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Bennett must use Israel’s influence to mediate Russia-Ukraine war

Strategic and moral imperatives dictate that Israel try to use its influence to prevent more loss of life and alleviate the suffering of those who are still caught in the fighting.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at a conference of the Israeli Television News Company in Jerusalem on March 7, 2022. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at a conference of the Israeli Television News Company in Jerusalem on March 7, 2022. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Lt. Col. Yochai Guiski (IDF Ret.)

As events in Ukraine unfolded over the past few weeks, we witnessed a Russian ground invasion, a valiant Ukrainian defensive effort, thousands of deaths, more than a million refugees, and heavy sanctions by the United States and Europe on Russia. Israel, for its part, tried to stay out of the fray and avoid taking a harsh tone with Russia.

As a result, Jerusalem’s partners in the United States and Europe, as well as journalists in the Israeli and international media, pushed it to adopt a more vocal and unambiguous tone regarding Russia’s assault on Ukraine.

Reports suggested that U.S. officials—and even President Joe Biden himself—were critical of Israel’s stance, expecting it to be “on the right side of history,” and to join the chorus of condemnation of Russia’s aggression, at least at the United Nations. If U.S. anger with the policies of India and the United Arab Emirates is any indication, the pressure on Jerusalem must have been intense.

As Israel tried to stay the course, Washington pushed harder and a few days into the war, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid condemned Russia’s attack on Ukraine, supported Ukrainian territorial integrity and voiced Israel’s commitment to humanitarian assistance to the people of Ukraine.

Even these steps were seen as insufficient, and expectations of Israel to provide additional support, including weapon systems, were expressed by Ukrainian officials and by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). At least the nonsensical idea of providing Iron Dome missile-defense systems to Ukraine, which has been circulated by the media, was rightfully rejected by Ukrainian defense officials.

But Israel’s boldest move came over the weekend when Israeli Prime Minister Bennett secretly flew to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and then on to Berlin to meet with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. The prime minister was also in contact with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during his journey. Israel also sought to coordinate the effort with the United States by reportedly conferring with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan before the flights.

The reactions to the prime minister’s initiative ranged from lukewarm support to dismissal and outright criticism of his actions.

Was Israel right to forge ahead with its mediation effort, or should its leaders have toed the line, adopted a forceful approach towards Russia and let other nations tend to the conflict? I believe that the prime minister made the right call.

Even now, millions are in harm’s way or fleeing their homes in Ukraine to become refugees, and many millions more may suffer the same or much worse, as the crisis in Ukraine is set to intensify. The direct human toll could be extremely heavy, and the indirect costs of the conflict may be just as bad.

Shortages in grain supplies from major producers Russia and Ukraine, as well as the skyrocketing prices of wheat, may bring famine and instability to many countries, including in the volatile Middle East.

In these circumstances, Israel is one of the very few countries that are still on good terms with Russia, Ukraine, the United States and Europe. Should Israel walk away from its unique position and join the litany of states that are forcefully criticizing Russia (but doing little else), or should it attempt to use its position to do some good?

There are several ways Israel can make positive use of its position vis-à-vis Russia:

  1. Provide a secure and discreet back channel between the West and Russia. As the conflict in Ukraine intensifies and the specter of nuclear escalation looms, there would be value in such channels.
  2. Allow for indirect communication between Russian and Ukrainian leadership, through Israel.
  3. Communicate the need for humanitarian consideration to be incorporated into the Russian operations in Ukraine, as well as specific humanitarian requests.
  4. Assist the United States in understating Putin’s state of mind, and potentially help America develop and execute an exit strategy from the conflict and provide an “off-ramp” for the Russian leadership to de-escalate the situation.

The value inherent in these possibilities is already being partly realized, as Putin, Zelensky and other leaders conduct talks with Bennett, while the Ukrainian ambassador has commended his mediation efforts and even suggested that Jerusalem might be a venue for high-level negotiations.

Strategic and moral imperatives dictate that Israel try to use its influence to prevent more loss of life and alleviate the suffering of those who are still caught in the fighting, instead of joining the Western efforts to exact a toll from Russia for its actions.

Hundreds of thousands of Jews living in Ukraine and Russia would be part of the suffering, and as history teaches us, there are always dark forces of anti-Semitism at play in times of strife that would seek to scapegoat and attack these communities.

There has been enough death and bloodshed in Ukraine, including the brutal murders of countless Jews during the Holocaust. The ground is already quenched with the blood of innocents; it need not get any more.

The Jewish Talmud teaches us a moral lesson: Whoever saves one life saves the whole world. Israel must rise to the challenge and seize the moment to help save as many people as possible.

Doing so will not be achieved by joining the group of countries cutting ties with Russia and imposing sanctions on it, as the Israeli contribution to the overall effort would be negligible. Israel should focus on using the relations between Moscow and Jerusalem to help save lives.

In his famous poem “The Road Not Taken,” Robert Frost describes the contemplation of a person between two unknown choices. Like the decision made in the poem, Israel should also take the road less traveled … and hope that it makes all the difference.

Lt. Col. Yochai Guiski (IDF, Ret.) is a publishing expert at The MirYam Institute. He served in various roles, including Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), Israel’s Strategic Planning Division and the Ministry of Defense.

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