Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at a press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Jerusalem on March 2, 2022. GIL COHEN-MAGEN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images.
“When I was growing up in Ukraine, in Donetsk, there were many nations and nationalities. There were those with identity papers that read ‘Russian,’ ‘Ukrainian,’ ‘Georgian,’ or ‘Kozak.’ This was not so important since there was not much difference among them. The single designation that stood out was ‘Jew.’ If that was written as your identity, it was as if you had a disease. . . . This week, I was reminded of those days when I saw thousands of people standing at the borders of the Ukraine trying to escape. . . . They are standing there day and night and there is only one word that can help them get out: ‘Jew.’ If you are a Jew, there are Jews outside who care about and are waiting for you.”
These words were uttered recently by the former prisoner of Zion Natan Sharansky, commenting on the horrors of the escalating humanitarian crisis in Ukraine. I had them in mind when the office of Israel’s prime minister, Naftali Bennett, announced his trip to Russia this past Saturday to see Vladimir Putin in an attempt to mediate between Moscow and Kiev.
Bennett is the first foreign leader to meet with the Russian president face-to-face since war broke out in Ukraine last month. For much of the past week, he’s been running an intensive diplomatic mission involving Washington, Moscow, Kiev, Berlin, and Paris. That he is doing so underscores the dramatic transformation the Jewish people have undergone in the course of the last century: from suffering expulsions, pogroms, and annihilation to constituting a strong and independent nation-state, accepted by other nations, called upon to rescue Jews wherever they may be, and working to halt a terrible and gratuitous war in the heart of Europe—a war that threatens a global confrontation between nuclear powers. The mere attempt to play such a role gives the lie to the popular image of Israel as a pariah state, shunned by all for its supposed crimes.
Bennett has rightly identified the diplomatic space Israel may claim for itself as a state with good relations with, and open channels to, all the parties involved in this crisis, from Russia to Ukraine to the United States. However slim its chances of success, this initiative reflects the duty of the state of Israel—especially in light of the Jewish people’s tragic past—not to stand aside doing nothing but to make every effort to prevent war and the mass slaughter of innocents. Bennett’s decision to step in also raises some important questions about the Jewish state’s role in the conflict: can it present itself as a neutral party? Should it be neutral? What can it hope to gain? How will mediation efforts affect relations with the United States, the precarious situation in Syria, and Israel’s standing in the world? And lastly, what are its chances of bringing peace?
While Jerusalem must maintain at least a semblance of neutrality in order to play the role of impartial mediator, in moral terms there should be no doubt as to where it stands.
It is a state that remembers—and reminds the world of—history’s horrors. Israel also takes pride in its vibrant democracy, its freedom of expression, and its respect rule of law. Thus its natural place is with the West and the United States.
Consequently, Israel stands at the side of those allies and should be ready to run risks, including the possibility that Russia will try to limit the IDF’s freedom of action in the skies above Syria, from which it has conducted a campaign for much of the past decade to prevent Iran from establishing a military presence on the ground. Preventing the Islamic Republic from building a war machine in Syria, as it has in Lebanon, is an Israeli interest so vital it is hard to overstate. Yet even this strategic necessity must be balanced against the Jewish state’s moral duty to help Ukraine and its besieged civilians. And even in the cold terms of realpolitik, Jerusalem’s interest in preserving its special relationship with the U.S. outweighs its narrower priorities in Syria, or anywhere else.
The U.S. provides Israel with political backing without which it would be isolated on the international scene, and it provides Israel with critical military aid that guarantees the IDF’s ability to maintain a qualitative military edge over its adversaries. Thanks in part to American support, Israel has been able to make itself a force for regional stability and to convince other countries in the Middle East that it is here to stay—in turn paving the way for peace and normalization between Jerusalem and Arab governments. Washington, for its part, has reaped ample returns on its investment, having in Israel an ally both absolutely dependable and able to serve as a strategic asset.
In opposition to this argument that the alliance with Washington takes precedence, some have expressed fear that, if sufficiently provoked by Israeli support for Kiev, Russia could take direct military action against Israel in Syria. Such worries are unfounded: the Kremlin, already somewhat overextended in Ukraine, will not seek to shift its forces to open up a new front in the Middle East—and certainly not against the IDF, which has already proved its capacity to face advanced Russian weapons systems. Moreover, even if Moscow is allied with Tehran, it does not regard limited Israeli action against Iranian forces in Syria as damaging to its own interests. In fact, it may even see them as beneficial: for all that Russia and Iran are allied in propping up Bashar al-Assad’s rule, they are also in competition over who will exert the dominant political, military, and economic influence in postwar Syria. In this sense, Israeli efforts to curb Iran might strengthen Putin’s hand.
