Is Putin walking Bennett straight into a trap? - analysis

There certainly could have been a much greater effort by Ukraine’s Western allies to prevent the Russian invasion, but overall it seems that Putin is convinced he needs to crush Ukraine.

 Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on 3/6/2022. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on 3/6/2022.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?

That’s a question some in Jerusalem asked as Prime Minister Naftali Bennett jumped into efforts to mediate between Russia and Ukraine over the weekend, jetting to Moscow and Berlin.

The immovable object in this scenario is Russian President Vladimir Putin. There certainly could have been a much greater effort by Ukraine’s Western allies to prevent the Russian invasion, but overall it seems that Putin is convinced he needs to crush Ukraine, and sanctions have not deterred him yet.

There is no real indication that Putin wants to make peace with Ukraine, which did not really do anything to provoke him, and any negotiation he would enter at this point would likely be a Russian attempt to dictate terms of surrender to Ukraine.

Some of the top ministers in Bennett’s government have been wondering why he’s getting involved when the chance for success is so slim and Israel can help in other ways. They have voiced their reservations in closed-door meetings.

 Prime Minister Naftali Bennett following his meeting with Vladimir Putin in Moscow, March 5, 2022 (credit: PRIME MINISTER'S OFFICE) Prime Minister Naftali Bennett following his meeting with Vladimir Putin in Moscow, March 5, 2022 (credit: PRIME MINISTER'S OFFICE)

As Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar said on Sunday, “We need to stop beating ourselves up... We are fine. We are helping Ukraine with significant humanitarian aid, more than our share. We are taking a clear political position, including voting in international fora. More refugees from Ukraine entered Israel last week than any other country without a border with Ukraine... There is no reason for national masochism in the discourse.”

Sa’ar’s statement was about the debate over how many Ukrainian refugees who do not fall under the Law of Return should be taken in. However, knowing the discomfort some in the cabinet feel with Bennett’s shuttle-diplomacy efforts, it’s not hard to read between the lines to suspect why he needs this mediation headache.

Bennett, however, is the unstoppable force of the classic paradox.

The world is getting an introduction to Bennett’s personality now, after he had a relatively low international profile. But his behavior in recent days is very familiar to those who have been observing him over his decade in politics: He’s someone with big ideas that he will try to push regardless of the obstacles.

Bennett is incredibly ambitious, which is perhaps a prerequisite for success in politics and certainly from a prime minister. But he also is someone who is very earnest and sees leadership as a lofty mission – not just a personal ambition.

“I always knew I wanted to have an influence; to aim as high as possible,” Bennett said at a conference sponsored by Channel 12 on Monday. “I don’t know any other way... When we started a hi-tech company, it was clear that I wanted to be the CEO.”

Bennett is also a person with big ideas. He is creative. He is almost allergic to groupthink. That has worked out well for him at times; he is prime minister because not only did he aim high, he was willing to lead an utterly improbable coalition. But it has also earned him political enemies.

Because when Bennett latches onto an idea, everything else falls to the wayside. He can be incredibly persistent and, at times, rash when he believes he is going to save the day.

ONE EXAMPLE of this was during the 2014 Gaza War, when he believed the IDF was not doing enough to stop Hamas terrorists from tunneling into Israel. Bennett, who was economy minister at the time, went to army bases independently. He got on every soapbox in the country to talk about the dangers of the tunnels and argued incessantly in cabinet meetings. Arguably, he was right, but he managed to make enemies of the IDF’s high brass at the time, including chief of staff Benny Gantz, who had a very different view and who is now the defense minister.

Another example is when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic. In mid-2020, when much of the world was locking down, Bennett was already calling to open everything up. He even wrote a book called How to Defeat a Pandemic that summer and went to every TV studio possible to explain that then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was doing it wrong.

When Bennett became prime minister, it turned out he did not have all the answers, and his government frequently changed course. In fact, he has been quipping to interlocutors who ask him about how Israel is faring that “there is no manual to defeating a pandemic, even though I wrote one.” His focus on keeping businesses and schools open has kept the Israeli economy afloat, but the high death toll in the Omicron wave has been the severe downside.

Bennett’s tunnel vision and penchant for heroics is now leading him into the role of intermediary between Ukraine and Russia.

It’s clear that Bennett’s heart is in a good place, and he wants to stop “the immense human suffering that could become even greater if things continue on the current path.”

“We will help as long as we are asked,” Bennett said Sunday. “Even if the chance is not great, the moment there is even a small opening, and we have access to all sides and the ability, I see it as our moral duty to make every attempt.”

But it’s also clear that Putin is not looking to alleviate human suffering, considering that his army is bombing cities and even agreed-upon humanitarian corridors in Ukraine.

That means Putin finds talking to Bennett to be useful in other ways, whether it’s being able to say there are still leaders of democracies willing to meet him or to pass messages to the West.

There have already been reports that Putin demanded that Israel not provide weapons to Ukraine during the meeting, and that may have been reason enough for him to agree to meet with Bennett. The best-case scenario is that Putin is keeping the channel with Bennett open in case he needs it for the end of the war in Ukraine.

Bennett is smart, but it’s possible that his earnestness and unwavering resolve could be leading him straight into a trap set by a far more cynical Putin.