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Opinion Israel offers to host peace talks between Russia and Ukraine

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett welcomes orphans from Zhytomyr, Ukraine, at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel on March 6. (Maya Alleruzzo/AP)

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is “willing to host” peace talks in Jerusalem between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin if both sides agree, according to an Israeli official familiar with the matter.

The Israeli mediation bid, potentially the most hopeful diplomatic development since Russia invaded Ukraine two weeks ago, emerged after Bennett’s visit last Saturday to Putin in Moscow. Bennett remains “very cautious” about the negotiating effort, the Israeli official said.

U.S. officials who have been briefed on the Israeli initiative see it as a possible exit ramp in the increasingly brutal confrontation. But a U.S. official emphasized that any decision about a negotiated settlement should be left to Zelensky rather than imposed from outside.

Bennett’s conversations with Putin and Zelensky over the past week haven’t produced any breakthroughs. However, a Western official told me, “Bennett’s ability to communicate between the sides brought about a shift in the positions of both sides since the beginning of his mediation — from existential to territorial.” Putin, in effect, is no longer demanding Ukraine’s dissolution.

Bennett’s penchant for bridging seemingly impossible divides is evident in his leadership of an Israeli coalition government that stretches from his own right-wing party Yamina to centrist coalition partner Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid faction all the way to an Islamist party called the United Arab List. His government, in place for less than a year, has been criticized for not opposing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine more vocally. It didn’t endorse a Feb. 25 U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the invasion but did join 140 other countries in a March 2 General Assembly condemnation. Israeli officials said at the time that they hoped to keep lines open with both sides to encourage mediation.

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The reciprocal concessions Bennett has helped broker might seem small, but they open a window for broader diplomacy. The biggest problem is that such a realpolitik deal might offend global public opinion, which sees Putin as a brutal aggressor whose bombardment of civilians could constitute war crimes, while Zelensky is seen as an uncompromising hero. Some allies also worry that any agreement that rewards Putin’s aggression will only encourage future such behavior.

Still, the mediation has yielded some progress. According to a knowledgeable official, Putin has backed away from his initial demand for “demilitarization and denazification” of Ukraine. Rather than neutering Ukraine through total disarmament, Putin might accept a neutral status like that of Austria. As for “denazification,” Putin has indicated he could accept continuation of the current government headed by Zelensky, who is Jewish, rather than demanding regime change.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov signaled Putin’s altered demands in public comments Monday. On Russia’s initial insistence that NATO permanently exclude Ukraine, Peskov proposed that Ukraine amend its constitution to “reject any aims to enter any bloc.” He also demanded that Ukraine “recognize that Crimea is Russian territory [and that Donetsk and Luhansk] are independent states. And that’s it. It will stop in a moment.” In 2014, Russia invaded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula, and Russian-backed rebels seized government buildings in Donetsk and Luhansk.

Zelensky has also eased his positions. On Russia’s key demand that Ukraine forswear NATO membership, he told ABC News this week that he wasn’t pushing to join the alliance any longer. “Regarding NATO, I have cooled down regarding this question long ago after we understood that NATO is not prepared to accept Ukraine,” Zelensky said through an interpreter.

Zelensky said he would also consider “compromise” on Donetsk and Luhansk, the two Russian-controlled territories that Putin recognized as independent just before he invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. “The people who elected me are not ready to surrender. We are not ready for ultimatums,” Zelensky said. “But we can discuss with Russia the future of Crimea and Donbas.”

To make sure that Zelensky meant what he told ABC, Bennett called him after the interview and received an assurance. Bennett then called Putin to affirm Zelensky’s response.

Putin sent Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to meet Dmytro Kuleba, his Ukrainian counterpart, on Thursday in Turkey. No substantive progress was announced, but the two agreed to meet again.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has been a key facilitator of the talks. When he visited Israel on March 2, he apparently urged Bennett to use Israel’s special access to Russia and Ukraine, which both have large Jewish communities, to encourage contact. After Bennett visited with Putin last Saturday, the Israeli prime minister stopped in Berlin to brief the German chancellor.

During Scholz’s visit to Israel, Bennett said, according to the Jerusalem Post, “The responsibility on us as leaders is to do everything in order to stop the bloodshed and move what is happening as soon as possible from the battlefield to the negotiating rooms.”

Putin’s disgraceful behavior in Ukraine will define him in history. Perhaps the only decent off-ramp for him is defeat. But as we learned in the Cuban missile crisis, prudent compromise is necessary to resolve disputes in the nuclear era. If an Israeli prime minister can draw Putin back from the brink of this catastrophe, the world will be grateful.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following staged referendums that were widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.

The response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, in an apparent answer to the annexations.

In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on Sept. 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.

The fight: Ukraine mounted a successful counteroffensive that forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

Read our full coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war. Are you on Telegram? Subscribe to our channel for updates and exclusive video.