All these considerations were no doubt on Bennett’s mind when his plane landed in Moscow on Saturday. In his capacity as a mediator, Bennett must be careful not to prioritize such Israeli interests as freedom of action in Syria, the nuclear treaty with Iran, or leaving the doors open for Russian and Ukrainian Jews who wish to make aliyah. For instance, if Israel tried to use these negotiations to obtain greater freedom of action in Syria, it could only do so at Ukraine’s expense, and would thus be sacrificing its moral priorities. As for the imminent nuclear deal, Israel’s well-known opposition to it did not contribute to the Russian decision this week to delay its finalization. Putin simply knows how eager the Biden administration is to resurrect the deal and wants to use that eagerness as leverage to break the sanctions regime imposed on Russia.
Of course, it is impossible to know what Putin and Bennett said to one another in Moscow last Saturday, or the content of Bennett’s conversations with Volodymyr Zelensky afterward. And there are other questions too. Who first suggested the meeting? Was it Bennett, encouraged by the U.S. to act as an intermediary to stop a war that threatens expanded confrontation with NATO? Or was it Putin? And if so, was he seeking an intermediary, or was he seeking to prevent Israel from sending arms to the Ukraine, to distance Jerusalem from the West, and to break the international diplomatic siege on Russia?
What is clear is that the Israeli prime minister seeks to work in concert with the Western alliance, as can be seen from his various other contacts. Bennett coordinated his visit with the German chancellor Olaf Scholz—who visited Israel two days before Bennett went to Moscow—and updated Scholz on his way back to Israel. Such affirmations are crucial, as they demonstrate where Israel’s deepest commitments lie. Since then, Bennett has already spoken again with Putin, as well as with Zelensky.
As for whether Bennett’s visit was successful: this is a question that can only be examined in light of its results, which won’t be evident for some time. The obstacles are significant, and it is important not to have unrealistic expectations. The two sides do not seem ripe for compromise at this stage, and much depends on how the fighting plays out on the ground. Putin still hopes to vanquish Kiev and to replace its present government. Zelensky, meanwhile, has displayed his fighting spirit, and that of his people, and is still sure of his ability to counter Russian aggression, or at least to continue to bleed the Russian army.
Furthermore, Israel’s ability to mediate is hampered by its lack of significant leverage. Unlike the U.S., which when brokering the Abraham Accords could offer the parties political and material inducements, the Jewish state has little concrete to offer either Kiev or Moscow. Involving itself in a conflict between Russia and Europe is to a great extent new territory for Israel. One hopes that Bennett learned the lessons of Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Moscow last month, which ended in failure and damaged the French president’s image abroad.
Indeed, Israel is already walking a tightrope when it comes to the present war; just as it has for years walked a tightrope with Russia in Syria. It must proceed with the utmost caution and make sure that its public statements are precise and measured. It must condemn unprovoked Russian aggression and deliberate harm to civilians, call for ending the confrontation, refrain from arming either of the warring parties, help other European states maintain their security, provide humanitarian aid to the Ukrainian people, rescue Israelis and Jews, absorb refugees and immigrants regardless of their religion, and avoid violating sanctions imposed by the West. So far Israel seems to be maintaining the right balance, but challenges are likely to grow as the fighting escalates.
Amid the tangle of dangers, opportunities, tensions, and limitations for Israel, Prime Minister Bennett would do well to act more as a facilitator, which is a somewhat more modest role than that of a mediator. That is, he should not try to guide the two sides to a compromise, but instead offer his services as a leader who enjoys open channels with all parties involved in the conflict and offer to host talks aimed at restoring peace in Europe in Jerusalem—a holy city for all the continent’s religions. In a sense, he must play the traditional Jewish role of middleman and intermediary, like the Jewish diplomats of medieval Spain. And even if the chances of Bennett’s peace initiative’s success are slim, the severity of the situation places a moral obligation on him to try.
Few countries are as well suited as Israel to facilitate discussions between Ukraine and Russia, but Israel is not the only one capable of doing so. Turkey, for instance, is also trying its hand, and its foreign minister is meeting today with his Russian and Ukrainian counterparts. There may, however, be only one head of state who can bring to bear the sort of leverage necessary to negotiate a settlement—who can act as a true mediator—and that is Xi Jinping. Putin would be very hesitant to wage war without the green light he apparently received from the Chinese president during their recent meeting at the winter Olympic games, ten days before the invasion. Beijing has three strategic aims: adhering to its stated principles of respect for sovereignty, preserving stability, non-involvement in other states’ affairs, and solving conflicts with diplomacy; continuing the growth of Chinese economy; and revising the global order so as to weaken the U.S. The third goal was behind China’s decision to back Putin, but this decision was likely based on the assumption that the war would not last long and would not be at a significant cost to the Chinese economy. Given the intensity of the war, its likely long duration, its already deleterious effects on the world economy, and the danger of nuclear escalation, the Chinese appear to be recalculating. In view of the significant leverage Xi holds against Putin, he could temper a crisis that threatens to wreak havoc upon all the nations of the earth. Unless and until he decides to do so, Bennett may be the best hope.