TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) – A former Israeli prime minister who served briefly as a mediator at the start of Russia’s war with Ukraine says he drew a promise from the Russian president not to kill his Ukrainian counterpart.
Former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett became an unlikely intermediary in the war’s first weeks, becoming one of the few Western leaders to meet President Vladimir Putin during the war in a snap trip to Moscow last March.
While Bennett’s mediation efforts appear to have done little to end the bloodshed that continues until today, his remarks, in an interview posted online late Saturday, shed light on the backroom diplomacy and urgent efforts that were underway to try to bring the conflict to a speedy conclusion in its early days.
Bennett stated that Putin asked him about his plans to murder Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in the 5-hour interview.
“I asked ‘what’s up with this? Are you planning to kill Zelensky?’ He said ‘I won’t kill Zelensky.’ I then said to him ‘I have to understand that you’re giving me your word that you won’t kill Zelensky.’ He said ‘I’m not going to kill Zelensky.’”
Bennett said he then called Zelensky to inform him of Putin’s pledge.
“‘Listen, I came out of a meeting, he’s not going to kill you.’ He asks, ‘are you sure?’ I said ‘100 per cent he won’t kill you.’”
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Bennett said that during his mediation, Putin dropped his vow to seek Ukraine’s disarmament and Zelensky promised not to join NATO.
Bennett was a relatively untested leader. After having served for less than six months as the prime minister of Israel, he unexpectedly stepped into international diplomacy. This happened after he placed Israel in an unpleasant middle ground with Russia and Ukraine. Israel regards its positive ties with Russia as strategically important in the face Iranian threats. It also aligns itself to Western nations, and seeks support for Ukraine.
A religious Jew who is little-known outside of Israel, he traveled to Moscow to meet with Putin. He broke his religious vows to the Jews and put himself in the forefront for global efforts to end the war.
His peacemaking efforts failed to materialize and his tenure in office was brief. Bennett’s government, an ideologically diverse union that sent current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into a brief political exile, collapsed in the summer over infighting. Bennett has resigned from politics, and is now an individual citizen.
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