The war in Ukraine precipitated tensions between Washington and Moscow that impaired their ability to talk to each other directly. Diplomatic sources leaked that in the first telephone call between new Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and his counterpart Antony Blinken, the U.S. Secretary of State asked Cohen to “relay messages” to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. It seems that Washington sees Jerusalem as appropriate for playing a mediator role in ending the continuous war in Ukraine.
Cohen spoke to Lavrov the next day, but it is unclear whether Israel is trying to resume the role of mediator that former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett played for a short period.
Israel is a good candidate for the job. Russia has good relations with Israel, which Moscow considers a crucial regional player with considerable influence in the U.S., while Washington sees Israel as a trusted ally. It is worth noting that Israel hosted an unprecedented trilateral meeting in Jerusalem in May 2019 of the national security advisers of Russia, America and Israel (John Bolton, Nikolai Patrushev and Meir Ben-Shabbat).
Israel’s old-new Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a warm personal relationship with both U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin. While state interests define every nation’s priorities, trustworthy personal interactions can help bridge differences. Moreover, Israel’s nuanced position on the armed conflict in Ukraine is acceptable to Moscow and Washington and is a good springboard for mediation.
Israel and Russia have a good working relationship, and both countries benefit from and appreciate the de-conflicting mechanism established between them in Syria. Israel treats Russia with caution due to its military involvement in the civil war in Syria. It also needs to prevent Moscow from interfering with Jerusalem’s freedom of action in attacking Iranian attempts to build a missile launching pad in Syria and its effort to transfer advanced weapons to Hezbollah. Furthermore, Russia is pleased that Israel is unwilling to provide Ukraine with all items on its military equipment shopping list. Cohen’s statement that Israel’s new government will talk less publicly about the war in Ukraine signals a position better suited for mediation.
A new mediation effort by Israel could further elevate its international status. In its country rankings for 2022, U.S. News & World Report listed Israel as the world’s 10th-most powerful nation, citing the Jewish state’s military strength and influential status in politics and the global economy. Moreover, pursuing such a mediation role makes Israel’s reluctance to side entirely with the anti-Russian position of most Western countries more acceptable. Even if it is not successful, an attempt to end the tragedy of Ukraine appears to everyone as a noble mission. It legitimizes close contacts with Russia and deflects any criticism of Israel’s stance on Ukraine. Finally, a request from Washington should be accepted if no price is attached.
While the war in Ukraine is popular in the U.S., some voices are expressing the risk of it continuing and the need to bring it to a quick end. However, Israel or any mediator can only achieve an agreement between the warring sides if there is a moment of ripeness, i.e., the circumstances allow the actors to make the necessary concessions for ending hostilities. The Americans have achieved their strategic goal of weakening Russia, and the continuation of the war requires resources that Moscow could make better use of elsewhere. Moreover, the risks of a nuclear escalation should not be overlooked. Most importantly, the war diverts American attention from its central challenge: China.
While Russia, which has been fighting since February 2022 with little success, is looking for an exit option from its Ukraine adventure, it probably has not suffered enough to end the war at this time. It is thus unclear whether Russia is ready to compromise. Even while the war undermines Putin’s leadership at home, he seems prepared to continue the war of attrition.
Indeed, the weariness of conflict is usually the main reason to end it. Ukraine is definitely not there. Under President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine is still displaying ample energy in trying to attain maximalist goals, which foreclose the possibility of a compromise. Nevertheless, Ukraine needs Western assistance to continue the war, which allows the U.S. some leverage on its decision.
The prospects for a successful mediation by Israel are not good. However, the process of mediation has certain advantages. Therefore, if the U.S. has asked Israel to mediate, Jerusalem should comply.
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