Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett traveled to Moscow to meet in the Kremlin with Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to Israeli and Russian officials, a rare diplomatic moment in a war that has stretched into its second week.
“The situation in Ukraine is under discussion,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, according to the state-controlled RIA Novosti news site.
The meeting comes at a critical time in the war, with Russian forces cordoning off major cities and Ukraine teetering in a humanitarian crisis. Russian and Ukrainian diplomats continue bilateral talks, but many diplomatic initiatives by third parties, including those of French President Emmanuel Macron, have stalled.
Israel is in a unique position to potentially trade off a deal, given its alliance with the United States, its quiet cooperation with Russia in Syria, and its shared cultural ties with Ukraine. Mr. Bennett and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky are the only Jews in the world at the head of national governments.
Mr. Bennett’s office said in a statement Saturday evening that the meeting with Mr. Putin lasted nearly three hours and took place “in coordination and with the blessing of the US administration.” In addition, the statement added, Mr. Bennett was working in coordination with Germany and France and was “in constant dialogue with Ukraine”.
There was no immediate information on any outcome of the meeting. A spokeswoman for Mr. Bennett said he spoke with Mr. Zelensky after meeting Mr. Putin.
The Israeli government has Try to maintain good relations with both the Russian and Ukrainian leaders during the current crisisMr. Bennett Mr. Zelensky previously asked to mediate between the two sides.
Bennett left Moscow on Saturday night on his way to Berlin to meet German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Mr. Schulz was on a short visit to Israel this week, and in a meeting with Mr. Bennett, he discussed Israel’s potential role in mediating between Russia and Ukraine.
Bennett spoke by phone with Mr. Putin on Wednesday, hours after he spoke with Mr. Zelensky, in the last few rounds of phone conversations between them.
In a sign of the urgency of the mission, Mr. Bennett, an observant Jew, left Israel on Saturday morning, during the Sabbath, in violation of the religious order not to travel. According to Jewish religious law, the sanctity of the Sabbath is invalidated by the principle of preserving human life.
Mr. Bennett was accompanied by Israeli Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin, who helped with translation, according to the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office. Mr. Elkin has often acted in a similar capacity over the past decade in meetings between Bennett’s predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Mr. Putin. Mr. Elkin, also a committed Jew, was born in Kharkiv, Ukraine in 1971, when it was part of the Soviet Union, and immigrated to Israel in 1990.
The Israeli delegation also included the Prime Minister’s National Security Adviser, Eyal Holata, his diplomatic advisor Shimrit Meir, and his spokesman, Matan Sidi.
Mr. Bennett had been criticized in recent days, including by Mr. Zelensky, for not siding closely with Ukraine and for not providing it with any military equipment.
Israeli officials have said that Israel must maintain good relations with Russia so that it can continue the Israeli military campaign against the entrenchment of Iran and Hezbollah in Syria, where Russia maintains a large presence.
They said Israel is also concerned about the large Jewish communities in Russia and Ukraine. After a meeting on Saturday in the Kremlin, Mr. Bennett’s office said he also spoke with Mr. Putin about the situation of Israelis and Jewish communities as a result of the conflict in Ukraine.
Saturday’s meeting follows several requests by Mr. Zelensky, both Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Bennett, to mediate between him and Mr. Putin. The last request was made in a telephone conversation on February 25, during which Mr. Zelensky also requested military equipment. While refusing to send defensive equipment, Mr. Bennett agreed to try to mediate between the nations.
This was followed by several rounds of telephone conversations between Mr. Bennett and Mr. Putin, between Mr. Bennett and Mr. Zelensky, and between officials from their teams. Israeli officials believe that the Israeli mediation had some effect in persuading Ukraine to enter into talks with Russia in Belarus.
Israel’s National Security Adviser, Mr. Holata, has been briefing the White House National Security Council on developments since the telephone conversation with Mr. Zelensky.
Israeli officials said the meeting in the Kremlin also touched on progress in talks in Vienna to return to a nuclear deal with Iran, and that Mr. Bennett expressed Israel’s opposition to returning to the agreement.
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