In recent weeks, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has assumed what is for him the new role of international crisis mediator. On Saturday March 5, Bennett made a secret trip to Moscow—despite it being Shabbat and Bennett being the first strictly observant Israeli prime minister—where he met with Vladimir Putin for three hours to discuss the fighting in Ukraine. Bennett followed that up with immediate phone calls to Volodymyr Zelensky and other world leaders, and was back in the midst of the fray this past Monday, when he left a cabinet meeting to conduct back-to-back conversations with Putin and Zelensky.
What Bennett is precisely up to remains unclear. Israeli sources have alternately portrayed Bennett as using his relationship with both sides to hasten an end to the fighting, and as seeking to protect Israeli interests vis-à-vis Russia, whether those be Israel’s freedom of action in Syrian skies or the safety of the Russian and Ukrainian Jewish communities. There were also reports—subsequently denied by Israeli and Ukrainian officials—that Bennett was pushing Zelensky to accede to Russian demands, and speculation that Bennett is also ostensibly using the opportunity to discuss Ukraine with Putin to influence the Vienna negotiations over a potential return to the JCPOA. Some of these goals make more sense than others given Israel’s position and Israeli interests, but what it all adds up to is a situation that is more precarious for Bennett than it may seem at first glance.
To take things at face value, Bennett sees an opportunity to do some good on the world stage by taking advantage of Israel’s unique position in order to mediate between Russia and Ukraine and end the bloodshed. Despite former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s intimations that good relations with both the U.S. and Russia depended on him personally, Israel under Bennett has retained its ability to operate in the Western sphere and in the Russian sphere. Combined with Israel’s strong ties to both Russia and Ukraine, this theoretically allows Bennett to act as a go-between for Putin and Zelensky and convey proposals while coordinating with the U.S. and Europe, and bridge the communications gaps that exist between the U.S. and Russia and between Ukraine and Russia.
There are problems, however, with taking this at face value. For starters, any actor seeking to end the fighting will only be successful in the event of genuine signals that both sides are looking for a way out. There is no indication so far that this is the case for Russia, and in fact the precise opposite might be the case. There is an enormous chasm between Russian expectations for how its invasion of Ukraine would proceed and how the invasion has actually proceeded, and this is only creating more pressure on Putin to escalate and come away with a result that he can credibly portray as a victory. If Putin were to stop now and agree to a ceasefire, it would be a tacit admission of defeat for Russia and devastating for him politically, which is why any possibility of successful mediation now appears impossible, whether it be Israeli efforts or anyone else’s efforts.
Even if the structural conditions for a mediated end to the fighting were more favorable, Israel is not actually in a position to serve as a real mediator for this conflict. The reason that the U.S., for instance, has successfully brokered agreements between warring parties in the past is that it not only has influence with both sides but has the ability to provide incentives to both sides and to guarantee a lasting end to hostilities. The U.S. was instrumental in the Israel-Egypt peace treaty not because it could speak to both sides and serve as a convener, but because it was able to provide security guarantees in the form of military assistance, which is still in place over four decades later, and through putting American peacekeepers in the Sinai. Similarly, there is no replacement for the U.S. as an external broker between Israelis and Palestinians because no other state has the ability and the will to provide both sides with the security and financial incentives that are likely required for any permanent status agreement.
Israel is not situated in the same way with regard to Russia. There isn’t anything that Israel can offer Moscow to halt its assault on Ukraine, and no particular reason for Putin to be attentive to Israeli requests or concerns on this issue. The only way in which Bennett can succeed is if he is able to offer Putin an off-ramp that is constructed in coordination with the U.S. and Europe, where the carrots and sticks are coming from these other actors and Bennett is acting as the messenger. Reading between the lines of the Biden administration’s public reaction to Bennett’s trip to Moscow suggests that this is not what is going on, and that this was a Bennett initiative that the U.S. was willing to begrudgingly accept. If that is the case, then Bennett has little chance of acting as a successful mediator through no fault of his own, but because of Israel’s status in relation to Russia.
The more cynical take is that Bennett is not actually trying to be a mediator, but is using mediation as a cover to protect Israeli interests by not clearly choosing sides. The primary variable in wanting to retain some degree of neutrality is Israeli interests in Syria, where Bennett wants to maintain the Israeli Air Force’s ability to strike Iranian targets without coming into conflict with Russia. If this is the case, Bennett’s calculation is understandable, though I am skeptical that the perceived danger for Israel in provoking Russia exists to the degree that conventional wisdom suggests; Russia’s continued interest in having Israel limit Iran’s position in Syria will not dissipate if Israel takes a firmer stance against Russian actions in Ukraine, and Russia also does not want to create havoc for itself on another front by ramping up tension with Israel over Syrian skies. If his real concern is Syria rather than Ukraine, Bennett’s position that he is only trying to mediate will become more untenable as time goes on and American and European frustrations build, particularly if Israeli actions on the Russia sanctions front remain ambiguous or half-hearted.
Aside from running afoul of the U.S., Bennett has to guard against being used by Putin, which is something that he should be warier of than he seems to be. Putin is internationally isolated to a surprisingly unprecedented degree, and the more that Bennett shows up in Moscow or dials the Kremlin, the more that Putin can use this in order to forge a case for the legitimacy of what he is doing, to demonstrate that he is not as isolated as he appears, and to reap domestic political benefits. While Bennett has his own political calculation, as he benefits from being seen as a statesman and as being integral to the effort to resolve the European crisis, those political benefits will quickly turn into political liabilities if it becomes apparent that Bennett’s mediation efforts are a Potemkin production orchestrated by Putin. If, for instance, Bennett’s photo ops with Putin end up being seen in the same vein as John Kerry’s dinner with Bashar al-Assad a few years before the escalation of Assad’s atrocities in connection with the Syrian civil war, then Bennett’s diplomatic efforts will not only have failed substantively but will become a political and reputational albatross.
As Jews around the world celebrated Purim last night and today, it is worth concluding with one lesson from the Book of Esther that Bennett should keep in mind. Esther’s ultimate goal was saving her people, and to do so she had to bite her tongue and conduct a ruse with Haman—her nemesis and the ultimate threat to the Jews’ survival—by inviting him to successive private parties with the king in the course of setting her trap. Even as Esther was playing nice, she never lost sight of who the bad guy was. Bennett may believe that he has a chance to end the Russia-Ukraine war, or he may believe that maintaining good relations with Putin is critical to protect Israeli interests. But if he is going to emerge from this without damaging Israel’s interests or his own reputation in the long term, he should make sure not to lose sight of who the bad guy is. As with the Purim story, there is a clear and unmistakable culprit.