Cohen passed US messages to Russia’s Lavrov during phone call — Israeli diplomat

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken asked new Foreign Minister Eli Cohen to deliver messages to Russia in a phone call on Monday, a senior diplomatic official told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

Cohen spoke with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday afternoon and delivered the messages.

The Israeli official would not reveal what the American messages were.

Neither Israeli nor American records mentioned any discussion of the 10-month war in Ukraine. The State Department did not respond to a request for confirmation.

The Israeli official said Blinken was aware of the planned call with Lavrov before speaking with Cohen on Monday. The Russians had requested the call, the Israeli official told The Times of Israel.

Speaking to Israeli diplomats on Monday, Foreign Minister Cohen revealed he would meet with Lavrov the following day. He did not indicate any scheduled calls with his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba. Around noon Tuesday, Israel requested a call with Kuleba.

Critics of Monday’s speech, including a senior Republican lawmaker in the United States, saw it as a possible sign that the new government in Jerusalem would be moving in a pro-Kremlin direction.

A senior Ukrainian official had said Kyiv would expect Cohen to delay or cancel his call with Lavrov and talk to Kuleba first – which did not happen. The official indicated that if Cohen were to have a conversation with Lavrov first, Kuleba may decline any calls with Cohen in the near future.

There has been no request from Kyiv regarding a call between Kuleba and Cohen.

File: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during the G20 Foreign Ministers Meeting in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia, July 8, 2022. (Willy Kurniawan/Pool Photo via AP)

“No change to Moscow”

The Israeli diplomatic official strongly rejected the idea that Israel was changing its policy on the Russian-Ukrainian war, calling it “confusion”.

Cohen emphasized in his Monday speech that Israel’s humanitarian aid to Ukraine would continue, but noted that while further details on Israel’s policy on this were still being worked out, “a thing is certain, it is that we will talk about it less in public”.

FILE: Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba is seen after a meeting of NATO foreign ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels, April 7, 2022. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool Photo via AP)

The official said that “when the minister said we would talk less, the intention was Israel’s attempts at mediation, the public nature of which – in his view – has harmed Israel.”

At the start of the invasion, then-Prime Minister Naftali Bennett held a handful of calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky, seeking to exploit Israel’s working relationship with the two countries to help broker a ceasefire to end the war. He even visited Moscow in March 2022, where he became the first foreign leader to meet Putin in person since the invasion began on February 24.

But he failed to make any progress after several weeks and eventually put the effort aside to focus on the political unrest at home.

Israeli sources told The Times of Israel that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be open to mediation if asked by either side.

File: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Russian President Vladimir Putin cut the ribbon to unveil the Memorial Candle monument in Jerusalem on January 23, 2020 to commemorate the residents of Leningrad during the Nazi siege in World War II world on the city. (Amit SHABI / POOL / AFP)

During Netanyahu’s last term, before the war, Zelensky asked Netanyahu to speak with Putin to arrange a conversation, but the Kremlin showed little interest in talking to Kyiv at the time.

Republican U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, an outspoken Republican voice in favor of Ukraine aid, was among those who saw Cohen’s remarks as an indication that the Netanyahu government would avoid publicly denouncing Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

“The idea that Israel should talk less about Russia’s criminal invasion of Ukraine is a little baffling,” Graham said in a tweet.

FILE – In this March 10, 2016 file photo, Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

“I hope Mr. Cohen understands that when he addresses Lavrov in Russia, he is addressing a representative of a war criminal regime that commits war crimes on an industrial scale every day. Staying silent about Russia’s criminal behavior will not age well,” Graham added.

The previous government led by Bennett and Yair Lapid had refused Ukrainian requests for weapons, but Lapid repeatedly spoke out against the Russian invasion, accusing the Kremlin of committing war crimes. The comments were welcomed in the West but stoked tensions with Moscow, even as Jerusalem tried to maintain a semblance of neutrality.

Kyiv has said it needs Israel’s help in air defense technology to counter Russia’s ongoing strikes on its civilian infrastructure. Israel has so far refused to provide such aid, apparently concerned about Russia’s reaction.

During his previous terms, Netanyahu has touted his close relationship with Putin and insisted that maintaining the IDF’s ability to operate freely from the Russian-controlled skies above Syria was essential in order to prevent the entrenchment of Iranian forces on Israel’s northern border. As opposition leader, he initially criticized the previous government for neglecting ties with Russia as Jerusalem took several limited steps to support Ukraine after Putin’s forces invaded in February .

Rescuers clear debris from houses destroyed by a missile attack in the outskirts of Kyiv on December 29, 2022, following a Russian missile strike on Ukraine. (Genia Savilov/AFP)

However, Netanyahu has changed his tune more recently. In an interview ahead of the November election, he described the Bennett-Lapid government’s Ukraine policy – which saw Israel provide humanitarian aid, operate a field hospital in Ukraine and take in a limited number of largely Jewish refugees while stopping before supplying Kiev- requested military aid – as “pragmatic”.

Netanyahu even said he would consider arming Ukraine if he returned to the premiership, and told Zelensky after the election that he had yet to determine Israel’s policy. He also assured the Ukrainian president that he would stay informed.

Netanyahu said in the October interview that the mediation offer would “probably come back” if he returned to power.

Netanyahu and Putin spoke last week in a congratulatory call the Israeli prime minister agreed to take as Zelensky delivered a speech to a joint session of the US Congress, during which he pleaded for US help extra to repel the Russian invasion.

Netanyahu and Zelensky spoke by phone on Friday. Netanyahu pressed Ukrainian leader to vote against upcoming UN resolution, but would not commit to any action when asked about quid pro quo involving transfer of defensive aid to intercept strikes, report says Russians.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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