The complexity of Israel PM's mediation efforts with Russia and Ukraine

Posted at 4:05 PM, Mar 12, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-12 18:05:27-05

Back on March 5, Israel's Prime Minister Naftali Bennett flew to Moscow for a three-hour meeting with Russian President Vladmir Putin. This visit occurred as Russia's invasion of Ukraine entered it's second week, as a number of several visits with other heads of state.

For observers of Judaism, Bennett's visit with Putin was particularly noteworthy, as it occurred on a Saturday, which for practicing Orthodox Jews, is the day of the Sabbath, beginning just before sunset on Fridays. In the Jewish tradition, one is prohibited from doing any sort of work.

For Bennett, himself an Orthodox Jew and an elected leader, such a visit on such a day would be considered a violation of those traditions. However, those same traditions do outline precedents that allow one to violate the Sabbath.

"It's true that Judaism allows violation of the Sabbath when it comes to saving human life," said University of Utah Law Professor Amos Guiora, who lives just outside of Jerusalem. "His argument would be that the purpose of that flight, of that meeting on the Sabbath, was to save a human life."

Another point of significance is that Bennett is the first western leader to have met with Putin directly since his invasion of Ukraine on February 24. He had also been in contact with Ukraine president Volodomyr Zelenskyy, placing him, and by extension Israel, in the position of mediator between the two countries.

"It seems to me that Bennett is viewed by Zelenskyy and Putin... as an honest broker in contrast to Western European leaders," said Guiora.

Israel occupies a unique position both politically and geographically when it comes to current tensions between NATO and Russia. Of note, the Israeli Air Force, a branch of the Israeli Defense Force, frequently conducts air attacks against terrorist targets using Syrian airspace, which is also utilized by the Russian Air Force.

Further complicating matters is the ongoing negotiations regarding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, which was first agreed upon back in 2015 between Iran, The European Union, Germany, France, Russia, China, The United Kingdom, and The United States.

The U.S. withdrew from the agreement in 2018 under the Trump administration, which led to a great deal of outcry from the international community.

The agreement has been a major point of discussion and contention. Talks have been ongoing in Vienna over its possible restoration, with Russia issuing a number of demands, including assurances that sanctions imposed in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine would not threaten their ability to trade with Iran.

Then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was opposed to the deal at the outset of the agreement, on the grounds that it didn't do enough to deter Iran from developing nuclear weaponry.

"Israel objected to the original deal... because there was insufficient oversight of what the Iranian nascent nuclear industry was going to be," said Guiora. "The lack of oversight and supervision and unplanned visits, from the Israeli perspective, made this a no-go."

Adding to this is local reaction to the crisis, as people in Israel, like much of the world, have been watching everything unfold, with Israeli citizens joining the international community in condemning Russia's actions.

"Don't forget that there are 8,000 Israelis who live in Ukraine,"said Guiora. "At first, the government was not interested in having the Ukrainians come here. There was a huge public backlash here... I think the government is more sensitive then it was at first."

Negotiations are still ongoing, with President Zelenskyy discussing the possibilities of peace talks with Bennett as recently as Saturday.