A most unlikely mediator between Russia and Ukraine

Osama al sharif
Osama Al Sharif is journalist and political commentator based in Amman. (Photo: Jordan News)
Of all the possible mediators in the Russia-Ukraine crisis Israel has emerged as the most unlikely. Israel did not co-sponsor a UN Security Council draft resolution that condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, much to the dismay of the US and European allies. Later, and under pressure from Washington, it voted for a General Assembly resolution deploring the Russian incursion into a UN member country. But Israel has much interest in keeping contacts with both the Kremlin and the Kyiv government.اضافة اعلان

While Turkey and China offered to mediate, Israel emerged on the scene as a potential interlocutor in the past few days. Israeli diplomats were careful not to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine. They turned down pleas by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a Jew and ardent Zionist, for supplies of lethal weapons. Ukraine’s ambassador in Israel lamented the fact that Israel did not dare send helmets to aid Kyiv. But still, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett saw an opportunity to play a role that would give his country an advantageous geopolitical position in what is in essence a European crisis.

On Saturday he flew to Moscow on an unannounced visit and met with President Vladimir Putin for three hours before heading to Berlin to brief the German chancellor Olaf Scholz. Sunday evening he received a call from Putin and it was agreed that Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid would meet his American counterpart, Antony Blinken, in Latvia, on Monday.

Even though Bennett himself admitted that Israel’s mediation may lead nowhere, Israel would emerge having scored political points. Bennett had said that he had cleared his Moscow visit with the US and European allies.

But why is Israel so interested in a mediation role between Moscow and Kyiv? For starters, there is Syria, which the Israelis say positions Russia on Israel’s border. Less than 12 hours after Putin called Bennett, Israel launched an airstrike on targets within the Damascus airport parameters. For Israel, getting the Russians to look the other way as Israeli jets bomb suspected Hezbollah and Iran-backed militia bases in Syrian is a national security priority.

For now it looks like Putin has not changed the rules of engagement in Syria with regard to almost daily Israeli strikes, but that could change.
… Bennett believes that Israel stands to gain from an influx of Ukrainian Jews to Israel as an outcome of the crisis. Israeli sources talk of no less than 200,000 Ukrainian Jews who could arrive in Israel as a result of the war.

The second Israeli interest in maintaining contacts with Moscow has to do with the Vienna nuclear talks, which appear to be reaching a conclusion. Iran has expressed irritation with news that Moscow has introduced new conditions in Vienna just as the different parties were reaching a penultimate agreement. Bennett would love for the Russians to put last-minute hurdles before a final agreement in Vienna. Russia’s calculations may differ from those of Israel for now, but the delay benefits both.

And finally, Bennett believes that Israel stands to gain from an influx of Ukrainian Jews to Israel as an outcome of the crisis. Israeli sources talk of no less than 200,000 Ukrainian Jews who could arrive in Israel as a result of the war. Ukraine is home to one of the largest Jewish populations worldwide, and a small number of Ukrainian Jews has already arrived in Israel.

But Bennett is walking a tightrope. This is not a local, but a global crisis, with the US pushing its allies to take a clear stand. At one point Israel, like all Western allies, will have to choose a side, especially if Kyiv falls to the Russians. Moreover, Israel cannot avoid comparisons between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its own colonization of Palestinian lands and breach of international law.

Ukrainian officials are already criticizing Israel for appeasing the Russians. Israel’s role as mediator can only go so far. At one point there will be a crack in the Russian-Israeli rapport as the crisis gets deeper.

Bennett himself admitted that his mediation may not bring a peaceful resolution, and Putin is adamant about conquering Kyiv and installing a puppet regime. Bennett’s role may be undercut by what happens in Ukraine in the coming few days.

Putin may be using Israel to further divide the Western coalition. He is allowing Turkey to play a mediating role, with the foreign ministers of Russia and Ukraine slated to meet in Antalya in a few days.

For now it does not look like Israel’s mediation will end the Ukraine crisis. Bennett may hope to achieve some immediate gains from talking to Putin, but these gains may be wiped out if Putin switches channels of communication, allowing Turkey or even China to act as go between with the West.

Israel is the worst possible mediator between Russia and the West. Its own history is one of serious double standards where the Palestinian issue is concerned, and chances are that Bennett will soon take a back seat as more reliable mediators step in.

The writer is journalist and political commentator based in Amman.  

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