We know this because he flew on Saturday. Bennett is an Orthodox Jew, for whom the one justification for traveling on the Sabbath is possibly saving human life. With him as his interpreter was Kharkhiv-born Housing Minister Zeev Elkin, also Orthodox. I have many doubts about both men, but I’m certain they wouldn’t have flown on Shabbat without that hope.
Thus far, nothing has happened to realize that hope. Leaks about what led to it should be treated with extreme skepticism. Whatever is reported now will be disproved by documents that will be declassified in three decades. The trip was so secret that, reportedly , Bennett only notified the Israeli military at the last moment and Elkin drove himself to the airport himself to avoid involving a ministerial driver.
So Bennett believed he might somehow stop the killing, but human actions usually have multiple motives. Altruism can also be instrumental. By inserting himself as mediator, Bennett was serving two kinds of self-interest.
One was personal, in the realm of domestic politics. Bennett is an almost accidental leader of a governing coalition held together only by rejection of ex-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Inevitably, Bennett seeks to show that the country can do without his predecessor. Netanyahu campaigned on the claim that he was in a “different league” from all other Israeli politicians, and that his diplomatic skills gave him unique access to world leaders — including Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. For Bennett, presenting himself as the first Western leader able to sit down with Putin since the invasion was an irresistible opportunity.
The second interest was national. The peacekeeping bid provided an explanation — or an excuse — for the Israeli government’s all-too-noticeable standoffishness toward the Western coalition against Russia. Israel hasn’t joined European and U.S. sanctions against Russia. As of this writing, one can still book a direct flight from Moscow to Tel Aviv. Israel is sending humanitarian aid to Ukraine — but not military supplies. It took public and legal pressure for hard-line Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked to loosen the entry criteria for Ukrainian refugees.
Putin’s willingness to receive Bennett as a go-between is a payoff for half-neutrality. For that matter, so is Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s proposal over the weekend that negotiations with Russia take place in Jerusalem.
But those responses, in themselves, don’t explain Israel’s policy. One reason for Israel’s fence-sitting is its strange arrangement with Russia in Syria — where Russia controls the skies but allows Israel to continue its air campaign against Hezbollah and the group’s Iranian sponsor.
That’s only an example of a larger pattern. “Israel looks at the [Ukraine] crisis through an entirely different lens than Western countries, and more and more like most Middle Eastern countries, even though it’s a democracy,” ex-Knesset member Ksenia Svetlova, now a research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at Reichman University and Mitvim, the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, told me.
That lens is regional. On one hand, Russia “is much closer ... than the United States is,” and “it’s increasing its presence in the Mediterranean basin,” she says. On the other, America has “left without leaving,” drawing down forces and lowering the Middle East in its priorities. Russia has stepped into the vacuum.
Svetlova also says she is concerned Israel looks at the war in Ukraine “as something … not next to [Israel’s] borders.” This view ignores the moral dimension of Russia’s unprovoked and brutal attempt to overrun its neighbor. And that’s not the only reason it’s a misguided perspective.
“I suspect that the government hasn’t absorbed that the world has changed ... that Russia is now a pariah state, like North Korea,” Svetlova says. In such a global event, maneuvering between superpowers is no longer an option. Whatever regional alliances Israel has formed are far less substantial than being part of the West. Fence-sitting, Svetlova explains, “distances us from our natural camp ... the United States and Europe.”
Israel’s hesitations also carry a message for Washington: Russia’s role in the Middle East is a result of American retreat, and Russia’s cruelty in Syria now looks like an ignored warning of its crimes today in Ukraine. In the return to stark confrontation reminiscent of the Cold War, the United States cannot afford to treat the Middle East as a minor priority.