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Senior Ukrainian official: Bennett pushed Zelensky to ‘surrender’ to Putin — report

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett poses for a picture at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on January 26, 2022; Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses the nation in Kyiv, Ukraine, on February 24, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90; Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett poses for a picture at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on January 26, 2022; Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses the nation in Kyiv, Ukraine, on February 24, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90; Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Tuesday pushed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to accept an offer from Russian President Vladimir Putin, which would require Kyiv to make significant concessions in order to end Moscow’s invasion, the Walla and Haaretz news sites report.

The Prime Minister’s Office denied the claim.

Walla does not specify the details of Putin’s offer as reportedly conveyed by Bennett, but previous reports from the news site said that Putin is demanding an independent Donbas region, while stopping short of seeking regime change in Ukraine. Other reports have suggested that the plan Bennett brought to Zelensky includes recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea, recognizing Donetsk and Luhansk as separate entities, and changing the Ukrainian constitution to excise a commitment to joining NATO.

“If I were you, I would think about the lives of my people and take the offer,” Bennett told Zelensky during a phone call on Tuesday, according to a senior Ukrainian official who spoke to Walla and Haaretz on condition of anonymity.

Zelensky did not take well to the proposal, responding with a brief “I hear you.”

“Bennett has proposed that we surrender,” the senior Ukrainian official tells the Hebrew news sites. “We have no intention of doing so. We know that Putin’s proposal is just the beginning.”

The report says that Israel has also asked that Ukraine cease its requests for Israeli military or defense assistance, as this could hinder Jerusalem’s efforts to mediate and maintain neutrality.

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

Thus far, Zelensky has been unimpressed with Bennett’s mediation efforts, saying the Israeli premier has sufficed with being a “mailbox” that passes along messages between Russia to Ukraine without coming up with any proposals of his own, the senior official says.

“We do not need a mailbox. We have enough of these,” the senior Ukrainian official says. “President Zelensky’s office does not believe this is the way to mediate. If Bennett wants to be neutral and mediate, we would like to see him appoint someone who will deal with the matter day and night to try and reach a compromise.”

Zelensky is under the impression that Bennett has taken up the role of mediator as part of his effort to avoid picking sides in a war because of the risk of damaging Israel’s ties with Russia, the official claims. (Bennett was asked by Zelensky on February 25 to try to mediate a solution to the crisis, and flew to Moscow on Saturday night for a Kremlin meeting with Putin. Zelensky has also criticized Bennett, however, saying on March 3 that he did not feel the prime minister is “wrapped in our flag.”)

The official reportedly pointed out that other countries such as Germany and France have also played roles in passing along messages between Russia and Ukraine while still maintaining a clear public stance against Moscow’s invasion, unlike the Israeli prime minister, who has not condemned Russia.

Zelensky’s office has identified a wide gulf between Bennett’s position and that of the Israeli public, which has been far more supportive of Ukraine, the official reportedly says. This has led to significant frustration and even personal offense on the part of Zelensky with the Israeli government, according to the senior official.

The official reportedly said Zelensky feels he has all but exhausted his efforts to influence the Israeli government.

Ukraine army public affairs officer Valentin Yermolenko walks in front of a destroyed shoe factory following an airstrike in Dnipro, on March 11, 2022. (Emre Caylak/AFP)

He is hoping to deliver a speech to the Knesset plenum, as he has done in other parliaments around the world. But Israel has instead proposed that he hold a less formal Zoom session with all MKs invited, Walla reports.

Zelensky has rejected the idea and is weighing the possibility of a speech at Yad Vashem, though it is not clear whether the Holocaust museum would be interested in the idea.

Israeli officials have given a number of reasons to Zelensky’s office for why he cannot give a speech at the Knesset plenum — including that parliament is in recess and that the building is undergoing renovation.

But Walla reports that those are mere excuses, as Bennett and Foreign Minister Lapid do not want to anger Russia by granting Zelensky such a high-profile appearance.

Responding to the report, a source in the Prime Minister’s Office says, “It is doubtful whether this is a senior official who is in Ukraine and on [Bennett’s] call [with Zelensky], since it took place on a private line.

A picture shows a destroyed shoe factory following an airstrike in Dnipro, Ukraine on March 11, 2022. (Emre Caylak / AFP)

The PMO source denies that Bennett told Zelensky to take Putin’s offer, “as Israel does not have such an offer.”

“In any case, the prime minister does not intend to give Zelensky recommendations or advice on how to act at any stage,” the source tells Walla. “The conversation between the two was long and positive and included the possibility of a meeting [between Russian and Ukrainian negotiators] in Jerusalem.”

The source declines to say whether Bennett will be prepared to make proposals of his own. “The prime minister’s efforts are aimed at one thing: to stop the bloodshed in Ukraine and the unnecessary suffering.”

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