Israeli Prime Minster Naftali Bennett entered the diplomatic push for an end to the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Saturday. Though the chances for success in his efforts are slim, he calls mediation efforts “our moral duty”. Bennett told his cabinet to prepare for a wave of Jewish immigration from Ukraine. Israel is also preparing to accept a small number of non-Jewish Ukrainian refugees. Israel joined the U.N. vote to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last week.
Bennett traveled to meet with Putin on Saturday, after which he addressed the weekly cabinet meeting. He told his cabinet that they discussed the war, but his talks with Putin haven’t been revealed. Then he traveled to Germany to meet with Chancellor Scholz. He spoke to Zelensky three times on Saturday.
The prime minister revealed no details from his talks with Putin, but called Jerusalem’s mediation efforts “our moral duty.” Earlier, his office said he and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke by phone on Sunday morning, the third such call between the two leaders over the past day. Zelenskyy had also spoken with US President Joe Biden on Saturday. The two discussed security, financial support for Ukraine, and the continuation of sanctions against Russia, the Ukrainian president wrote on Twitter.
Bennett’s meeting with Putin at the Kremlin lasted for three hours. He has made frequent offers to mediate between Russia and Ukraine. He did so during his meeting with Putin in Sochi last October but Putin has rejected Bennett’s offers.
Bennett flew to Moscow on the Sabbath for urgent talks about the war in Ukraine, according to the prime minister’s office.
Although both he and Housing and Construction Minister Ze’ev Elkin — who went along to assist with translation — are observant Jews, and travel is forbidden on the Sabbath according to Torah law, the Torah permits such a violation in cases where the saving of life is involved.
The delegation made the trip in a private plane usually used by Israel’s international intelligence agency, the Mossad.
Both the United States and Ukraine were notified ahead of Bennet’s trip.
The prime minister was also accompanied by Dr. Eyal Hulata, head of Israel’s National Security Council, political adviser Shimrit Meir and Bennett’s spokesperson Matan Sidi.
A large percentage of Israel’s population is immigrants from Russia and Ukraine. Israel is building refugee aid centers on Ukraine’s western border, as well as forms of aid to be sent this week.
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid instructed the ministry and MASHAV, Israel’s development and aid agency, to focus on four main areas of humanitarian aid.
One is a refugee aid center that will serve all Ukrainians escaping the war in their country, Jewish or not, with an emphasis on providing them with winter gear.
In addition, a field hospital is to be erected in Lviv in the coming days by the Health Ministry, Sheba Medical Center and the Clalit HMO.
The field hospital will include maternity and pediatric wards, an emergency room and a telemedicine area that will allow doctors in Israel to help refugees over the Internet.
Six large generators have been ordered by Israel for the hospital in Lviv. These will help the hospital operate without electrical outages. The Israeli Foreign Ministry said today that it is working with Ukrainian authorities and bordering countries on humanitarian aid. Aid packages will include medicine and medical equipment, some of which was already sent to Ukraine last week.
The Foreign Ministry reports that about 10,200 Israelis left Ukraine in the last three weeks, with about 2,000 still in Ukraine. The aid stations on the Ukrainian border will provide winter clothing for refugees and gear for survival.
Bennett knows that mediation working between Putin and Zelensky is a long shot. He stressed Israel’s moral obligation to do what it can, though, just as he would ask other countries to do when Israel needs international support. Bennett’s meeting with Putin in Russia on Saturday was a secret mission until after it was over. Bennett has been criticized by Zelensky for not stepping up more to help Ukraine once the war began.
“As you all know, the situation on the ground is not good. The human suffering is great and is liable to be much greater,” Bennett said Sunday at the start of a weekly cabinet meeting. “Even if the chance is not great — as soon as there is even a small opening, and we have access to all sides and the capability — I see this as our moral obligation to make every effort.”
Israel has strained to balance its support for Ukraine, the ancestral home of many Israelis and the only other country besides Israel with a Jewish leader, with its reluctance to provoke Russia, which backs the Syrian regime on Israel’s northern border and has quietly allowed Israel to carry out strikes against Iran-backed militant groups there.
Zelensky did not describe his conversations with Bennett in a video he released Sunday, but did list the Israeli as one of the world leaders who has contacted him in recent days. Previously, Zelensky had expressed disappointment in Bennett’s response to the invasion, telling reporters last week that unlike other Israelis who have showered Ukraine with love and support, he didn’t feel the prime minister was “wrapped in our flag.”
Ukraine’s ambassador to Israel, Yevgen Korniychuk, went further, slamming Israel for failing to match the aid offered by other nations and of forgetting Ukraine’s history of aiding Jews during the Holocaust.
Bennett seems to have found a balance between increasing humanitarian aid to Ukraine without angering Putin and his troops in Syria on Israel’s northern border. It’s a tough neighborhood. Putin’s invasion into Ukraine has united most of the world, though, and that is something for which Putin likely was not prepared.