Naftali Bennett embarked on a Russia adventure — Is it over? - analysis

Bennett hoped to remain on good terms with Putin in order to retain Israel’s operational freedom in Syria.

 Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his diplomatic adviser Shimrit Meir meet with Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, commander of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, during a visit to Bahrain in February. (photo credit: GPO)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his diplomatic adviser Shimrit Meir meet with Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, commander of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, during a visit to Bahrain in February.
(photo credit: GPO)

A few months ago, as Russia readied to invade Ukraine, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett convened a meeting of top Israeli diplomatic and security officials. 

Two main questions were on the table. The first was how Israel should publicly respond, at a time when the entire Western world was blasting Russian President Vladimir Putin. Then the war began, and countries began imposing sanctions on Russia as well as oligarchs who had taken up residence in London and New York. Bennett needed to decide if Israel was going to follow their path.

The second question was whether there should be a more practical response. Countries were upping their supply of weapons – anti-tank missiles and surface-to-air missiles – to Ukraine. Should Israel do the same?

At the meeting, Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid came up with a good cop/bad cop strategy: Israel would come out mildly against Russia but refrain from a more direct approach; and Bennett would abstain from criticizing Putin while Lapid would go all in.

The thinking was simple: by staying out of the fray, Bennett hoped to remain on good terms with Putin in order to retain Israel’s operational freedom in Syria. As seen this week, that hope did not pan out as planned, when the crisis that flared up between Jerusalem and Moscow – including reprimands of ambassadors, Russia’s outrageous claims that Hitler had Jewish origins, and accusations that Israel supports neo-Nazis – had some diplomatic officials wondering whether Israel should have played its cards differently from the beginning.

This was especially relevant considering that still today – 71 days since Russia invaded Ukraine – many parts of the West think that Israel is somehow still on Putin’s side.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the Remembrance Day ceremony at Mount Herzl, , May 4, 2022. (credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the Remembrance Day ceremony at Mount Herzl, , May 4, 2022. (credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)

In the first week after the war began in late February,  when pressure was mounting on Israel to take a stand, some officials in the Prime Minister’s Office came up with an innovative idea: Bennett should throw his hat into the ring as a potential mediator.

One of the key architects behind the plan was Shimrit Meir, the prime minister’s diplomatic adviser. Other officials in the Prime Minister’s Office were skeptical, including National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata, a former top Mossad official. But Bennett fell in love with the notion, and that was how his secret Shabbat trip to Moscow on March 5 was born, 10 days after the war started.

Before heading off to Russia, Bennett had Meir – a former pundit and Arab affairs reporter – update the Americans. They were not overly happy with the idea, but did not put up too much of a protest. The Biden administration’s ties with the PMO and Meir were already tense, and reports of shouting matches between Bennett’s trusted diplomatic adviser and senior State Department officials were becoming a regular occurrence. 

Nevertheless, Secretary of State Antony Blinken ordered US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides not to veto the trip or Bennett’s attempt at mediation. Any effort that could spare civilian lives was welcome.

Lapid was also skeptical, but coordinated with Bennett. He played his role well, constantly condemning Russia and upping the criticism as the weeks went by, moving from parve comments like calling the invasion just a “Russian attack” to denouncing Moscow for committing war crimes.

While he was coordinated with Bennett on overall strategy, the Moscow adventure was not Lapid’s but belonged solely to the prime minister. If there was going to be fallout from the mediation effort, it was going to stick to Bennett, not Lapid. 

Another minister who tried to convince Bennett to stay out of the Moscow-Ukraine quagmire was Ze’ev Elkin, Israel’s so-called “Putinist,” and the government official who has spent the most time with the Russian leader as the official translator during the dozens of meetings he had with prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Privately, some Israeli officials called the Bennett-Meir plan a “high-stakes gamble” that would blow up in Israel’s face. They warned Bennett that if he failed, or got played by Putin, losing operational freedom in Syria might become the least of Israel’s problems.

Some of those issuing these warnings were veteran diplomats who had dozens of years’ experience in affairs of state, and specifically with Russia, unlike Bennett or Meir.

Moreover: when the mediation efforts were just starting, some Americans realized that they could undo the Bennett and Meir plan with a single tweet – all that was needed was a top American official warning that the mediation was futile. In one fell swoop of a tweet, the entire campaign would have come to an abrupt stop, and become a huge embarrassment for Israel. In the end, they held back. 

Practically, Bennett’s failed mediation efforts helped Israel straddle the Russia-Ukraine fence for a few weeks longer. After all, Israel could not be expected to join sanctions against Russia as long as the prime minister was trying his hand at mediation.

But as of this week, it is obvious that all the strategy did was buy time. From the West’s perspective, there is now no longer any excuse for Israel not to join the international sanctions against the Kremlin.

And that is just one of the predicaments in which Bennett finds himself right now: mediation might no longer be an option, relations with Russia are deteriorating, aerial freedom over Syria is at risk, and if something changes in the coordination mechanism with Russia, Israel will no longer have a reason not to join the rest of the international community.

Even the phone call on Thursday between Putin and Bennett does not yet completely clear up the recent storm. While Putin seems to have distanced himself from his foreign minister’s “Hitler” comments, this could be the Russian version of the Israeli good cop/bad cop strategy: Putin plays nice with Israel, while Sergey Lavrov plays it tough.

But Russia is just one of the prime minister’s troubles. Despite some premature eulogies, the good ol’ Iran deal is not yet officially dead. The Europeans are not giving up that quickly, and some officials within the Biden administration believe that the president needs to do everything possible to salvage it even if that means upsetting Israel.

