Prime Minister Naftali Bennett pushed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to accept an offer from Russian President Vladimir Putin, which would require Kyiv to make significant concessions to end Russia’s invasion, a senior Ukrainian official said Friday, according to two Hebrew media reports.
The prime minister’s office quickly denied the claim. On Saturday, a senior adviser to Zelensky also denied the story.
“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 the Ukrainian official, who spoke to Walla and Haaretz on condition of anonymity.
The reports did not specify the details of Putin’s offer as reportedly conveyed by Bennett, but previous reports from Walla said that Putin is demanding an independent Donbas region, but 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.
Zelensky did not take well to Bennett’s proposal, responding with a brief, “I hear you,” the Ukrainian official reportedly said.
“Bennett has proposed that we surrender,” the senior Ukrainian official told the Israeli news sites. “We have no intention of doing so. We know that Putin’s proposal is just the beginning.”
Responding to the report, a source in the Prime Minister’s Office said, “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.”
The PMO source denied 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 told 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 declined 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.”
Israel has long had good relations with both Ukraine and Russia, and has been seeking to use its position to broker an agreement, as it also tries to walk a tightrope maintaining its ties to both countries. But its relationship with Kyiv has strained as Bennett has avoided directly blaming Russia for the war, although Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has done so.
The unnamed Ukrainian official was quoted in the Hebrew reports soon after Ukraine’s ambassador to Israel, Yevgen Korniychuk, gave a press conference at which he urged Israel to drop its neutrality and side openly with Ukraine, noted that Bennett is not the only mediator, and claimed Israel is “afraid” of offending Moscow.
The unnamed official also reportedly said Israel has asked that Ukraine cease its requests for military or defense assistance, as this could hinder Jerusalem’s efforts to mediate and maintain neutrality. Ukraine has repeatedly pushed Israel for more support since Russia launched its invasion. Israel has been seeking to avoid antagonizing Russia, which has a strong presence in Syria, where Israel carries out military action against Iran-linked groups.
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 Ukrainian official reportedly said.
“We do not need a mailbox. We have enough of these,” the official was quoted saying. “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 and damaging Israel’s ties with Russia, the official claimed.
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 said. 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 went as far as to say that Zelensky feels that he has all but exhausted his efforts to influence the Israeli government.
Zelensky, who is Jewish and a declared admirer of Israel, is hoping to broadcast a speech to the Knesset plenum as he has done in other parliaments around the world, but the plans for the speech remain unclear. Israel has instead proposed that he hold a less formal Zoom session with all MKs invited, Walla reported. Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy said Thursday that Zelensky will speak to lawmakers via Zoom in the coming days.
Zelensky initially rejected the idea of a Zoom call 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 — from the fact that parliament is in recess to the fact that the building is undergoing renovations.
But Walla reported that those are mere excuses, as Bennett and Lapid do not want to anger Russia with such a high-profile appearance.
Israeli officials are reportedly also concerned that many lawmakers might not show up for a Zelensky speech, leading to embarrassment.
Bennett traveled to Moscow to meet with Putin on Saturday, becoming the first foreign leader to sit down with the Russian president since he invaded his neighbor. He spoke to Zelensky before and after the meeting.
Bennett decided to travel to Moscow without consulting with his advisers, or with his political partners Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who were both only updated after the decision, Walla reported Friday.
He has not held any in-depth discussions with the defense establishment or Foreign Ministry about the trip’s successes or failures, or about its implications for the Iran nuclear negotiations, the report said.