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March 21, 2022 11:03 am

Bennett Says ‘Very Large Gaps’ Remain in Ukraine-Russia Mediation, Defends Israeli Efforts to Help

avatar by Sharon Wrobel

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett attends a ceremony at Ben-Gurion airport for the departure of an Israeli aid delegation to Ukraine. Photo: Haim Zach / GPO

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett Monday said “some progress” has been made in Israeli-led ceasefire talks between Moscow and Kyiv but that “very large gaps” on key issues remain, as he defended Israel’s efforts to aid Ukraine following criticism from its leader Volodymyr Zelensky.

“There is still a long way to go because of differences on some issues, some of them fundamental issues, which are still great,” Bennett said at a conference organized by Israel’s Ynet news site. “We will continue, together with other countries in the world to try to bridge [between the sides] to bring an end to the war, that is the best we can hope for.”

As signs of forward momentum, Bennett cited Russia no longer demanding the removal of Ukrainian President Zelensky or the “demilitarization” of Ukraine. Meanwhile, Ukraine has backed away from insisting on joining the NATO alliance, he said.

Bennett has in recent days continued mediation efforts between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Zelensky, holding back-to-back calls with both leaders to try resolve the conflict, which began with Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine.

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Zelensky on Sunday commended Israel for its efforts to set up peace talks between his country and Russia, and suggested they might happen in Jerusalem. He struck a markedly different tone from just hours earlier, when during a speech to Knesset members Zelensky sharply criticized Israel for not doing enough to help Ukraine as it sought to mediate with Moscow.

Commenting on Zelensky’s Sunday address, during which he compared Russian aggression to the Holocaust, Bennett said that although he sympathizes with the suffering of the Ukrainian people, invoking the Nazi atrocities was not appropriate.

“Zelensky is a leader who is fighting for the survival of his people. Many hundreds of dead, millions of refugees. I cannot imagine what it is like to be in his shoes,” Bennett remarked. “However, I personally believe that the Holocaust must not be compared to anything.”

“It is a unique event, unlike any other event in human history with the systematic extermination of a people, into gas chambers. It is unprecedented,” he continued.

On the question of Ukraine’s demand to supply weapons, including the Iron Dome defense system, Bennett said that Israel in the current conflict was guided by principles of “generosity and sensitivity to the huge plight of the Ukrainian people, alongside Israeli interests.”

“My responsibility in the end is for the existence of the state of Israel, its security and the security of its citizens, and we are doing it in the right way in my view,” Bennett added.

Although Israel has sent medical and humanitarian aid to Ukraine and is setting up a field hospital in the country this week, while also letting in both Jewish and non-Jewish Ukrainian refugees, it has not agreed to supply Kyiv with military aid.

Speaking at the Ben-Gurion International Airport departure ceremony on Monday for the Israeli aid delegation that will set up the field hospital, Bennett asserted that Israel is “managing this unfortunate crisis with sensitivity, generosity and responsibility, while maintaining a balance between the various factors — and they are complex.”

“Israel has been extending its hand to render assistance in the crisis in Ukraine for several weeks now, from the very first moment,” Bennett pointed out. “I want to state as clearly as possible: the people of Israel and the Israeli public can be proud of the contribution and the assistance of the State of Israel to the citizens of Ukraine.”

Bennett noted as examples the field hospital, shipments of medicine and medical equipment, and the 15,000 Ukrainians who have already entered Israel’s borders.

“We are opening our doors until the storm passes in order to give them relief,” he said.

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