Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky suggested on Saturday that negotiations between Ukraine and Russia to end the war could be held in Jerusalem.
The Ukrainian leader also told media he believed Israel could provide security guarantees for his country, and said he hoped Prime Minister Naftali Bennett would have a positive influence on negotiations.
Zelensky spoke at a special briefing for reporters from Kyiv, under heavy guard.
“We generally support mediation by anyone,” he said in an answer to a question about Israel’s potential role, posed by a reporter for Haaretz. “But I wouldn’t call Prime Minister Bennett ‘anyone.’ You can play an important role because Israel is a country with a rich history.”
Zelensky added that Ukrainian immigrants were among Israel’s founders, “who brought with them their history and their desire to build a great country, as it is now. So it’s not bad at all for us to have such mediation.”
He said he told Bennett he did not believe negotiations could take place in Russia, Ukraine, or Belarus.
“These are not places where we can come to any understandings on ending the war — I’m not talking about technical meetings but meetings between leaders. I believe Israel can be such a place, especially Jerusalem. I think so, and I said this to Bennett.”
Channel 12 cited unnamed Israeli government sources as saying Russian President Vladimir Putin was considering the proposal but “it’s premature to assess its chances.”
Zelensky said his government assessed that some 1,300 Ukrainian troops had been killed in the fighting so far. He insisted that Russian losses were far higher.
He also said Russia “will conquer Kyiv only if they kill all of us. They’ll need to live in a world without us. They won’t find friends among Ukrainians.”
Speaking to Channel 12 news, Israel’s Ambassador to Ukraine Michael Brodsky, who is temporarily back in Israel, said of Zelensky’s remarks: “The idea to hold a summit in Jerusalem has also been raised before. If it can contribute, I think we of course must agree and take the idea forward.
Brodsky added: “The question is not really where but what. If we get to the ‘what,’ then of course there can be a meeting in Jerusalem. There can be a meeting anywhere, but Jerusalem has symbolic significance, and I think President Zelensky is referring precisely to that significance.”
Asked how the city was significant in this context, Brodsky said: “As a city of all the faiths. A city where individuals and people of different faiths live in coexistence. A city that is equally important for Ukrainians and Russians.”
Earlier in the day, a top adviser to Zelensky denied a report that Israel had pushed the Ukrainian leader to accept an offer from Putin that would see Kyiv make significant concessions to end Russia’s invasion.
Mikhail Podolyak tweeted that Bennett did not urge Ukraine to agree to the Russian demands, as was reported Friday by two Hebrew-language outlets.
Bennett, Podolyak wrote, “just as other conditional intermediary countries, does NOT offer Ukraine to agree to any demands of the Russian Federation.
“This is impossible for military & political reasons,” he added.
Podolyak said that Israel has urged Russia “to assess the events more adequately.”
Israel has been engaged in diplomatic efforts to try to end the war in Ukraine, with Bennett traveling to Moscow last Saturday for an hours-long meeting with Putin. He was the first foreign leader to sit down with the Russian president since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
PM of ???????? @naftalibennett, just as other conditional intermediary countries, does NOT offer Ukraine to agree to any demands of the Russian Federation. This is impossible for military & political reasons. On the contrary, Israel urges Russia to assess the events more adequately.
— Михайло Подоляк (@Podolyak_M) March 12, 2022
The Haaretz and Walla news sites did not specify on Friday the details of Putin’s offer as reportedly conveyed by Bennett, but previous reports from Walla said that the Russian leader was demanding an independent Donbas region, 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 rule out joining NATO.
“Bennett has proposed that we surrender,” an unnamed senior Ukrainian official told the Israeli news sites Friday. “We have no intention of doing so. We know that Putin’s proposal is just the beginning.”
The prime minister’s office denied the reports. A source in the Prime Minister’s Office said Friday, “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.”
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. He noted that Bennett was not the only mediator, and claimed Israel was “afraid” of offending Moscow.
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.
According to a Channel 12 report on Friday, Israel has begun considering Ukrainian requests for some defensive equipment, such as helmets and flak jackets.