February 22, 2023

Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv.

  • This week's edition (2,052 words, 8 minutes) is a special takeover ahead of the one-year anniversary of the start of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
  • As the Israeli government faces growing pressure to send military help to Ukraine, I look back at what guided Israel's policy and how the country's early mediation shaped the first year of diplomacy to try to end the conflict.

1 big thing: Inside Israel's failed Ukraine-Russia mediation efforts

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during a meeting in Sochi, on Oct. 22, 2021. Photo: Yevgeny Biyatov/Sputnik/AFP

Former Israeli national security adviser Eyal Hulata, who was deeply involved in mediation efforts between Kyiv and Moscow last year, recently told me he doesn’t see any chance there will be a deal to end the war in Ukraine anytime soon.

What he's saying: If both sides think time is on their side, a deal won't be possible, Hulata said in his first time speaking about Israeli policy toward the war since leaving the Prime Minister's Office in early January. "It was true in the beginning of the war, and it is still true today."

The big picture: Israel over the course of the year has taken a relatively cautious approach to Russia's invasion, wary of upsetting the Kremlin and harming Israel's security interests in Syria.

  • But as the war grinds on and Iranian aid to Russia becomes clearer, the Israeli government is facing pressure at home and abroad to reconsider its policy of not sending military aid to Ukraine.
  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said in recent weeks that he will consider renewing Israeli mediation if he is asked to do so.
  • But Hulata thinks it won’t be possible after everything he's learned from Israel's past failed mediation efforts. "Israel doesn’t have the ability to go back into this. It was the case since the mediation died last April, and it is still true today."

Flashback: Hulata was one of the closest advisers to former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who on the second day of the Russian invasion was asked by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to mediate between him and Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

  • Bennett, who had no experience in international diplomacy, decided to try.
  • The former prime minister’s dramatic March 5, 2022, meeting with Putin in Moscow was the key part of the mediation initiative.

Behind the scenes: Hulata said the idea of traveling to Moscow to meet with Putin was a result of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz's trip to Jerusalem on March 2.

  • "We needed to make sure we are operating under a clear mandate from the U.S. and the E3 — France, Germany and the U.K. Bennett was serious about it. We didn’t want this to be a PR stunt," he stressed.
  • Bennett said he spoke in advance with the leaders of the U.K., France, Canada and the U.S. According to Bennett, Canada and the U.K. weren't enthusiastic. France was on board, and the U.S. was somewhere in the middle.
  • The Biden administration was "not against it, but they were skeptical about the chances of success. And in hindsight, they were right," Bennett said.
  • White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told Bennett at the time that he didn't think Putin was ready to stop and roll back the invasion, but that he should go to Moscow and see what he says, Hulata recalled.
  • “At the time, there weren’t too many people who could speak to Putin," Hulata said.

Part II: "Mediation died when Bucha happened"

Scenes from Bucha, Ukraine, after Russian troops retreated. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Getty Images

Hulata and Bennett both agreed that after the meeting with Putin, there was a feeling that the gaps were not as wide as people thought and that a deal was possible.

  • "In the next month, the mediation efforts were almost the only thing we did," Hulata told me. He said Israel was deeply involved in the negotiations that were taking place in March in Belarus between Russian and Ukrainian diplomats.
  • The Ukrainian side sent the draft proposals to Jerusalem and we gave our input, Hulata said. Some 18 proposals were exchanged during these weeks, according to Hulata and two other sources directly involved.
  • But by late March, it became clear "the penny [had] dropped" and the mediation efforts were not going anywhere, Hulata said.
  • “They finally died when Bucha happened," he added, referring to the atrocities committed against civilians that were revealed after Russian forces withdrew from the city at the end of March.

What they're saying: "We saw that each party thought it was winning. Zelensky was not open to any concession, Putin thought he was winning, and the Western countries saw the Russians bleeding and saw it as an opportunity to strengthen NATO," Hulata told me. "What we realized at the time is that the real issues between Russia and Ukraine are unbridgeable."

  • Nevertheless, he doesn’t regret the mediation effort.
  • “From day one, we felt that we can’t stand idly by and let this war continue without trying to stop it. The choice was between being careful and doing nothing and trying, failing and taking the risk that we will be criticized," he said. "It’s true, we failed, but I was proud we tried."

3. How it happened: Israel's early intel about the invasion

The building where the Israeli Embassy is located in Kyiv, Ukraine, in October 2019. Photo: Sergii Kharchenko/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Ten days before the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Michael Brodsky, the Israeli ambassador to Kyiv, sent a secret cable to Jerusalem with explosive details about the Russian invasion plans, three Israeli Foreign Ministry officials who read the cable told me.

Why it matters: The cable, which is being disclosed for the first time, was the most detailed and important intelligence Israel had gathered by then.

The big picture: In the weeks leading to the war, the Israeli intelligence community struggled to give decision-makers a clear assessment of the situation in Ukraine so they could decide whether to evacuate the Israeli Embassy.

  • Israel's intelligence agencies were largely focused on the Middle East, and their assessments of the Russia-Ukraine crisis were based on information from foreign intelligence services.

Behind the scenes: On Feb. 14, 2022, Brodsky met with a senior Ukrainian defense official.

  • At the political level, Ukrainian officials were downplaying the threat of an imminent invasion, but the military was preparing for war. The defense official told Brodsky that Ukrainian intelligence indicated an invasion would take place within days, the three Israeli officials said.
  • According to the cable, the Ukrainian official said the war would start after Feb. 20 and not as soon as Feb. 16, as the U.S. said at the time.

Details: The Russians, the Ukrainian official claimed, would try to conduct a false flag operation in eastern Ukraine to make it look as if Ukraine attacked them first. U.S. and other officials made similar claims, but such an operation didn't occur.

