Last Saturday night, shortly after the sun went down, signaling the end of the weekly Shabbat pause, the news was interrupted with an urgent, breaking update.
Israeli Prime minister Naftali Bennett, apparently, was either in or on his way to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But, But. Bennett is religiously observant, meaning that he does not travel on Shabbat. Reporters scrambled for confirmation, which came within minutes.
Apparently, Bennett did fly on the Sabbath, invoking the exception in Jewish law allowing such a breach to save lives (pikuach nefesh). Bennett hopped on a plane on Saturday afternoon and spent two to three hours with Putin, exploring ways that the carnage in Ukraine might be ended.
Was this some sort of official mediation? Did the U.S. support this initiative? Did the U.S. even know about it? The E.U.? Was he invited by Putin? How did this happen? Perhaps more intriguing, how did it happen without a single journalist in a country where everything leaks like a sieve knowing in advance?
As the speculation roiled, we learned that Bennett was stopping off for a few hours to update German Chancellor Olaf Scholz before flying home to Israel early Sunday.
Almost a week later, we are still short on facts, but it seems that Bennett had been in reasonably regular contact since the outset of the crisis with both Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. He considered it worth a go to see if he could help facilitate the de-escalation of the conflict.
There has been virtually no hard information as to what’s really going on behind the scenes. Only speculation and rumor.
The less charitable observers focus on Bennett’s desire to demonstrate that he is as skillful a statesman as was Netanyahu, a master of masters. A more generous view of the prime minister’s motives maintains that Bennett likely feels a responsibility to try to end the ferocious attacks on Ukrainian civilians by the Russian army.
There are extremely strong “people to people” ties between Israel and Ukraine, from which approximately 750,000 Jews have immigrated since 1991 and where 200,000 remain. So, domestic engagement in Israel is intense.
At the outset of Russia’s invasion, President Zelensky expressed intense anger towards Bennett. The Ukrainian president slammed his Israeli counterpart for “not being wrapped in the flag of Ukraine” like several of Bennett’s advisors, who adorned the Ukrainian flag while praying at the Western Wall earlier in the week.
All week, top military, diplomatic, and political analysts in Israel have been groping, blindfolded, trying to nail Jell-O to a wall in the effort to understand Bennett’s strategy and motives. So far, they have come up with nothing comprehensive or satisfying in their attempts to understand what Bennett is doing.
Which suggests that, perhaps, neither does he.
Then again, desperate times demand desperate measures, and no one is faulting the PM for trying, for doing anything more than nothing, for refusing to be a bystander at such a momentous historical juncture. He will not be an idle spectator to the slaughter of tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. He himself said he will not be a Chamberlain.
If something can be done to prevent Putin from pressing the nuclear button–which he has threatened to do, obliquely–then Bennett will at least try.
In the end, though, as important a power as Israel may be in its region, it is neither NATO nor the E.U.; America nor the U.K. Israel can use its positive relations with both Putin and Zelensky to ferry messages to and fro. He can attempt to moderate the fury being directed at Ukraine by Russia, but it is a battle that only NATO can win.
Western leaders, understandably, are desperate to avoid a full-on confrontation with Russia, which may, as Putin has hinted, trigger the nuclear option. However, the West has also demonstrated–in Ukraine, Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere–a lack of resolve to identify and articulate “red lines” and enforce them.
Putin is not a Western leader. He is a Russian leader; one who has a messianic devotion to Mother Russia, an abiding belief that Ukraine is rightfully Hers, and no notion that these are separate people.
Ukraine is today’s Sudetenland.
Dictators like Hitler, Stalin, and, yes, Putin do not understand the concept of compromise. To them, there is one truth, and they embody it. Religious or not, they are devoted to the sanctity of their mission, which always involves ridding society of a malign influence and restoring dignity, decency, and a rightful Order.
Like many traditional Russian nationalists, Putin has never accepted the legitimacy of an independent Ukraine. He never will.
Hopefully, before bombing any more maternity hospitals and civilian areas indiscriminately, some crazy combination of Bennett’s sessions and Western resolve (yet to be found) can prevent an unthinkable escalation in Ukraine.
What is unclear is whether Putin even cares to “settle” and risk being seen to be weak. Or would he prefer to do what he has done in Syria, Chechnya, and elsewhere? Because, really, at the end of the day, if the West won’t stiffen its spine and undertake meaningful intervention on the ground and in the skies now, today, will it ever?
This, in the end, is the Bennett dilemma. He has no leverage with Putin. He needs Russia to continue to allow Israel to operate reasonably freely in the Syrian skies, keeping Iran and Hezbollah at bay. And to do that, he needs Putin’s continued “co-operation.”
Israel has no margin for error, understanding well that no one will run to its aid should Iran or Hizballah attack its civilians. And as the Russian bear rages, the Iranians are humiliating the West in the latest round of nuclear negotiations in Vienna.
Bennett has done his bit. This weekend, I suggest he stay at home, turn off his phone, and leave the heavy lifting to the superpowers.