Israeli PM vows more Ukraine talks, even if prospects ‘not great’

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (L) has spoken with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky (C) three times in 24 hours, and met with Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) on March 5, 2022

Israel’s premier said Sunday his country had a “moral obligation” to help stem fighting in Ukraine even if chances of success were “not great”, after shuttle diplomacy that saw him visit the Kremlin.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met for three hours with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin on Saturday, before flying to Berlin to meet Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

Speaking before his weekly cabinet meeting, Bennett said he could “not expand further” on his talks, but that Israel would press on with its diplomatic efforts “as needed”.

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Bennett has so far walked a cautious line on the Ukraine conflict, seeking to preserve delicate security cooperation with Russia, which has a large military presence in Israel’s northern neighbour, Syria.

Israel said Bennett’s trip was coordinated with Washington and major European powers, but Israeli media have reported that American officials have expressed doubts that Bennett can influence Putin’s actions.

They also discussed the fate of the Jews in Ukraine and Russia.

A group of 300 Ukrainian Jews were due to land Sunday.

– Iran deal –

On Saturday, Iran and the UN nuclear watchdog said they had agreed an approach for resolving issues crucial to restoring the nuclear pact, which was derailed after the US unilaterally withdrew in 2018 and then ramped up sanctions on Tehran.

Shortly before news of Bennett’s Moscow trip emerged, Russia said it would seek guarantees from the US before it backs a renewed Iran deal, potentially scuppering hopes of an imminent agreement.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia had requested that the US give it written guarantees that Ukraine-related sanctions “will not in any way harm our rights to free, fully-fledged trade and economic and investment cooperation, military-technical cooperation with Iran”.

Speaking Sunday, Bennett praised IAEA chief Rafael Grossi for not agreeing “to close the open files” on Iran’s past nuclear activity, as Tehran has demanded.

Nadav Eyal, a commentator in Israel’s Yediot Ahronot newspaper, warned that Bennett had undertaken a “very high-stakes gamble”, and that “if it emerges that Putin only used Bennett and deceived him”, the Israeli premier could face “major political ridicule”.

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