Zelensky thanks Bennett for mediation efforts

Zelensky had asked Israel several times to serve as an intermediary in the year before Russia invaded Ukraine, but Putin rejected the offer each time.

 Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky talks during an interview with Reuters in Kyiv, Ukraine, March 1, 2022.  (photo credit: UMIT BEKTAS/REUTERS)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky talks during an interview with Reuters in Kyiv, Ukraine, March 1, 2022.
(photo credit: UMIT BEKTAS/REUTERS)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Tuesday thanked Prime Minister Naftali Bennett for his diplomatic efforts to bring an end to Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Bennett and Zelensky spoke for the fourth time since the former met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Saturday.

Bennett spoke with Putin again after the call with Zelensky on Tuesday.

“Talked to Naftali Bennett,” Zelensky tweeted. “Thanked [him] for Israel’s mediation efforts. Discussed ways to end the war and violence.”

Bennett also spoke to both leaders about evacuating Israelis and Jews from the war zone.

 Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at a memorial ceremony for former prime minister Menahem Begin, in Jerusalem, March 7, 2022. (credit: NOAM REVKIN FENTON/FLASH90) Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at a memorial ceremony for former prime minister Menahem Begin, in Jerusalem, March 7, 2022. (credit: NOAM REVKIN FENTON/FLASH90)

Israeli sources say Bennett has been passing messages between the sides and not bringing up a proposal of his own.

Bennett has served more as an intermediary between Putin and the West than between Putin and Zelensky, according to the sources, with Western leaders looking to Bennett as someone who can report Putin’s position and state of mind to them because of good relations between Israel and Russia.

More serious negotiations are taking place directly between Russia and Ukraine, and Putin has made an offer that he considers to be final, according to reports in Hebrew media: Zelensky would have to give up on the Donbass region and agree to his country having a smaller army, as well as declare neutrality between Russia and the West and abandon his attempt to join NATO.

Jerusalem views the gaps between the sides as shrinking, with Zelensky telling ABC News he is “cooling down” on NATO and is willing to negotiate on the status of the Donbass and Crimea. Russia, meanwhile, has backed down from calling for a full demilitarization of Ukraine, instead talking about demilitarization of the areas in dispute.

However, Israeli sources said Bennett and other Western leaders were not pressuring Zelensky to accept Putin's offer, as the decision must be made in Ukraine.

UK Ambassador to Israel Neil Wigan said his country “appreciate[s] the prime minister’s efforts to explore what scope there is for ending this conflict with Russia. Israel has probably the best relationship with both countries of any democracy.”

“As for the chance Bennett’s efforts will succeed? It depends on Putin and whether he really wants to stop the war and find a diplomatic solution,” he said.

Bennett’s meeting with Putin was “a major achievement” in of itself, Wigan said, adding that it is the beginning of the process.

“It is important to try to stop [Russia’s] attacks via diplomacy, and that is exactly what Bennett tried to do, while keeping the Ukrainians in the picture,” he added.

Bennett met with Putin and flew to Berlin to meet with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Saturday. He also spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron as part of his attempt to mediate between Russia and Ukraine.

Zelensky had asked Israel several times to serve as an intermediary in the year before Russia invaded Ukraine, but Putin rejected the offer each time.

“Even if the chances are not great,” Bennett said Sunday, it is Israel’s “moral duty to make every attempt” to use his good contacts with both sides to bring an end to the war.

“The situation on the ground is not good,” he added. “The human suffering is great and can become even greater if things continue on the current path. There are Israelis who need to come home and Jewish communities in distress that need help.”

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid reiterated Israel’s denunciation of Russia on Monday.

“Israel is helping in the mediation effort together with Germany and France, but we continue to condemn the Russian invasion,” he said.

Bennett has been reluctant to speak out against Russia due to his position as mediator, as well as Israel’s coordination with Russia over its border with Syria and the hundreds of thousands of Jews in Russia and Ukraine.

Jerusalem has also told Kyiv its negative talk about Israel while asking Bennett to mediate is unacceptable, Channel 12 reported.

Some of the messages about Israel from Kyiv have changed for the positive. For example, Zelensky on Thursday said he was disappointed in Bennett, but he tweeted his thanks to the prime minister for the first time on Tuesday.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba apologized on Tuesday after falsely accusing El Al of continuing to accept payments from a Russian credit-card company.

“Indeed, the ‘Mir’ payment button remained on the website, but the use of it was blocked,” he tweeted. “I am grateful to El Al for its important humanitarian operations and convey my apologies.”

Kuleba had accused the Israeli flag carrier of taking payments via the Russian banking system Mir in order to evade the sanctions slapped on Russia’s international financial systems.

“While the world sanctions Russia for its barbaric atrocities in Ukraine, some prefer to make money soaked in Ukrainian blood,” Kuleba tweeted on Monday. “Here is @EL_AL_ISRAEL accepting payments in Russian banking system ‘Mir’ designed to evade sanctions. Immoral and a blow to Ukrainian-Israeli relations.”

El Al, however, said it had blocked the use of Mir cards on February 28.

“It is unfortunate that a simple check was not conducted before the misleading tweet, because the facts are totally different,” El Al said.

In addition, El Al helped evacuate thousands of Israelis and others from Kyiv, was one of the last airlines to stop flying out of Ukraine and helped fly 100 tons of humanitarian aid to Ukraine through a third country, it said.

“El Al flies to Russia at the request of the government of Israel, and we will continue to evacuate Israelis and Jews from Russia as long as it is possible,” El Al said.