Zelensky Floats Idea for Jerusalem Summit, But Will It Sink?

An Israeli official firmly denies a report that Bennett suggested the Ukrainian leader surrender, according to Reuters.

President Zelensky at Kiev on March 12, 2022. Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP

President Zelensky’s suggestion that a summit to end the war on Ukraine take place in Jerusalem might remain just that for now, despite Mr. Zelensky’s conversations with Prime Minister Bennett.

In an hour-long conversation Saturday evening, the Times of Israel reported, Messrs. Zelensky and Bennett discussed, according to Mr. Bennett’s office, “ways to end the fighting in Ukraine and the efforts that Israel is making on this matter.” Mr. Zelensky tweeted afterward, in part: “We talked about Russian aggression and the prospects for peace talks.”

Before that phone call, Mr. Zelensky told reporters that “it’s not constructive to hold meetings in Russia, Ukraine, or Belarus.” Apparently it isn’t constructive to hold meetings in Turkey, either. Trilateral talks there last week included the foreign ministers of Russia, Ukraine, and Turkey but faltered. Mr. Zelensky also said, “Do I consider Israel, Jerusalem in particular, to be such a place? I think the answer is yes.” The Russian and also Israeli answers to that question may yet be more qualified. 

As Russian forces thrash Ukrainian cities with increasing ferocity — despite stiff Ukrainian resistance using weapons from the West — it is in Mr. Zelensky’s interest to make as much thunder as he can muster to ensure his country’s plight is front-and-center on the global stage. With the war approaching the three-week mark nothing is certain and even some lines of communication between allies can become crossed.

Earlier this week, the Jerusalem Post reported that, according to an unnamed source, Mr. Bennett had pressured Mr. Zelensky to accept broad concessions from Mr. Putin, but both an adviser to Mr. Zelensky and Mr. Bennett’s’s office quickly batted down that suggestion, which, according to Hebrew-language reports, likely came from an unnamed Ukrainian official.

A “senior Israeli official” was quoted by Reuters on Saturday morning as calling the report “patently false.” The way the official put it, Reuters reported, is that “At no point did Prime Minister Bennett advise President Zelenskiy to take a deal from Putin — because no such deal was offered to Israel for us to be able to do so. Bennett has at no point told Zelenskiy how to act, nor does he have any intention to.”

“In Kiev, they are appreciative of Bennett’s mediation efforts and they’re not complaining that he’s not fair,” the chief diplomatic correspondent of the Jerusalem Post, Lahav Harkov, tells the Sun. “I’m sure that he told Zelensky what Putin wants, but my understanding from the very top people working with Prime Minister Bennett is that he doesn’t feel like it’s his job as a mediator to be putting pressure on Zelensky.”

Saturday evening’s phone call from Mr. Zelensky came a week after Mr. Bennett’s trip to Moscow to meet with President Putin. Mr. Bennett is reportedly the first leader to have met with Mr. Putin since Russia invaded Ukraine last month, a fact that has raised Israel’s profile in the global quest to see Moscow and Kiev hash out a ceasefire agreement to end the war.

The fighting has already left thousands dead and injured. It has generated a refugee crisis in Europe the likes of which have not been seen since World War II. If Mr. Zelensky’s idea for a Jerusalem summit seems far-fetched, it is worth recalling that Israel maintains good relations with both Moscow and Kiev and that the Ukrainian and Israeli leaders have already spoken several times since Russia’s attack began. 

Yet a healthy dialogue between the two men — who are both Jewish and both still in their 40s — is not the same thing as getting two parties to a war to sit at a negotiating table in Israel’s capital, regardless of how symbolic a setting for a summit it would be.

For one thing, the more days that go by without a summit, the more offensive maneuvers Russian forces can conduct in Ukraine. That may be why unnamed Israeli government sources were cited by Israel’s Channel 12 as saying that Mr. Putin was considering the proposal but that “it’s premature to assess its chances.”

While all eyes are on Kiev on both the military and diplomatic fronts, and for all the chatter about Israel’s newfound role as an unofficial mediator, it would be naive to underestimate some of Jerusalem’s trepidation about actually hosting Messrs. Zelensky and Putin in the Holy Land. Sometimes meetings with the loftiest goals can have unintended consequences, like the failed rounds of Israel’s negotiations with the Palestinians that, Ms. Harkov notes, ended up in an increase  in terrorism in 2015 after attempted talks failed the year prior.

 “Bennett is now just sort of passing messages back and forth and talking to Zelensky, but he doesn’t want to get so involved to the point that he would be hosting it in Jerusalem unless he sees real will to really engage in the talks,” Ms. Harkov says. “So right now while Bennett is taking Zelensky’s calls and trying to talk to Putin for him, the Jerusalem thing — which is Zelensky’s idea and not Bennett’s idea — I think is on hold until there’s greater will.” That must come from Moscow, of course, but in Jerusalem, “they won’t say that specifically because they want to be fair brokers,” Ms. Harkov says.

The New York Sun

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