Updated Mar 5, 2022 - World

Israeli leader meets Putin to discuss Ukraine cease-fire

Bennett and Putin
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (on left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting in Sochi on Oct. 22, 2021. Photo: Yevgeny Biyatov/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Saturday secretly traveled to Moscow to discuss a possible cease-fire with Russian President Vladimir Putin, an Israeli official confirmed to Axios.

Why it matters: This is a highly unusual move by Bennett, who has been communicating in recent days with both Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Bennett briefed Zelensky by phone after Saturday's meeting.

  • A senior Israeli official said the meeting lasted for three hours. He added that Bennett asked Putin to set up humanitarian corridors to allow Ukrainian Jews to leave the country. They also discussed the effect of the war on the Jewish community in Russia.
  • The Israeli official said Bennett also discussed the ongoing nuclear talks with Iran in Vienna and stressed his opposition to reviving the 2015 deal.

The state of play: The Israeli prime minister's office notified the White House in advance of Bennett's trip, an Israeli official told Axios.

  • On Friday, Bennett spoke by phone with National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and informed him that he was planning to see Putin the next day, a source with knowledge of the conversation told Axios.
  • The source said Bennett didn't ask permission but only notified Sullivan, who didn’t express any objection. Nevertheless the source said the Biden administration is skeptical about Bennett's engagement with Putin.
  • An Israeli official said Israel also briefed Ukraine, Germany and France, including French President Emmanuel Macron, ahead of the meeting. The Israeli prime minister traveled on Saturday from Moscow to Berlin to update German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

The big picture: Since the Russian invasion, Bennett has spoken twice each with Zelensky and Putin.

  • Bennett's mediation effort started at the request of the Ukrainian president, Israeli officials say.
  • Bennett said publicly several days ago that Israel has a unique status that allows it to speak to both sides with which it has a good relationship.
  • Last October, in a meeting with Putin in Sochi, Russia, Bennett proposed holding a Russia-Ukraine summit in Jerusalem. Putin, at the time, wasn't enthusiastic and harshly criticized Zelensky.

Driving the news: Bennett, who is an observant Jew, traveled to Moscow on Shabbat without announcing it.

  • The Israel military censor issued a gag order on the trip but the Kremlin spokesman exposed it by issuing a statement.

After the Kremlin's statement about the meeting, the Israeli prime minister's office confirmed the trip.

  • The prime minister’s office said Bennett and Putin agreed to meet in person during their phone call last Wednesday.

Editor's note: This is a developing story and has been updated throughout.

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