Israel sends a message to Moscow from Washington

Israel’s new foreign minister, Eli Cohen, has barely had time to get the keys to the men’s room in his new office and he is already engaged in high-level diplomatic talks. He took a call from Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, on Wednesday, January 4, that followed a call with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken the day before. Cohen had been approached by Lavrov requesting a call, and that request was discussed between Israel and the United States before Cohen took the call. In addition, according to most press reports, the US passed a message to Lavrov. No one has yet said what was in the message. When Israel’s foreign ministry let it be known that there would be a call with Cohen and Lavrov the Ukrainian government reacted in anger, claiming that the Israeli foreign minister should have talked first to Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba.  Israel did apparently request a call with Kuleba, but did not plan on speaking to him until after the Lavrov phone call. Ukraine directly threatened that if Israel did not coordinate with it, Ukraine’s foreign minister would block future contracts with Israel’s foreign ministry. Apparently unmoved by those threats, US State Department spokesman Ned Price had this comment: “Israel has a relationship with Russia. Israel’s relationship with Russia looks different from the relationship the United States has with Russia. That’s okay.” Price added: “We’ve consistently made the point that a number of countries around the world have engaged with the Russians in an effort to bring about an end to their illegal, unprovoked, unjustified war.” State Department Spokesman Ned Price. Photo: Supplied Price’s statement tells us that the purpose of sending a message to Lavrov through Israel was to communicate ideas on resolving the Ukraine conflict. This is not the first time Israeli has been involved in mediation efforts with Russia on Ukraine. In early March 2022, then-Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett flew to Moscow at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invitation to discuss Ukraine.  Immediately thereafter, Bennett spoke directly to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and then flew on from Moscow to meet with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.  Bennett’s discussions with Putin were coordinated with the United States, France and Germany. Despite a long session with Putin – the meeting stretched over three hours – no positive results came from the effort.  Later, Turkey played the same mediatory role between Ukraine and Russia by hosting negotiations. However, the Ukrainians backed out and did not continue to participate in that effort. For the past few months, it has been widely reported that the US wanted to persuade Zelensky to be more forthcoming. He has reportedly steadfastly refused. Under pressure, Zelensky released a “peace plan” that called for a complete Russian capitulation and war crimes trials. That proposal was summarily rejected by the Russian side.  It is widely believed there is a clash between the US National Security Council and the Department of State on negotiating with the Russians, with the NSC taking a hard line and State pushing for a diplomatic solution. Israel has been in close touch with both the NSC and the State Department. In mid-January, NSC Adviser Jake Sullivan is planning to visit Israel to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. However, the current initiative appears to be promoted only by the State Department. Meanwhile, both State and NSC are also trying to convince Netanyahu to back a two-state solution with the Palestinians, something that is quite unlikely given the makeup of Israel’s new government. Times have changed since last March. The Russian offensive in Ukraine is stalled. There is concern that Russia will mobilize further, and even bring Belarus in as a partner, to try and turn the tide. Ukraine believes it is winning and that it can chase the Russians out. But Ukraine keeps asking for more and better weapons to do the job. Western arsenals are badly depleted and with a resurgent China, the US finds itself nearly empty-handed in case a conflict breaks out over Taiwan.  Russia is hinting it will bomb incoming supply lines if more weapons are bought into Ukraine, and Moscow is not shy about saying it is fighting NATO as much as Ukraine. All of this augurs for a deal if one can be found.   Israel, beyond the Ukraine war, wants to improve its status with Russia. Israel and the international Jewish community are concerned about the welfare of Jews in Russia. The former Moscow chief rabbi, now in exile, has called on Russian Jews to leave before it is too late. Child immigrants from Ukraine arriving at Ben Gurion Airport in central Israel on February 20, 2022. Image: Screengrab / i24 News via AFP Israel is also worried about the growing military alliance between Iran and Russia. The Netanyahu administration has already carried out a rai

Israel sends a message to Moscow from Washington

Israel’s new foreign minister, Eli Cohen, has barely had time to get the keys to the men’s room in his new office and he is already engaged in high-level diplomatic talks.

He took a call from Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, on Wednesday, January 4, that followed a call with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken the day before.

Cohen had been approached by Lavrov requesting a call, and that request was discussed between Israel and the United States before Cohen took the call. In addition, according to most press reports, the US passed a message to Lavrov. No one has yet said what was in the message.

