Jan 19, 2022 - World

Scoop: Israeli PM proposed a Russia-Ukraine summit in Jerusalem

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett of Israel (left) with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia. Photo: Yevgeny Biyatov/Sputnik via Getty

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett proposed a Russia-Ukraine summit in Jerusalem to Russian President Vladimir Putin in their meeting last October, Ukrainian and Israeli officials tell me.

Why it matters: Israel is one of the few countries that has good relations with both Kyiv and Moscow and is able to pass messages between them. The Ukrainian side first broached the idea of a summit in Israel with former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last spring when Russia was massing troops on the border, but it never gained much traction.

Flashback: When a senior Ukrainian delegation visited Israel in April last year, the government decided to try to use its close relationship with Israel to promote dialogue with Russia, Ukraine's ambassador to Israel, Yevgen Korniychuk, told me in an interview.

  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s closest adviser, Andriy Yermak, asked Netanyahu if he would be prepared to organize a summit between Zelensky and Putin. Netanyahu wasn't very enthusiastic but said he'd consider it if both sides wanted it, according to an Israeli source.
  • Netanyahu's advisers raised the idea with the Kremlin in April and again in May but didn't get a positive response. According to Korniychuk, the Russians said they wouldn't discuss Crimea or the Donbas, and that was a non-starter for Ukraine.

Bennett spoke to both Putin and Zelensky within days of replacing Netanyahu last June. Zelensky also invited Bennett to a forum calling attention to Russia’s annexation of Crimea (he didn't attend).

  • Then, in October, Israeli President Isaac Herzog visited Kyiv and met with Zelensky, who told him about Netanyahu's mediation efforts and asked if the new Israeli government would resume them, according to Ukrainian and Israeli officials.
  • Herzog briefed Bennett, who was scheduled to meet Putin two weeks later in Sochi. Bennett called Zelensky the day before traveling, and the Ukrainian president again raised the summit idea and said it could perhaps be at a lower level — between national security advisers, for example, rather than the heads of state.
  • When Bennett raised the idea in Sochi, Putin wasn't at all enthusiastic and harshly criticized Zelensky, according to Ukrainian and Israeli officials briefed on the conversation.
  • Bennett and Herzog's offices both declined to comment for this story, as did Netanyahu.

The state of play: The Israeli government has been completely silent in recent weeks as warnings of a Russian invasion of Ukraine have grown louder.

  • In recent calls, U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken raised the issue with Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, and Putin raised it with Bennett. In both cases, the Israeli side mostly listened, Israeli officials say.
  • “We love Ukraine, but we are not going to get involved in a conflict between superpowers like the U.S. and Russia. We have enough on our plate," a senior Israeli official told me.
  • Korniychuk told me Ukraine remains willing to attend a summit in Jerusalem but is also prepared to fight. “Our main lesson is to be Israeli — don’t listen to anybody and be ready to defend ourselves by ourselves. A Russian invasion won’t be a picnic [for the Russians]. 30% of Ukrainians said they are ready to fight if Russia invades. The Russians will have heavy losses," Korniychuk said.

Worth noting: Ukraine's relationship with Israel did yield a tangible benefit last February when the Ukrainians were desperate for vaccines but couldn't get through to Pfizer. Netanyahu organized a call between Zelensky and Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, and Ukraine signed a contract two weeks later.

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