As long as a new policy is not announced in Washington, the deal is always a viable option.

On this list of potential existential consequences for Israel is also the seeming lack of coordination within the top levels of the government. Meir was recently in the US and met with Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser. For some reason, officials said, she did not update Hulata, officially Sullivan’s counterpart.

Veteran diplomats as well as other cabinet ministers have warned the prime minister that this situation is enabling foreign countries to create alternate routes to influence Israeli policy. Instead of consolidating the contacts into a clear channel, everything seems to be awry.

It has reminded some insiders of the way Netanyahu used to run diplomatic affairs when he was prime minister, the way he would choose people for diplomatic missions. Staffers called it the Penguin Method.

“It wasn’t done based on who was right for one mission or the other,” said a former Netanyahu official. “Instead, he would gather his staff, ask who wants to go to a specific place, and whoever popped their head up like a penguin would be chosen without considering whether they were the right person for that specific assignment.”

Finally, there are Bennett’s political troubles, far from over. The Knesset session that begins on Monday is expected to be a most difficult one. Coalition members are already preparing for the daily battles and the possibility that their failure to own a majority will prevent them from passing any significant legislation in the next 10 weeks. And of course, there is always the possibility that more members will jump ship and cross over to the opposition, thus breaking the 60-60 tie and bringing down the government.

That is the coalition. In Yamina the situation is no less difficult – and is playing out in Bennett’s office as well. A few weeks ago, after MK Idit Silman quit the coalition taking with her Bennett’s majority, some within the party pointed fingers at Meir, claiming that she had pushed Bennett leftward. In an interview this week with Channel 12, Silman mentioned the prime minister’s use of the term “West Bank” – attributed to Meir – at a media event in Jerusalem that Bennett held with Blinken in March as a sign that Bennett was no longer right wing.

The bigger problem is the rumbling within the rest of the party. MK Nir Orbach is said to be seriously considering jumping ship, and some MKs have raised questions about the vow of silence that New Hope leader Gideon Saar seems to have taken upon himself of late, wondering if something might be brewing between him and Netanyahu. And still others are keeping a careful eye on Defense Minister Benny Gantz, also seen as a prime suspect to bring down the government.

This situation will demand Bennett’s full attention and resources. Additional diplomatic adventures like what he and Meir tried with Russia will have to move to the back burner.

***

Every official had his speech. Bennett on Tuesday gave one that the PMO called the “Brothers Speech,” in which he said that Israelis owe the fallen a debt not to let political debates tear us apart. On Tuesday night, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kohavi gave the “Hineni Speech,” which means: “Here I am,” the word said by Abraham answering God’s calling out, “Abraham!” in the story of the sacrifice of his son Isaac. Israel’s fallen, Kovahi explained, had declared Hineni by putting their lives on the line for the country.

And then there was President Isaac Herzog’s speech at the Western Wall on Tuesday night, which we can call the “Ehud Speech.” An excerpt: 

“Ehud Shahar, the son of Aliza and Aharon, was born to a family that helped found Merhavia, in the Jezreel Valley. In 1954, when Ehud enlisted in the IDF, he wrote to his parents: “We are becoming better soldiers in the army of our homeland. We will do our best to defend it.”

In February 1955, in Operation Black Arrow launched to eliminate terror nests in Gaza, Ehud was shot and killed with seven of his comrades. His mother, Aliza, was forced to break the heart-wrenching news to her daughter Michal: “My daughter, we no longer have a brother.” A friend from Merhavia, Ilan Borenovski, carried him on his back from the battlefield back to Israel, to his home, to eternal rest. 

Three pairs of parents chose to name their children after Ehud Shahar, of blessed memory: Ehud Shtock, Ehud Falk, and Ehud Borenovski. 

The first infant was Ehud Shtock, son of Ruth and Asa, born in the middle of the 30-day mourning period after Ehud Shahar fell in battle.

Soon after him, before the one-year mourning period in Merhavia was over, a son was born to Ehud Shahar’s cousin Adina and her husband, Simha. His name was Ehud Falk. Maj. Ehud Falk, an air force pilot, was killed together with Lt. Col. Ram Koller during an aerial exercise over the Judean Desert in the summer of 1988. “He was always more than everyone,” his friends wrote about him after he fell. “The most handsome, the most intelligent, the greatest hero of them all.” 

He was buried on the grounds of Merhavia, next to Ehud Shahar, his namesake.

When Ilan Borenovski and his wife, Deganit, had a son, they too decided to name him after Ehud, Ilan’s friend, who had fallen beyond enemy lines, and whom he had carried home.

Udi Borenovski volunteered to join the naval commandos, and on one cold and stormy night in December 1986 was killed in a parachuting exercise. When his father, Ilan – having buried his son Ehud and his friend Ehud – meets young soldiers, he tells them: “We have no other country. Do your best to protect it.”

And what of Ehud Shtock? The first born was the last to fall. Udi Shtock, later Sadan, was the chief of security at the Israeli Embassy in Turkey in March 1992 when a Palestinian terror group planted a bomb in his car. He fell two weeks before his 37th birthday. I spoke this week with his widow, Rachel, who is here with us tonight. She too, like Ilan Borenovski, made the same, emotional request: “Protect our country.” 

Three men called Ehud, all named after the same Ehud: Ehud Falk, Ehud Borenovski, and Ehud Shtock-Sadan. Four men called Ehud. Four exemplary characters. Four warriors who with their names, manners, and bodies embodied the intensely Israeli mutual responsibility and solidarity that is passed down the generations.

Four of our sons, who together with following generations... are passing on the torch of sacrifice and mission. People who were willing to risk their lives for our sake, for the sake of our homeland.”