Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Eli Cohen have come under fire in recent days for speaking with Russian leaders: Netanyahu for talking to Russian President Vladimir Putin who called to congratulate him on forming the new government, and Cohen for speaking with his counterpart Sergei Lavrov.
No less a friend of Israel than US Sen. Lindsay Graham tweeted this week that “I hope Mr. Cohen understands that when he speaks to Russia’s Lavrov, he’s speaking to a representative of a war criminal regime that commits war crimes on an industrial scale every day.”
I hope Mr. Cohen understands that when he speaks to Russia’s Lavrov, he’s speaking to a representative of a war criminal regime that commits war crimes on an industrial scale every day. https://t.co/4DWp93VPFQ— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) January 2, 2023
Cohen also came under fire for saying during his maiden speech in the Foreign Ministry that when it comes to the Russia-Ukraine war, Israel will continue to provide Ukraine with humanitarian aid, but will “speak less in public.”
Israel altering policy of support for Ukraine
If the high-level phone calls and Cohen’s declaration of intent are an indication that Israel is breaking with the West and altering its policy of full-throated support for Ukraine – albeit without providing weaponry because of Israel’s own national interests in Syria where Russia still plays a dominant role – then that would be a mistake.
Russia is the undeniable aggressor in this war and is unconscionably wreaking death, destruction and mayhem on a neighbor that posed no threat. Israel needs to stand with Ukraine.
But if the high-level conversations and Cohen’s remarks are meant to gauge whether Netanyahu can play some constructive role in trying to end this devastating war and push the sides toward negotiating an end to the fighting, then that effort should be praised.
One striking element of the Russo-Ukraine war, which is now in its 11th month and second calendar year, is that there are zero public efforts to end it.
While difficult to ascertain what is going on behind the scenes in public, we do not know of significant work being done to end a conflict that – according to US intelligence estimates in November – has already killed 40,000 civilians and cost each side 100,000 dead or injured soldiers.
World leaders are not pressing the sides to come to the table; secretaries of state and foreign ministers are not shuttling between Kyiv and Moscow trying to end the killing; and there are not even efforts underway to put a cease-fire into place.
In the meantime, the war churns on, claiming more lives, creating more refugees, and causing unspeakable pain. While it seemed late last year that the battlefield momentum had shifted to the Ukrainians and that if they were just able to hold out a little longer they would be able to beat back the Russian invasion, a change of Russian tactics has seemed to halt those advances. Now both sides are looking at a long winter and a prolonged war of attrition. That is a disaster for the Ukrainians, the Russians and the rest of the world feeling economic pain because of the war.
Netanyahu has a strong relationship he has developed with Putin over the years and maintains healthy ties with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. If he can take advantage of that to prod them toward talks to end the war, then that path should be pursued.
When the war began last February, then-prime minister Naftali Bennett tried his hand at mediating the conflict. His efforts went nowhere, partly because Israel had no leverage, and partly because Bennett did not have the diplomatic heft to serve in such a critical role.
While Israel still has no leverage over the Russians or Ukrainians that could compel them to make difficult decisions, Netanyahu has gravitas and is one of the most well-known and longest-serving statesmen on the world stage. If there is an opening, he should explore it.
He should do so, however, with eyes wide open. What does that mean? It means not doing anything that would somehow risk Israel’s security: Remember that Russia’s new best friend is Iran. It means ensuring that Israel remains firmly in the Western camp in its approach to the conflict. And it means not cowering to Putin.
If Netanyahu can check all three of those boxes, and still conclude that his relationship with both sides and his diplomatic experience can be used to nudge them into negotiations to end this horrific war, then by all means he should give it a go.