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Putin speaks to Bennett on Ukraine, offers condolences over Beersheba attack

Kremlin says Russian president gives PM his assessments on ongoing negotiations and ‘progress of special military operation,’ during first call in nine days

Right: Prime Minister Naftali Bennett leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on October 5, 2021. (Alex Kolomoisky/ Pool) Left: Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a session of the 17th Russia-Kazakhstan Interregional Cooperation Forum via video link at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Russia, September 30, 2021. (Evgeniy Paulin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
Right: Prime Minister Naftali Bennett leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on October 5, 2021. (Alex Kolomoisky/ Pool) Left: Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a session of the 17th Russia-Kazakhstan Interregional Cooperation Forum via video link at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Russia, September 30, 2021. (Evgeniy Paulin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Wednesday, providing the Israeli premier with his first update in nine days on Moscow’s views on the invasion of Ukraine.

According to the Kremlin, Putin gave Bennett his assessments on the ongoing negotiations and “progress of the special military operation” in Ukraine.

The Russian leader also expressed condolences over Wednesday’s deadly terror attack in Beersheba, the statement added.

There was no immediate comment from the Prime Minister’s Office on the latest call.

The two leaders last spoke on March 14. Bennett has held a handful of calls with both Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, as he has sought to exploit Israel’s working ties with both countries to help mediate a ceasefire that will end the war. He even traveled earlier this month to Moscow, where he became the first foreign leader to meet in person with Putin since the invasion began on February 24.

Bennett has reportedly told his staff to lay the groundwork for a possible trip to Kyiv if enough progress is made in the negotiations to warrant such a summit.

Wednesday’s call was the first since Zelensky spoke over Zoom Sunday to Knesset lawmakers, in a speech in which he lamented the middling support from Jerusalem.

This picture taken on March 22, 2022 shows debris in the mental hospital hit by the Russian shelling in Mykolaiv, southern Ukraine. (BULENT KILIC / AFP)

Bennett has sought to avoid aligning too closely with Ukraine due to fears that it might risk spoiling Israel’s ties with Russia, which controls the airspace over Syria. Israel needs coordination with Moscow as it operates to target Iranian proxies in the country.

Avoiding a clear alignment with the West has exposed Israel to significant criticism, as it refuses requests to supply Ukraine with much-needed military aid or to join international sanctions against Russian oligarchs. It has, however, supplied humanitarian aid and this week opened a field hospital near Lviv.

Channel 13 reported last week that senior members of Bennett’s coalition have warned him that the mediation efforts could have negative repercussions due to his association with Putin, and that they feel the dangers are increasing.

If the prime minister helps broker some kind of deal that includes any achievements for Putin, the unnamed coalition partners cautioned, Bennett might be tarnished for having helped the Russian president against Ukraine and its internationally supported leader, President Volodymyr Zelensky, the report said.

And if the effort fails, they warned, Bennett could be seen as having enabled Putin to mislead negotiators to better Russia’s military position.

A report from The Financial Times last week said Bennett was the “primary international mediator” in ceasefire negotiations between the sides, citing three people familiar with the matter.

Officials close to the prime minister have been careful not to exaggerate Bennett’s role in negotiations and have said he is not actively making proposals or pressuring the sides. Instead, they describe him as a channel of communication, passing messages from the sides in what they have described as a frank and realistic manner.

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