Naftali Bennett’s life-saving Shabbat mission to Moscow - analysis

Bennett's decision to meet Russia's Vladimir Putin despite normally observing Shabbat shows the urgency and importance with which he views his mission.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Israel's Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS/HAIM TZACH)
Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Israel's Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

“Saving lives comes before Shabbat” is a well-known phrase among observers of Jewish law. Normally, it means that if you have an accident on a Saturday, you can take an ambulance to the hospital despite the prohibition against riding in a car, or that soldiers can protect their country on the Sabbath.

This Saturday morning, it meant that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett could take a private jet to Moscow to try to convince Russian president Vladimir Putin to stop the war in Ukraine.

There is widespread skepticism about the trip – the White House gave Bennett their blessing, but reportedly thought the chances of success are slim – but the fact that Bennett and Building and Construction Minister Ze’ev Elkin, who served as translator, traveled abroad despite normally observing Shabbat, shows the urgency and importance with which they view their mission: to save lives, Jewish and not.

Bennett is in a unique position that few, if any, Israeli prime ministers have found themselves in the past, having been asked repeatedly to help negotiate an end to a war.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky asked former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu twice, and Netanyahu passed on the message, only to be shot down by Putin. Bennett passed on the same message in October, after Zelensky asked him, with the same result. Putin reportedly called Ukraine’s Jewish president a Nazi at his meeting with Bennett last year.

Zelensky brought up the possibility of mediation again, soon after the war began, and Bennett spoke to Putin last Sunday – and for the first time, Putin didn’t say no, though he didn’t say yes, either.

While other high-level Israeli officials did not think that Israel would, or should, take an active part in the mediation, it appears that Bennett has taken Zelensky’s pleas to heart – and apparently more so than Zelensky, who said he is disappointed in Bennett, thought.

 Israel's Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is seen praying during his visit to Washington, on August 25, 2021. (credit: AVI OHAYON - GPO) Israel's Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is seen praying during his visit to Washington, on August 25, 2021. (credit: AVI OHAYON - GPO)

Elkin may also play a key role in this surprise trip to Moscow and Berlin.

THE MINISTER has been translating Putin for Israeli prime ministers for over a decade, which means he has had many hours of facetime with the Russian leader. With a keenly analytical mind, Elkin was a respected confidante of Netanyahu for many years, and is the current government’s leading Kremlinologist.

Elkin was born in Kharkiv, then in the Soviet Union, now in eastern Ukraine, and has a brother who remains in Ukraine with his two daughters. He was the first Israeli minister to meet with Zelensky, who reportedly offered him a cabinet post – though possibly in jest.

The minister has declined interviews about the war in Ukraine, but reports in several Israeli publications have said that he was frustrated by how the government handled it thus far, and called for a lot more to be done to save the lives of the many Jews – estimates range from 50,000-200,000 – in Ukraine.

This trip to Moscow – followed by a visit to Berlin and, possibly, Paris – is a turning point in which Bennett has taken on the role of shuttle diplomat and peacemaker.

Whether Bennett succeeds remains to be seen, but he clearly sees it as essential to exhaust this option.

Another topic in Bennett’s meetings is the negotiations for Iran and the US to return to the 2015 nuclear deal.

A renewed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action seemed to be days away at the start of the weekend, a scenario that has piqued Jerusalem’s concern. Most of the sanctions and restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program will expire by the end of 2025, plus Iran will immediately get an influx of funds from the lifting of US sanctions, money that Tehran can use to fund its proxy warfare across the Middle East.

A Wall Street Journal report on Saturday said that Russia has made new demands that the US and Europe carve out an exception from their Ukraine-related sanctions so that Moscow can trade with Tehran after a deal is reached.

More trade for Iran is not good, as far as Israel is concerned, but if the demand prevents a deal from being completed, that could be viewed as an opportunity in Jerusalem.

The US State Department has already said that “the new Russia-related sanctions are unrelated to the JCPOA and should not have any impact on its implementation.”

But Bennett’s office already said he expressed Israel’s opposition to a return to the JCPOA, which means he is also using these emergency meetings over Ukraine to try to bring about a better outcome for Israel’s national security.

Although stopping the Islamic Republic’s regime, which is hell-bent on eliminating Israel, from going nuclear is also an urgent life-saving matter, a source with knowledge of the matter said that Bennett’s priority on the trip was, in fact, the war in Ukraine.