Zelensky changes tack after caustic speech, says ‘grateful’ for Bennett’s mediation

Following Knesset address in which he admonished Israel for not aiding Kyiv or joining Western sanctions, Ukrainian president says Jerusalem is ‘the right place’ for peace talks

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivers a nightly video address, March 21, 2022. (Screenshot)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivers a nightly video address, March 21, 2022. (Screenshot)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky late on Sunday changed tack and thanked Israel in his nightly video address, after criticizing Israel bitterly in a speech to its lawmakers earlier in the day.

“Of course, Israel has its interests, strategy to protect its citizens. We understand all of it,” Zelensky said in a video he posts daily to social media.

“The prime minister of Israel, Mr. [Naftali] Bennett, is trying to find a way of holding talks. And we are grateful for this. We are grateful for his efforts, so that sooner or later we will begin to have talks with Russia, possibly in Jerusalem,” he said, according to a translation by Reuters.

“That’s the right place to find peace. If possible,” Zelensky said.

“Russian propagandists have a tough task today,” he added, “because for the first time in history, a president of a foreign nation spoke on video recording in the Knesset and to the whole nation of Israel… the president of Ukraine, who is accused of Nazism in Russia.”

In a caustic address to Knesset members on Sunday evening, Zelensky repeatedly invoked the Holocaust — comparing the plight of Ukraine under Russian assault to that of European Jews under the Nazis — and criticized Israel for failing to arm his country, impose sanctions on Russia, and open its doors wider to refugees.

“I’m sure you feel our pain, but can you explain why we’re still waiting… for your help… when other countries are giving help? Why isn’t Israeli help, or even entry permits, forthcoming?” he asked.

Demonstrators gather at Habima Square in Tel Aviv on March 20, 2022, to watch a televised video address by Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky. (Jack Guez/ AFP)

“What is it? Indifference? Political calculation? Mediation without choosing sides?” Zelensky said.

“I’ll leave you to provide the answers to these questions, but I want to point out that indifference kills. Calculations can be wrong. You can mediate between countries, but not between good and evil,” he said.

“You need to provide answers to these questions and live with them.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks from Kyiv, Ukraine, to Knesset lawmakers on March 20, 2022. (Screen capture: YouTube)

Zelensky’s speech was delivered via Zoom, after the Knesset speaker turned down his request to address parliament itself, explaining that the Knesset is in recess and the building is undergoing renovations.

Attended by the overwhelming majority of legislators, his address was received with mixed responses, with some calling it “outrageous” and others supporting the “distressed” president.

Several MKs harshly criticized Zelensky for drawing comparisons between the Holocaust and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and seemingly ignoring some Ukrainians’ complicity in the Nazi-led genocide.

Hebrew media reported that Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid were “surprised” by the ferocity of the Ukrainian president’s critique in the speech, but senior political sources said Israel would not change its policy.

File: Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speak during their meeting in Sochi, Russia, October 22, 2021(Evgeny Biyatov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Israel has long maintained good relations with both Ukraine and Russia, and has been seeking to use its unique position to broker an agreement between the two sides, as it tries to walk a tightrope maintaining its ties to both countries.

Ukraine has repeatedly pushed Israel for more support since Russia launched its invasion. But 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.

There have been numerous apparent ups and downs in Kyiv’s relations with Jerusalem in recent days, with Ukraine at times lauding Israel’s diplomatic and humanitarian efforts and at other times strongly criticizing its reluctance to help more.

Israel’s relationship with Kyiv has also been strained by the fact that Bennett has avoided directly blaming Russia for the war, although Lapid has done so on several occasions.

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