Bennett says Israel will try to mediate in Ukraine even if the prospects are poor

Israeli Cabinet meeting
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett attends a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem, February 27, 2022. Abir Sultan/Pool via REUTERS

March 6, 2022

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel will continue to try to mediate between Russia and Ukraine, even if success seems unlikely, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Sunday after returning from surprise talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Ukraine has asked for Israel to act as a mediator, citing the government’s good relations with both Kyiv and Moscow. Bennett’s office said he spoke to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy three times over the weekend.

In televised addresses to his cabinet, Bennett gave no details about his three-hour Kremlin meeting with Putin on Saturday, saying only that it had “the blessing and encouragement of all parties” – a nod to the United States, among others.

“We will continue to provide assistance wherever needed, even when the odds are not good,” Bennett said. “The moment there is even a small opening and we have access to all sides and the ability, I see it as a moral duty to make every attempt.”

The Russian embassy in Israel declined to comment. Ukraine’s ambassador to Israel also declined immediate comment and said he would hold a press conference on Monday.

Israel has condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine, expressed solidarity with Kyiv and sent humanitarian aid. But Bennett has failed to heed Ukrainian requests for military assistance and has kept channels open to Russia, which Israel is using to coordinate its operations against Iranian deployments in Syria.

Around 90 children from a Jewish orphanage in the Ukrainian city of Zhytomyr were flown to Tel Aviv from Romania on Sunday.

“I am Naphtali, the Prime Minister of Israel,” Bennett, who boarded the El Al plane after landing, said to a boy and kissed him on the head before leading him off the plane.

Taking to Twitter, Bennett said the group, accompanied by members of Chabad-Lubavitch, a global Jewish religious movement, had been fleeing fighting and shelling for more than a week.

Home Secretary Ayelet Shaked said Israel, with a population of 9.2 million, was preparing for a “very, very large wave of immigration” triggered by the conflict.

This could mean more than 200,000 Ukrainians who are Jewish or have Jewish family connections and more than 600,000 Russians in the same categories, she said.

An Israeli immigration official, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, had a more modest forecast of an influx “in the low tens of thousands” from Ukraine and Russia.

In a bid by local media to block Russian oligarchs from fleeing to Israel to evade sanctions, the Israel Airports Authority said it had received instructions not to allow private jets to be parked for more than 24 hours.

(Writing by Dan Williams, editing by Jeffrey Heller, Raissa Kasolowsky and Kevin Liffey) Bennett says Israel will try to mediate in Ukraine even if the prospects are poor

Bobby Allyn

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