  • The Ukrainian official said the Russians would invade from the Russian border but also from Belarus and would conduct a wide-ranging bombing campaign against Ukrainian cities, including Kyiv.

Brodsky sent the cable urgently to Jerusalem, and it set off alarm bells in the government, Israeli officials say.

  • Then-Foreign Minister Yair Lapid called then-Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who was on a trip to Bahrain, to discuss the evacuation of the Israeli Embassy.
  • The dramatic cable didn’t change the Israeli Foreign Ministry intelligence department's assessment that any Russian attack will be limited to eastern Ukraine.
  • What finally changed that assessment was information given to the director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Alon Ushpiz, by a senior British official during the Munich security conference on Feb. 19, 2022.
  • “Then I was convinced that there is going to be a war, 1 million percent," Ushpiz recently told me.
  • Two days later, the Israeli Embassy in Kyiv was evacuated.

4. Israeli lawmakers urge Bibi to send Ukraine weapons

Demonstrators gather in Tel Aviv on March 20 to attend a televised video address by Zelensky. Photo: Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images

A bipartisan delegation of Israeli lawmakers met with Zelensky in Kyiv this week and called on the Israeli government to change its policy and provide Ukraine with military assistance.

Why it matters: It was the first time that Israeli lawmakers from both sides of the aisle issued a statement calling on the government to approve the sale of defensive military systems to Ukraine.

  • Netanyahu, who took office late last year, recently ordered a review of Israel's policies toward the war. The review is ongoing.

Driving the news: Yuli Edelstein, a lawmaker from Netanyahu's Likud party who serves as chair of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and Ze'ev Elkin from the Blue and White opposition party arrived in Kyiv on Monday.

  • It was the first official visit of a Knesset delegation to Ukraine since the Russian invasion began. Several days earlier, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen visited Kyiv and was the first Israeli minister to visit the Ukrainian capital since the start of the war.
  • Edelstein and Elkin met with Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov and with the head of the Ukrainian military intelligence service. They also met with Zelensky several hours after President Biden’s visit to Kyiv.

Behind the scenes: Elkin said Zelensky told the Israeli lawmakers that he expects a change in Israeli policy, but stressed he wants tangible things, including military assistance.

  • Elkin added that Zelensky said he would be happy to work more closely with Israel on countering Iran. "Iran is a threat for both Israel and Ukraine," Elkin said.
  • "The Iranian involvement makes it even more important because the Ukrainians don’t understand how Israel can do nothing."

What they're saying: In a statement at the end of their visit, Edelstein and Elkin stressed that Israel, as a country that knows the meaning of defending its independence and has suffered missile attacks on its civilian population, can’t sit idly by when this is happening in Ukraine.

  • “Israel provided humanitarian assistance to Ukraine but we think it is not enough," the two lawmakers said.
  • "We must stop being afraid and take a clear stand like any Western country," the statement added. "We must help Ukraine in every field that Israeli technology, including military technology, can help in defending its civilian population and its independence."
  • Netanyahu has not responded to the lawmakers calls.

5. Israeli officials say first intel on Iran drones came from Mossad

A police officer in Kyiv holds what Ukrainian officials say is a fragment of an Iranian-made "kamikaze" drone fired on the city by Russia in October 2022. Photo: Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images

Israel gave the U.S. the initial intelligence about Iran's intention to deliver attack drones to Russia last June, three Israeli officials told me.

Why it matters: Iranian Shahed-136 drones have helped boost Russia's capabilities in Ukraine, and their delivery led to a shift in U.S. and European policy toward Iran.

  • Since September, Ukrainian officials say Russia has conducted hundreds of attacks against targets in Ukraine using Iranian weapons.

Driving the news: The Israeli officials said the Mossad brought the initial intelligence, which was clear and unequivocal.

  • “We were not surprised by the military cooperation between Iran and Russia. It was clear to us that it is going to happen at some point," said Eyal Hulata, who was the Israeli national security adviser at the time.
  • When the intelligence was first presented to decision-makers in Israel, the decision was made to immediately share it with the Biden administration, Israeli officials said.
  • Hulata went to Washington in early June for talks with his White House counterpart Jake Sullivan on preparing President Biden’s visit to Israel. The issue of the Iranian drone deliveries to Russia was front and center in the discussions, Hulata said.
  • Two Biden administration officials with direct knowledge of the issue didn’t dispute this account but said they don’t remember where the initial intelligence came from.

Flashback: On July 11, 2022, a day before President Biden left for a trip to the Middle East, Sullivan said during a White House briefing that Iran was preparing to send “several hundred” drones to Russia soon.

  • Iran initially denied it was planning to sell drones to Russia, but in September, evidence surfaced that Russia was using Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones in Ukraine.

Behind the scenes: When Iran admitted it sold its drones to Russia but said the deliveries were made before the war started, Israel shared intelligence with dozens of countries that the deliveries actually took place in August — well after Russia's invasion began, two senior Israeli officials said.

  • Alon Ushpiz, then-director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, met with a Russian diplomat last fall and expressed outrage over Russia's use of Iranian drones, an Israeli official said.
  • "We told them that they don’t understand how serious this is for us and that Israelis are going to get killed because of what the Iranians learn in Ukraine and the experience they get from this war," a senior Israeli official told me.
  • Hulata said that in the first conversations with the Russians about the Iranian drones they denied the weapon deliveries. “But later on they didn’t," he said.

What’s next: The Israeli officials said Israel is closely following Iranian-Russian military cooperation, especially the possibility of Tehran sending ballistic missiles to Moscow.

  • A senior Israeli official said that for now, it appears the Iranians have put the idea of sending ballistic missiles to Russia on the "back burner," but "we can't say the missile deliveries won't happen at some point."
  • The Iranians deny they've provided Russia with weapons since the war started.