Middle East Eye / March 11, 2022
President Zelensky believes Israel has taken up mediator role only to avoid damaging Tel Aviv’s ties with Russia, according to senior Ukrainian government source.
A Ukrainian government official has sharply criticized Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s efforts at mediating the crisis with Russia, claiming he urged President Volodymyr Zelensky to accept Vladimir Putin’s demands.
The senior official, who spoke to the Walla and Haaretz news sites on condition of anonymity, said on Friday that Bennett was “using the mediation as an excuse to justify the fact that Israel is avoiding transferring military aid to Ukraine or joining the sanctions slapped on Russia”.
Bennett is serving as a mailbox between Ukraine and Russia, the official added, accusing Israel of simply passing on messages between the two sides.
“Other countries can provide mail services and Israel’s natural status has no advantage under these circumstances,” the official said.
“We do not need a mailbox. We have enough of these,” the official continued. “President Zelensky’s office does not believe this is the way to mediate. If Bennett wants to be neutral and mediate, we would like to see him appoint someone who will deal with the matter day and night to try and reach a compromise.”
Zelensky believes that Bennett has taken up the role of mediator as part of his effort to avoid picking sides in a war at risk of damaging Israel’s ties with Russia, the official claims.
Last week, Bennett met with Putin in Moscow to discuss the Ukraine crisis, followed by a phone call with Zelensky. In his last phone call with Zelensky, Bennett tried to convince the Ukrainian president to accept Putin’s offer, the official said, according to the Walla and Haaretz reports.
Walla does not divulge the details of the Russian president’s offer, but previous reports from the news site have said that Putin is demanding an independent Donbas region but stopping short of regime change in Ukraine.
“When Bennett told him he should accept the Russian stance, Zelensky replied: ‘I heard you, thanks,'” the official said, adding that Bennett wants Ukraine to surrender.
“Bennett has proposed that we surrender,” the official told the Israeli news sites.
“We have no intention of doing so. We know that Putin’s proposal is just the beginning.”
The reports say that Israel has also asked that Ukraine cease its requests for military or defence assistance, as this could hinder Jerusalem’s efforts to mediate and maintain neutrality.
Zelensky was hoping to broadcast a speech to Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, next week, as he has done to other parliaments around the world. But Israel has instead proposed that he hold a less formal Zoom session with all MPs invited, Walla reported.
Israeli officials have given a number of reasons to Zelensky’s office for why he cannot give a speech at the Knesset plenum – from the fact that parliament is in recess to the fact that the building is under construction. But Walla reports that those are mere excuses, as Bennett and Yair Lapid do not want to anger Russia with such a high-profile appearance.
Zelensky’s office feels that there is a large gap between Bennett’s position and that of the Israeli public, which has been far more supportive of Ukraine, the official said.
If Zelensky is denied the opportunity to speak to the Knesset, he is planning to speak before Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial or broadcast his speech to the Israeli public at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square.
“Zelensky is exhausted from conversations with leaders, he wants to talk to the public,” the official explained.
A source in the Israeli prime minister’s office denied that Bennett told Zelensky to take Putin’s offer, “as Israel does not have such an offer”.
“In any case, the prime minister does not intend to give Zelensky recommendations or advice on how to act at any stage,” the source told Walla. “The conversation between the two was long and positive, and included the possibility of a meeting [between Russian and Ukrainian negotiators] in Jerusalem.”
The source declined to say whether Bennett would be prepared to make proposals of his own.
“The prime minister’s efforts are aimed at one thing: to stop the bloodshed in Ukraine and the unnecessary suffering,” the source said.