TEL AVIV – With his surprise visit to Moscow on Saturday, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is assuming the unlikely role of mediator between Russia and Ukraine.
Bennett, who has helmed the country for less than a year and is largely untested on the world stage, positioned Israel in an uncomfortable middle ground between Russia and Ukraine in the lead up to the war, creating a launching pad from which to emerge as a player in diplomatic efforts.
But wading into international mediation in the midst of war could be a minefield for Israel. It relies on its ties with the Kremlin for security coordination in Syria, and with Moscow sitting at the negotiating table with Iran over its nuclear program, Israel cannot afford to anger President Vladimir Putin. What’s more, it’s unclear whether the efforts, said to have been coordinated with the U.S., will bear fruit.
Success in getting the sides to compromise would elevate Bennett to an international statesman and boost Israel’s standing after decades of global criticism over its lengthy, open-ended military rule over the Palestinians.
Here is a look at the unexpected new player in the Ukraine crisis:
Bennett came to power last year as part of a pact by eight ideologically disparate parties bent on ousting former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
A religious Jew who made millions in the country's hi-tech sector, Bennett has served in various Cabinet positions in the past but lacks the charisma and the international experience of his predecessor. Mediating between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Putin, a former KGB agent, will test him like never before.
Opponents at home see Bennett's rule as illegitimate because they disapprove of the way he was brought to power and public opinion has in recent months not been in his favor. Additional criticism mounted in the lead-up to Russia's war with Ukraine over Bennett's reticence to censure Russia — breaking with Israel's allies in the West who were stepping up sanctions.
While Bennett repeatedly expressed his support for the Ukrainian people, he stopped short of condemning Russia's invasion.
As Western sanctions mounted, Bennett was maintaining contact with both Putin and Zelenskyy, who reportedly asked Bennett to begin mediating between the sides. With his visit to Moscow, he became the only Western leader to meet the Russian president since the war erupted.
His involvement in such a high-profile, high stakes conflict could breathe life into his political fortunes.
“Bennett has reinvented himself,” said Esther Lopatin, a European affairs expert at Tel Aviv University. “Here’s someone who was suffering in polls, who was facing public criticism. Turns out he can pull rabbits out of his hat.”
A DIPLOMATIC MINEFIELD
Israel is one of the few countries that has good working relations with both Russia and Ukraine. It has delivered 100 tons of humanitarian aid to the country and has announced it will be setting up a field hospital there. Ukraine is also home to some 200,000 Jews, hundreds of whom have already fled to Israel, with many more expected.
But Israel's ties with Russia are of strategic importance. Israel relies on Russia for security coordination in Syria, where Russia has a military presence and where Israeli jets have frequently struck targets said to be weapons caches destined for Israel's enemies.
Russia is also among the powers negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program in Vienna, where a deal is imminent. Israel opposes the deal, saying it doesn't adequately restrain Iran's nuclear activities and has discussed that opposition with Russia frequently in the past.
If Israel's outreach morphs into outright mediation, Israel will have to maintain that neutral position, breaking from the West, even if Russia's onslaught intensifies. Any wrong move and relations with Putin could sour. If talks fail, Bennett could appear to have been outsmarted by Putin's cunning and could be blamed for the conflict having worsened.
And as one of the only Western-allied countries that has not engaged in openly hostile rhetoric toward Moscow, Israel will be the West's main diplomatic link to the Kremlin, a high-pressure, delicate position.
CHANCES FOR SUCCESS?
Hours after returning from his trip, Bennett told his Cabinet that it was Israel's moral duty to step in, “even if the chance is not great.” With that, a country that has traditionally been a beneficiary of international mediation with the Palestinians and Arab nations was inching toward becoming the mediator.
“There's a feeling that there is an opening, that no one is talking to Putin. Israel is a player who can talk to both sides,” said Vera Michlin-Shapir, a former official at Israel’s National Security Council and the author of “Fluid Russia,” a book about the country’s national identity. “But what happens going forward?”
Michlin-Shapir warned that Israel doesn't necessarily have the diplomatic tools to properly mediate such a complex crisis, no matter the goodwill. Efforts by France and Turkey — bigger players internationally — failed to avert the conflict.
“On the one hand, (Bennett) has upgraded his international standing overnight and has won a lot of political points within Israel. On the other, he is taking a huge risk, not only for himself as a politician but for the state of Israel and its standing in the world,” commentator Barak Ravid wrote on the Israeli Walla News site.
“The prime minister has waded into the Ukrainian mud without knowing entirely just how deep it is.”