Should Israel be the mediator for Russia and Ukraine? - analysis

Israel might benefit from its ambiguity - or might lose and lose big time.

 Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Ministerial Liaison to the Knesset Ze'ev Elkin meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, October 22, 2021 (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/PMO)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Ministerial Liaison to the Knesset Ze'ev Elkin meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, October 22, 2021
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/PMO)

The idea of Israel mediating between warring Russia and Ukraine is getting increasing amounts of attention.

On Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asked Prime Minister Naftali Bennett for Israeli mediation in the crisis.

“Our president believes that Israel is the only democratic state that has good relations with both Russia and Ukraine, and can be used to help,” Ukraine’s ambassador to Israel, Yevgen Korniychuk, told CNN, and that Israel would be a better location for talks than Belarus because Belarus was closely aligned with Russia.

On Saturday, Ronen Manelis, an ex-IDF spokesman and former director-general of the Strategic Affairs Ministry, suggested that former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu lead these mediation efforts.

Prefacing his tweet with an abbreviation for the words “an unpopular opinion,” Manelis tweeted: “I have seen up close the way President Putin listens to the head of the Opposition [Netanyahu]. If Israel has a chance of impacting this event, it is through him. It would also be a badge of honor for the Israeli government.”

Strategic Affairs Ministry director-general Ronen Manelis addresses the Knesset State Control Committee, July 28, 2020 (credit: ADINA VALMAN/KNESSET SPOKESPERSON)Strategic Affairs Ministry director-general Ronen Manelis addresses the Knesset State Control Committee, July 28, 2020 (credit: ADINA VALMAN/KNESSET SPOKESPERSON)

And on Sunday, Bennett, according to a Kremlin readout, spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin and offered Israel’s services as a mediator. The statement did not say how the Russian president responded, though Putin has rejected similar offers in the past made both by Bennett and Netanyahu when the latter was prime minister.

Israel, however, should look long and hard at whether this is really something it wants to get into. True, there is a great deal of luster in the prospect of mediating between warring sides. If successful, it would bestow prestige and status on the state, and perhaps even a Nobel Peace Prize to the chief mediator. But that’s a huge “if.”

As Gerald Steinberg, professor emeritus of political science at Bar-Ilan University said, third-party mediators rarely succeed. “In most cases, it’s more theater, where the parties in the conflict are just trying to use the process to gain an advantage,” he said.

Before trying to act as a mediator in the Russian-Ukrainian war, Israel would do well to look at how another small state – Norway – fared in the first decade of this century trying to mediate the Sri Lanka civil war.

“In Sri Lanka, we saw the Norwegian government try to bring peace – which they like to do all the time – and they failed,” Steinberg said. He said that both the Sri Lanka government and the Tamil Tigers used the negotiations to gain advantages.

“The fighting, the slaughter, intensified when the negotiations failed,” he said. “And the Norwegians were blamed for having strung along both sides.”

Steinberg said that in negotiations there is a concept called “ripeness.”

“You have to be careful,” he said. “There is a need to wait until the point where the two sides are exhausted and are then looking for a third party.” That is when they are “ripe” for talks.

Four days into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, neither side has reached that point of exhaustion.

Even when the sides do reach that point, Steinberg said, a third-party mediator “usually has to bring something to the table,” be it security guarantees or an ability to leverage either side into fulfilling their side of the agreement.

Israel does not fit that bill or have those abilities.

Those who talk about Israel fulfilling a mediator role point to the good relations Israel has with both Moscow and Kyiv. But here, Steinberg argued, people are confusing personal or business mediation with diplomatic negotiations.

“There is a fallacy that you can extend the model of family or workplace mediators to international politics,” he said. “But it just doesn’t work.”

In family and workplace mediation, it makes a great deal of sense to have an individual trusted by both sides; but in political negotiations that is not enough, and the mediator needs to not only have the ability to put something on the table but also to frame guarantees.

Former US president Jimmy Carter played that role at Camp David in the negotiations between Egypt and Israel in 1978. But Israel comes nowhere close to having the heft and power that the United States wielded back then.

Furthermore, Israel for the last month has been carefully calibrating how to respond to the crisis, wanting to keep as low a profile as possible because of conflicting values and interests.

On the one hand are Israel’s interests: not wanting to do anything to endanger the delicate balance that exists with Russia in Syria that enables Israel to act as it wishes over Syrian skies, without coming into conflict with Russian forces in the region. Then there are the values: Israel is part of the world’s family of liberal democratic nations appalled at Russia’s naked aggression.

Jerusalem for weeks has been carefully weighing what to say and how to act in a way that will articulate its values, without compromising its interests. As such, it strove to keep out of the conflict. Taking an active role in mediation between Moscow and Kyiv, however, would put it right in the center of the strife.

It would also potentially put Israel at odds with the parties. If, as a mediator, Israel would side with Ukraine on a particular issue, that could antagonize the Russians who might choose sensitive theaters, such as Syria, in which to get back at the mediator. Likewise, passing on Russian messages to Ukraine that Kyiv finds unacceptable may incur that country’s wrath.

There are other countries with good relations with both Moscow and Kyiv who could serve as mediators, and who have expressed an interest: Azerbaijan, India, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey to name just a few. India and the UAE both explained their abstention from a UN Security Council resolution on Friday condemning Moscow – that Russia vetoed – as a way to retain neutrality in the hopes of perhaps serving as a mediator.

Other countries, such as Switzerland and Norway, often compete with each other for the role of world mediator. Israel, which unlike Norway and Switzerland has abundant challenges on its own borders to deal with, need not join that competition – regardless of how much prestige it may bring if the mediation efforts would succeed.

Because, as stated earlier, that is a huge “if.”