributed to this report.

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