Naftali Bennett, the Prime Minister of Israel towards the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, says the West “blocked” a ceasefire he was helping to broker early in the war.
Bennett, who was prime minister and then alternate prime minister in Israel during a confusing period of coalition politics prior to the return of Benjamin Netanyahu as head of government in December, said that “there was a good chance of reaching a ceasefire” before the Western powers “curbed” negotiations in a wide-ranging interview uploaded to YouTube.
Israel is one of a number of states traditionally seen as being aligned with the West, along with the likes of India and Turkey, which have played little or no part in efforts to support Ukraine militarily or engage in the sanctions war with Russia, with Bennett explaining that while “the Americans expect… that we all rally for Ukraine” this would not necessarily have been in Israel’s interests.
By way of example, Bennett cited Israeli interests in Syria, where “once or twice a week we attack the Iranian presence… Russia, the superpower, has the S-300 there, and if they press the button Israeli pilots will fall.”
“Who will save them? Biden? Zelensky? It [would have been] my problem,” he said, having earlier suggested that he had “made sure that Israel would have free rein in Syria” during his first in-person meeting with President Vladimir Putin — an ally of the Syrian and Iranian governments — prior the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
“[M]y focus is on Israel’s interests… My people,” Bennett said, explaining why he chose to position himself as a more non-aligned mediator between Putin and Zelensky after the outbreak of hostilities — and claiming that, without Western interference, his efforts might have succeeded.
Perhaps one of the more embarrassing claims made by Bennett with respect to the early period of the war is that he personally secured a guarantee from Putin that he would not kill President Volodymyr Zelensky, with the Ukrainian leader allegedly “in a secret bunker” before this promise was made.
Only after Bennett informed Zelensky of this gentleman’s agreement “by WhatsApp or Telegram”, the Israeli claimed, did the Ukrainian “[go] to his office and [film] himself there on his phone” saying “I’m not afraid.”
Of greater geopolitical consequence, however, is Bennett’s account of his efforts to mediate a ceasefire between the two sides, which saw him fly into Russia and then Germany — despite having previously “made a point of never setting foot in Germany because of the Holocaust” — in search of a compromise agreement.
Bennett said that he had approached U.S. President Joe Biden, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan before becoming “a pipeline” for negotiations between Putin and Zelensky, and that everything was “fully coordinated” with Biden, President Emmanuel Macron of France, then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, and Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany — who was said to be “very distressed” by the impact of the war on his country’s supply of Russian gas.
“Boris Johnson adopted the aggressive line, Macron and Scholz were more pragmatic, and Biden was both,” Bennett recalled, saying that it was his impression that Putin and Zelensky both “very much much wanted a ceasefire” and made significant concessions.
It was Ukraine’s backers, Bennett suggested, that proved to be the stumbling block, with there being a “decision by the West to keep striking Putin” despite his own belief, at least at the time, that a ceasefire was desirable.
“I turn to America in this regard, I don’t do as I please, anything I did was coordinated down to the last detail, with the U.S., Germany, and France,” he said, with his interviewer breaking in in an effort to cut to the chase.
“So they blocked it?” he asked.
“Basically, yes. They blocked it, and I thought they’re wrong. In retrospect, it’s too soon to know,” Bennett confirmed.
Bennett attempted to give a fair hearing to this alleged move by the West to block a ceasefire, noting the “downside[s] of the war going on” including the casualties on both sides, rising energy costs, impact on food exports to the Middle East — Ukraine and Russia both being major food producers — and the potential of a renewed migrant crisis in Europe if Africa, for example, is gripped by hunger, but conceding that Western governments may have other “legitimate” considerations.
“President Biden created an alliance vis a vis an aggressor, in the general perception, and this reflects on other arenas such as China, Taiwan, and there are consequences,” Bennett said, suggesting that the leaders of America, among other Western powers, were anxious to avoid an outcome that could be interpreted as rewarding Putin for “imperialism”.
“I have one claim, I claim there was a good chance of reaching a ceasefire, had they not curbed it,” Bennett said, while conceding that he could not say for sure whether they will prove to have been right or wrong to have done so over the long term: “Maybe [a ceasefire] would have conveyed the wrong message to other countries.”
Perhaps surprisingly, the Israeli expressed a certain sympathy, or at least understanding, of Putin’s hostility towards NATO expanding into countries surrounding Russia after the Cold War, noting that “on a sidenote, the Americans have a centuries-old doctrine called the Monroe Doctrine, whereby the hegemony over the Western Hemisphere, North and South America, belong to the USA.”
“As early as 200 years ago they didn’t want France and Britain there: ‘Don’t come here.’ And to a degree that’s Putin’s perception: ‘Don’t come here, this is my backyard,'” he explained.
He also offered Putin himself some praise, describing him as not only “very smart, very sharp” but as someone who “struck me as a pro-Semite.”
“He likes Jews very much. He had Jewish neighbours who raised him as a kid,” Bennett said, going on to reference a story about the Russian leader buying an apartment for a former teacher of his who now lives in Israel.
“There are two sides to him,” Bennet said — but stressed that he was “not denying the other side.”
The Israeli also said that Putin had been implacably opposed to meeting with Zelensky when he passed on a request from the Ukrainian for a
tête-à-tête prior to the invasion: “He was the nicest man up to then, and his gaze turned cold,” Bennett recalled, saying that the Russian denounced the Ukrainian government as “Nazis” and “warmongers” and ruled out a summit.
Bennett did not dismiss this narrative out of hand — despite Zelsnky’s Jewish background — stating that “Ukraine definitely was an accomplice, at certain times” of Germany during the Second World War.
He said the Great Patriotic War, as the Russians term it, is key to Putin’s identity, and that he built a rapport with the Russian leader by “voice[ing] the truth that the main force that defeated the Nazis, make no mistake, was the USSR, the Red Army” — while diplomatically glossing over the fact that the Soviets had previously been allied to the Nazis and invaded Poland along with them in 1939.
In terms of Israeli policy on the war, Bennett said he thought Prime Minister Netanyahu — “Bibi” — had refrained from attacking him over his approach while in opposition because he agreed it was a “very intelligent policy”.
This included, in addition to positioning himself as a mediator, providing Ukraine with humanitarian aid but not weapons — a position that has also been adopted by the Hungarian government, though the Hungarians have received comparatively far more criticism from the Biden administration and European Union establishment for it.
“[A]ll this talk of being on the right side of history, I get it, but I have a national need [to consider],” Bennett explained, stressing that he has “a responsibility” to think of the Jews in Russia and Ukraine and the potential impact of a more anti-Russian posture on them, in addition to aforementioned considerations such as Israeli operations in Syria.
“The policy was right; it led Israel safely for ten months to where it is now,” he said, adding that, if Netanyahu decides to pursue a different policy it in light of changing circumstances, “any change is legitimate.”