Top Zelensky aide says Jerusalem could host talks, praises Israeli intel cooperation
Andriy Yermak welcomes Bennett’s mediation and wants Israel to be a guarantor of Ukrainian security; expresses cautious optimism about Russia negotiations
Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s chief of staff praised Israel’s mediation efforts on Thursday, saying that Ukraine considers Jerusalem “one of the priority venues” for a meeting between Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Speaking to Israeli journalists via Zoom, Andriy Yermak said that Ukrainian officials “are impressed by how deeply aware of the situation Israeli officials and Prime Minister [Naftali] Bennett in particular are. And we think that he is really inclined and willing to do all it takes to bring peace to our land and to stop the war.”
Bennett has held a handful of calls with both Putin and Zelensky as he 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.
There have been mixed messages out of Kyiv about Bennett’s stance. Some officials seem to think he is too close to Putin, while others — including Ukraine’s envoy to Israel — have asked for more intensive Israeli mediation efforts.
“Since day one, and since our first conversation, we felt how serious the intentions of prime minister Bennett are,” said Yermak.
“It is Israel that can play a key role probably in the negotiations and suspension of hostilities and withdrawal of the Russian army from our own territory,” he continued.
The senior aide went out of his way to remark on the intelligence cooperation between Israel and Ukraine.
“I know that our intelligence is cooperating very closely with the Israeli intelligence,” he said. “Our intelligence is satisfied with this cooperation, but of course there is always something that can be done more. So I do hope that this relationship will only flourish.”
“Your intelligence community is one of the best in the world,” he stressed.
Yermak also noted Kyiv’s hope that Israel will be one of the nations signing guarantees of Ukrainian security in the event of a negotiated solution to the war. The Ukrainians have proposed the five permanent UN Security Council member states along with Germany, Turkey, Canada, and Israel as guarantors, and are open to adding more countries.
“We do hope that Israel can stand as one of the guarantors of the future big treaty or international agreement that would include security guarantees for Ukraine.”
I know that our intelligence is cooperating very closely with the Israeli intelligence.
At the same time, he seemed to criticize Israel for being too evenhanded in its mediation approach.
“A form of mediation that doesn’t take sides will not work, unfortunately,” he said.
“The way the Russian army is behaving in Ukraine is very much like the way the Nazis were behaving during the Second World War. These things need to be said, they need to be very clearly understood, and I do hope that our Israeli friends have no problem with that. And playing this role of a mediator, they will always understand who in this story was an aggressor, and who is defending their homeland. That is very important.”
The Kyiv-born adviser, whose father is Jewish, said that conversations about Jerusalem serving as a venue for talks between Ukraine and Russia did not originate with Bennett, though he was the first to publicly float the idea.
“This was started during the times of the previous prime minister, [Benjamin] Netanyahu, and at that time we were also contemplating such a meeting in Jerusalem,” he said, speaking in Ukrainian through a translator. “Unfortunately, it didn’t happen back then.”
Yermak indicated that though negotiations with Russia are difficult, the direction was positive.
“These negotiations started in a very difficult manner,” he said. “They started with a very unacceptable tone, an ultimatum kind of approach. For Ukraine, now we can say that there is dialogue. It continues to be very difficult — there are questions regarding how we can agree.”
At the same time, he said, Ukraine is absolutely unwilling to make any compromises over core interests, “and these are compromises related to our independence, our territorial integrity, and our sovereignty.”
Bennett has not tried to pressure Zelensky to make territorial concessions, Yermak stressed.
However, in subsequent comments during the briefing, he hinted that Ukraine might be open to compromise over Crimea and the Donbas region, occupied by Russia in 2014.
“But we are ready to discuss any questions,” he said. “There are these questions on the table, they are burning questions, and they need to be resolved. The question of Donbas, the question of Crimea and all other questions can be on the table. “
This can only be done, he said, on the condition “that there is respect for international institutions, for international laws, and internationally recognized borders of Ukraine.”
“Certain progress can be reported because we think that the moment when the presidents can meet is getting closer,” he said.
Expecting more support
Despite his praise for Israel’s mediation efforts, Yermak was careful to separately address Israel’s refusal to provide military aid.
“We are expecting much bigger support from Israel in this area,” he declared. “We do hope that our expectations are not in vain, especially after the statement by President Zelensky in the Knesset.
“We need the Iron Dome system, and other types of weapons,” he said.
Yermak refused to confirm reports that Israel has rejected Ukrainian requests for the controversial Pegasus spyware for use against Russia, due to fears of angering Moscow.
“I know that we have not received that software, and we do need it,” was all he was willing to say.
He also criticized some Western countries for not helping enough: “Some are helping as much as possible, others are still playing their games, others are still on the fence.”
And he took aim at Israel’s new policies regarding Ukrainians trying to enter Israel: “We are expecting the resolution of the question, which had a very negative response in Ukraine, when Israel made the decision to introduce visas for our refugees. We think that that step is not the right one; we know that the work is going on right now to abolish this decision.”
Throughout the hour-long discussion, Yermak sought to draw parallels between the Israeli/Jewish and the Ukrainian experience. He called Israel “our sister country, which is being bombarded and attacked as well, and which should understand us more than anyone else.”
He laid out similarities between past Israeli conflicts, especially the 1948 War of Independence, during which world powers refused to sell weapons to the Jewish state while it was fighting for its life.
Zelensky, in an address on Sunday to Israeli lawmakers via Zoom, had invoked similar parallels, and also drew criticism over his frequent comparisons of the situation in his country to the Holocaust.
“I think we have so many things in common,” Yermak said. “There’s so many sacred places for Jewish people in Ukraine. So many places related to big tragedies of the previous century that make it very strange for Israel to stay on the sidelines.
“Israel is linked very closely in terms of family, in terms of history, and in terms of all other aspects of our lives, cultural as well.”
Yermak added that Ukraine knows that the “nation of Israel stands 100% with the nation of Ukraine.”