Zelensky adviser: Netanyahu could be an ‘effective mediator’ between Kyiv, Moscow

Mykhailo Podolyak tells Israeli TV that returning PM ‘understands precisely what modern wars are,’ as well as the ‘essence of mediation’

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Collage/AP)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Collage/AP)

A senior adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky suggested Thursday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could serve as a negotiator between Moscow and Kyiv, rekindling an idea that was tried unsuccessfully under the previous Israeli government in order to bring an end to the war.

Former prime minister Naftali Bennett served as a mediator for several weeks in the spring of 2022, leveraging Israel’s working relations with both countries to pass along messages between Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin while coordinating with other regional powers. Bennett even flew to Moscow, becoming one of the first world leaders to meet with Putin at that early stage of the war. However, Bennett was unable to make progress and eventually decided to set aside the effort as his coalition fell apart.

Netanyahu has said he was approached to mediate between Zelensky and Putin while he was opposition leader but deferred to the sitting government. He said last month that such offers may come up again but did not say whether he would heed the call.

“I have no doubt that Mr. Netanyahu could be an effective mediator,” Mykhailo Podolyak told the i24NEWS network on Thursday. “Since he understands precisely what modern wars are and what is the essence of mediation under these conditions.”

However, Podolyak claimed that Moscow is not interested in genuine negotiations. “Under the guise of negotiations, Russia wants the surrender of Ukraine,” he said.

The Zelensky adviser argued that Russia seeks a ceasefire that would allow it to maintain its territorial gains while giving it time to rearm with help from Iran and North Korea — terms that Ukraine rejects as it gradually gains on Russian forces and pushes them out of the occupied territory.

The comments by Podolyak appeared to allay fears of a strain in ties between Israel and Ukraine after Kyiv expressed its displeasure with the conduct of Foreign Minister Eli Cohen during his first days on the job.

Cohen said earlier this week that the new Israeli government would “talk less” about the Russian invasion, in what some took as a knock of the previous coalition’s criticism of Putin’s war.

Ukraine’s Ambassador to Israel Yevgen Korniychuk said that Kyiv views Cohen’s phone call Tuesday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov as evidence of a change in Jerusalem’s position on the war.

“Israel’s minister of foreign affairs hasn’t spoken to Lavrov since the war started,” he told The Times of Israel, indicating that Kyiv is incensed that Cohen went ahead with the conversation.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett shuttling between Russia and Germany on March 5, 2022. (PMO)

Kyiv has said it needs Israel’s help in air defense technology to counter Russia’s ongoing strikes on its civilian infrastructure. Israel has so far refused to provide such aid, out of apparent concern for Russia’s reaction.

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. As opposition leader, 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 in February.

However, Netanyahu changed his tune more recently. In an interview ahead of the November 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 providing Kyiv-requested military aid — as “pragmatic.”

Netanyahu even said he would consider arming Ukraine if he returned to the premiership, and told Zelensky after the election that he had not yet determined Israel’s policy. He also assured the Ukrainian president that he would remain in the loop.

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