Netanyahu’s mediation dilemma to end Ukraine-Russia war

During a wide-ranging interview with CNN, broadcast on January 30, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was asked whether he would accept an offer, reportedly made by a senior advisor the Ukrainian President Zelensky, to try to mediate an end to the conflict between Ukraine and Russia.

Netanyahu told the station that he had been asked unofficially to mediate in the early days of the Russian invasion but had turned it down because he was not prime minister at the time. He said he would consider the idea now that he was back in power, but only if he was asked to do so by both sides – and by the US. It would have to be the “right time and the right circumstances.”

On the face of it, the Israel prime minister is better positioned than other leaders to mediate in the conflict. Since the start of the conflict last February Israel has been walking a diplomatic tightrope. While a strong ally of the US, the country is not part of the Western alliance, which is arming Kyiv with increasingly sophisticated weaponry with the aim of giving it the military edge and so forcing Moscow to negotiate a settlement. From the beginning, successive Israeli governments have refused calls to send weapons to Ukraine, limiting aid largely to humanitarian assistance.

This reluctance to arm Ukraine stems from Israeli concerns not to jeopardise the agreement Netanyahu personally negotiated with President Putin a decade ago, which allows Israeli warplanes to overfly Syria and carry out regular air strikes against Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed militias there. Netanyahu has made it clear that he regards Iran’s attempts to open up a third front against Israel in Syria, to supplement its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, as a fundamental threat to the country’s security – second only to the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon.

Netanyahu now says he is “looking into” sending Ukraine other unspecified help over and beyond humanitarian aid, but it is clear he is wary of angering Moscow and putting the agreement over Syria at risk, despite repeated US appeals to send weapons. Only last week US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken warned, on a visit to Jerusalem, of the need to provide Ukraine with security as well as humanitarian support.

Balancing its reliance on Moscow’s air cooperation in Syria, the Netanyahu government is trying to keep its ties with Ukraine. Netanyahu told Blinken he was “looking into” sending to Ukraine Israel’s Iron Dome air defence system, to help protect it from Russian air strikes on civilian infrastructure. And Foreign Minister Eli Cohen last week accepted an invitation by his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba to visit Kyiv. He would be the most senior Israeli official to do so since the start of the war.

Previous attempt by Israel to use its positive relations with both sides to act as a mediator have, however, failed. In the first weeks of the conflict, the then Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett, attempted to mediate between the two sides, reportedly at the invitation of President Zelensky. He held repeated phone conversations with both leaders and even flew to Moscow for a three-hour meeting with President Putin. All to no avail.

There is no guarantee that Netanyahu would fare any better today than Bennett did 11 months ago. He knows that the situation on the ground in Ukraine is not one that currently presents much prospect of a negotiated settlement. Both sides are preparing for a widely anticipated spring offensive. Western nations have agreed to provide battle tanks to Ukraine to either forestall Russian attacks or allow Ukraine to punch through Russian lines in the east with the belief that only this will force Moscow to accept negotiations.

Though Netanyahu has characterised the war in Ukraine as of global importance, ending it does not figure on his list of key goals for his sixth term in office: thwarting Iran’s nuclear ambitions; extending peace deals to Arab countries; and boosting Israel’s economy. The conflict clearly does not threaten Israel directly in the same way as it does European states. Netanyahu sees Iran as a much greater and more immediate danger.

Given his reliance on maintaining good relations with Moscow, Netanyahu’s leverage over Putin is limited. He would no doubt like to stop Moscow delivering drones to Ukraine and put a wheel in the spoke of the burgeoning military alliance between Iran and Russia that Blinken warned of in Jerusalem last week. But how can Netanyahu pressure Russia, even if he wanted to? He would have little chance of persuading Ukraine to downgrade its war aims and settle for a less than full liberation of its territory if the US and Western powers that are arming Ukraine currently cannot or will not do so. Crucially, the US shows no signs of seeking Netanyahu’s help as a mediator, his condition for taking on the job.

While Netanyahu would clearly relish the global prestige that would come to him and his country from successfully mediating an end to the war in Ukraine, he knows that such an outcome is highly unlikely in the foreseeable future. In the meantime, he is likely to focus on defending Israel’s security from the immediate danger he perceives from Iran’s nuclear programme and its support for regional militias and terrorist groups, while managing his right-wing government in the teeth of mass popular unrest and controlling the explosive security situation in the West Bank. As he told CNN, the Ukraine war may be of “monumental importance”, but Israel had its “own backyard to deal with.”

David Powell

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