On March 5, the Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett traveled to Russia, where he had a several-hours-long meeting with Vladimir Putin. That the trip took place on Shabbat—Bennett is an Orthodox Jews—stressed its significance. Some criticized Jerusalem for making an apparent overture to the Kremlin just two weeks after it launched its massive military offensive into Ukraine, but it later became clear that Volodymyr Zelensky had himself requested Israeli mediation. Based on a series of interviews, Moav Vardi explains the strategic logic behind this carefully planned diplomatic initiative:
Any negotiation between Russia and Ukraine is, in essence, a negotiation between Russia and the United States. . . . Major Western leaders like France’s President Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who met with Putin at the Kremlin in the days before the war, were not seen by Russia as potential mediators, but as parties adverse in interests.
Before [Bennett embarked] on this mission, it was imperative that key Western leaders bless [the] initiative. And they did. His meeting with Putin was coordinated with the U.S., France, and Germany before he even took off for Moscow.
At the time that Bennett intervened, the Russians and Ukrainians had already been at the negotiating table in Belarus for five days. But there was a hitch. Those negotiations were revealed to be a bit of a charade. The Russian representatives feared Putin and were unwilling to suggest anything that diverged from Moscow’s official line. To do so meant risking being accused by “the state” of weakness and endangering Russian interests.
For the same reasons, Putin’s emissaries did not transmit Ukrainian positions to their boss, fearing his reaction upon hearing them. The only way to have a real exchange of views was through a direct conversation between a Western leader and Putin. Enter Naftali Bennett.