When Israel’s foreign ministry let it be known that there would be a call with Cohen and Lavrov the Ukrainian government reacted in anger, claiming that the Israeli foreign minister should have talked first to Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba. 

Israel did apparently request a call with Kuleba, but did not plan on speaking to him until after the Lavrov phone call. Ukraine directly threatened that if Israel did not coordinate with it, Ukraine’s foreign minister would block future contracts with Israel’s foreign ministry.

Apparently unmoved by those threats, US State Department spokesman Ned Price had this comment: “Israel has a relationship with Russia. Israel’s relationship with Russia looks different from the relationship the United States has with Russia. That’s okay.”

Price added: “We’ve consistently made the point that a number of countries around the world have engaged with the Russians in an effort to bring about an end to their illegal, unprovoked, unjustified war.”

Statement by Department of State Spokesperson Ned Price calling for the  Immediate Release of Aleksey Navalny - U.S. Embassy & Consulates in RussiaStatement by Department of State Spokesperson Ned Price calling for the  Immediate Release of Aleksey Navalny - U.S. Embassy & Consulates in Russia
State Department Spokesman Ned Price. Photo: Supplied

Price’s statement tells us that the purpose of sending a message to Lavrov through Israel was to communicate ideas on resolving the Ukraine conflict.

This is not the first time Israeli has been involved in mediation efforts with Russia on Ukraine. In early March 2022, then-Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett flew to Moscow at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invitation to discuss Ukraine. 

Immediately thereafter, Bennett spoke directly to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and then flew on from Moscow to meet with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. 

Bennett’s discussions with Putin were coordinated with the United States, France and Germany. Despite a long session with Putin – the meeting stretched over three hours – no positive results came from the effort. 

Later, Turkey played the same mediatory role between Ukraine and Russia by hosting negotiations. However, the Ukrainians backed out and did not continue to participate in that effort.

For the past few months, it has been widely reported that the US wanted to persuade Zelensky to be more forthcoming. He has reportedly steadfastly refused. Under pressure, Zelensky released a “peace plan” that called for a complete Russian capitulation and war crimes trials. That proposal was summarily rejected by the Russian side. 

It is widely believed there is a clash between the US National Security Council and the Department of State on negotiating with the Russians, with the NSC taking a hard line and State pushing for a diplomatic solution.

Israel has been in close touch with both the NSC and the State Department. In mid-January, NSC Adviser Jake Sullivan is planning to visit Israel to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. However, the current initiative appears to be promoted only by the State Department.

Meanwhile, both State and NSC are also trying to convince Netanyahu to back a two-state solution with the Palestinians, something that is quite unlikely given the makeup of Israel’s new government.

Times have changed since last March. The Russian offensive in Ukraine is stalled. There is concern that Russia will mobilize further, and even bring Belarus in as a partner, to try and turn the tide. Ukraine believes it is winning and that it can chase the Russians out.

But Ukraine keeps asking for more and better weapons to do the job. Western arsenals are badly depleted and with a resurgent China, the US finds itself nearly empty-handed in case a conflict breaks out over Taiwan. 

Russia is hinting it will bomb incoming supply lines if more weapons are bought into Ukraine, and Moscow is not shy about saying it is fighting NATO as much as Ukraine.

All of this augurs for a deal if one can be found.  

Israel, beyond the Ukraine war, wants to improve its status with Russia. Israel and the international Jewish community are concerned about the welfare of Jews in Russia. The former Moscow chief rabbi, now in exile, has called on Russian Jews to leave before it is too late.

Child immigrants from Ukraine arriving at Ben Gurion Airport in central Israel on February 20, 2022. Image: Screengrab / i24 News via AFP

Israel is also worried about the growing military alliance between Iran and Russia. The Netanyahu administration has already carried out a raid on the Damascus airport, probably testing the deconfliction deal it has with the Russians.  

Meanwhile, the situation inside Russia is growing more tense and difficult. The heavy casualties in the past few days, with hundreds of Russian soldiers killed or wounded, are causing alarm at home.  

Perhaps there is a window of opportunity, but only if it is supported by the parties, especially the United States.

Stephen Bryen is a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy and the Yorktown Institute. This article first appeared on his Substack publication Weapons and Policy and is republished with permission.