Both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky congratulated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately after the swearing-in of his new government, as the returning premier must once again decide whether to maintain Jerusalem’s delicate balancing act between the two warring countries.
“I hope that the new government under your leadership will continue the line of strengthening Russian-Israeli cooperation in all areas for the benefit of our peoples, in the interest of ensuring peace and security in the Middle East,” Putin said in his message to Netanyahu, published by the Kremlin. “In Russia, we greatly appreciate your personal and long-standing contribution to strengthening friendly relations between our countries.”
A similar message was offered by Zelensky who tweeted, “I wish success on the way to the welfare and security of Israel. I confirm Ukraine’s readiness for close cooperation to strengthen our ties and confront common challenges, achieve prosperity and victory over evil.”
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. 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 last February.
However, Netanyahu has changed his tune more recently. In an interview ahead of last month’s 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 Kyiv-requested military aid — as “pragmatic.”
Netanyahu even said he would consider arming Ukraine if he returns to the premiership.
“I think [Putin is] guided by his vision of reconstituting a great Russian realm, and I hope he’s having second thoughts about it,” Netanyahu told USA Today at the time.
He also revealed that he was asked to mediate between Russia and Ukraine after the war broke out. “I said, ‘Well, I think I’ll leave that to the sitting prime minister to decide.”
Former prime minister Naftali Bennett sought to mediate between Putin and Zelensky, traveling to Moscow and holding a handful of phone calls with both leaders. But he failed to make headway after several weeks and eventually put aside the effort to focus on political turmoil back home.
Netanyahu said in the October interview that the mediation offer “presumably would come up again” if he is 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.