YEVGENY BIYATOV/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images
- Former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett discussed his efforts to broker peace between Ukraine and Russia.
- Pro-Russia commentators have focused on his saying that a peace deal was “blocked” by the West.
- But Bennett has clarified that no such deal existed — and said talks broke down because of apparent Russian war crimes.
A former Israeli prime minister is walking back his suggestion that the United States may have “blocked” an agreement last year to end the war in Ukraine, a claim that had been amplified by Russian state media and Kremlin sympathizers in the West.
In a sprawling, five-hour interview posted to his YouTube channel over the weekend, Naftali Bennett — Israel’s prime minister at the time Russia invaded Ukraine — discussed his efforts to negotiate a ceasefire, claiming he had extracted a pledge from Russian President Vladimir Putin to not assassinate his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
After the interview was posted, Sputnik, a Russian state media outlet, claimed it was evidence that the US and its allies had “halted efforts to put an end to the Russia-Ukraine crisis.” On social media, pundits sympathetic to the Russian position likewise asserted that the interview was evidence that a pro-war establishment in the West was to blame for the continued bloodshed in Ukraine.
“Bombshell: Former Israeli prime minister says that Western leaders blocked #Ukraine & #Russia peace deal,” Ivan Katchanovski, a Canadian political science professor, wrote on Twitter. The post from Katchanovski — who has claimed that the 2014 sniper attacks on protesters in Ukraine were a “false flag” operation intended to frame its former pro-Russia government — attracted the attention of Twitter’s CEO, Elon Musk, who responded: “??“
“I was told something very similar,” Jordan Peterson, a right-wing Canadian influencer, chimed in.
But a reader note appended to Katchanovski’s post by Twitter itself highlights some of the missing context: that there was no actual deal to block — and Bennett himself wasn’t sure that one would have been desirable, anyway.
The commentary also omitted Bennett’s explanation for the ultimate failure to strike a peace agreement: the massacre of civilians in Bucha, Ukraine, which is being investigated as an apparent war crime that led Kyiv to break off talks.
The full story
As recounted in the interview, Bennett visited Russia a few months before the war, where he then relayed to Putin a request from Zelenskyy to meet. “They’re Nazis, they’re warmongers, I won’t meet him,” Putin responded, in Bennett’s telling.
After the war began in February 2022, Bennett said he tried again to work as an intermediary between Putin and Zelensky, acknowledging that his primary interest was his own country’s security.
“The war breaks out, and I’m instantly between a rock and a hard place,” Bennett recounted. The Americans, he said, expected “that we all rally for Ukraine.” But in Syria, a Russian ally, Israel conducts regular airstrikes with the Kremlin’s support. “Once or twice a week, we attack the Iranian presence in Syria, and Russia, the superpower, has the S-300 [air defense system] there, and if they press the button, Israeli pilots will fall.”
Bennett, who left office in June 2022, was also concerned about the fate of Jews in Russia and Ukraine, he said.
In the weeks following the invasion, Bennett said he spoke with both Putin and Zelenskyy, and even made a secret trip to Moscow, in an effort to negotiate an end to the conflict. At the time, Zelenskyy himself noted that the Israeli prime minister was “trying to find a way of holding talks,” a fact for which “we are grateful.”
‘I can’t say they were wrong’
After his interview drew the attention of Musk, the former Israeli prime minister himself went on Twitter to correct some of the commentary.
“It’s unsure there was any deal to be made,” Bennett said in response to Musk. “At the time I gave it roughly a 50% chance. Americans felt chances were way lower. Hard to tell who was right.”
He continued: “It’s not sure such a deal was desirable. At the time I thought so, but only time will tell.”
The comments echo Bennett’s remarks in the interview. While noting that some of Israel’s allies disagreed that a peace agreement was a good idea in March 2022, Bennet said that all were aware of what he was doing. “Anything I did was coordinated down to the last detail with the US, Germany, and France,” he said. But, he noted, some believed it would be better to “keep striking Putin,” lest he or other leaders be emboldened by a seeming desire for peace at any cost.
The next exchange is what went viral. The interview, conducted in Hebrew, includes English subtitles on YouTube. According to that translation, the interviewer asked Bennett: “So they blocked it?”
“Basically, yes, they blocked [it] and I thought they were wrong,” Bennett responded.
The English subtitles are flawed, however. In the exchange, Bennett and the interviewer do not use the word “blocked” but rather “stopped,” referring to ongoing peace talks, not an agreement.
“I can’t say if they were wrong,” Bennett added.
It is also not clear that any countries — other than Ukraine and Russia — would have been in a position to veto a peace agreement; the US and others can supply Ukraine with weapons and other aid, but they cannot force Ukrainians to fight. And as Bennett said in the interview, he was but “a mediator” between Kyiv and Moscow, which were also engaged in discussions at the time along the Ukraine-Belarus border.
The Biden administration insists that it supports Kyiv’s decision to either keep fighting or negotiate a settlement. More recently, Ukrainian officials have described any talk of a ceasefire as a ploy by Russia that would allow it more time to rebuild its military ahead of a new offensive. They have ruled out conceding any land seized by Russia since 2014 when Moscow illegally annexed Crimea and sent irregular forces into eastern Ukraine.
In the interview, Bennett himself notes that it was not the US, France, or Germany that put an end to any peace talks. Rather, it was Russia slaughtering hundreds of civilians in a town outside the Ukrainian capital, a war crime discovered just about a month after the full-scale invasion began.
“The Bucha massacre, once that happened, I said: ‘It’s over,'” Bennett recalled.