The former Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett has said in an interview that Vladimir Putin told him he would not try to kill Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a promise made during a trip to Moscow shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine last year.
Speaking on a podcast with the Israeli journalist Hanoch Daum, published on Sunday, Bennett said he received assurance from Putin that the Ukrainian president’s life was not at risk during a secretive visit to the Russian capital last March aimed at mediation during the war’s early days.
“I asked: ‘Are you planning to kill Zelenskiy?’ He said: ‘I won’t kill Zelenskiy.’ I then said to him: ‘I have to understand that you’re giving me your word that you won’t kill Zelenskiy.’ He said: ‘I’m not going to kill Zelenskiy.’”
Bennett said he then called the Ukrainian leader on his way to Moscow’s airport, who asked: “‘Are you sure?’ and I told him: ‘Yes, 100%, he won’t kill you.’”
Bennett’s comments come after claims to the BBC last week from the former British prime minister Boris Johnson, who said Putin had threatened him with a missile strike that would “only take a minute”. The Kremlin said Johnson was lying.
Also on Sunday, the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper that Putin “has not made any threats against me or Germany” despite Scholz’s repeated and direct criticism of the invasion to the Russian leader.
According to Bennett, during his mediation efforts Zelenskiy agreed to give up the idea that Ukraine would join Nato, and Putin dropped a vow to seek Ukraine’s disarmament in order to end the war. “Everything I did was coordinated with the US, Germany and France,” he said.
Ultimately the Israeli leader’s efforts did little to stop the bloodshed in Ukraine, where the war is now approaching its first anniversary. He is now a private citizen, having stepped away from politics before November’s election, but his comments shed light on early backchannel efforts to de-escalate the situation.
Bennett – a prime minister largely untested on the international stage and whose government lasted just a year before collapsing in June 2022 – became an unlikely mediator at the beginning of the conflict. He was the first western-aligned leader to meet Putin in Moscow, seeking to balance Israel’s need for Russian cooperation for its military operations in Syria while mediating on behalf of western allies.
The country’s current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who returned from a brief stint in opposition after his far-right and religious bloc won last year’s election, has largely continued with Bennett’s policies.
Israel has repeatedly rebuffed requests from US and Ukrainian officials to send weaponry and air defence systems to Kyiv, focusing instead on humanitarian and medical aid.
Russia’s deployment of Iranian armed drones in Ukraine, however, was met with anger in Israel, where Tehran is viewed as an existential threat.
Israel has reportedly shared intelligence on Iran’s drone programme with Ukrainian officials, and has offered to assist Kyiv in creating a “lifesaving civilian early-warning system” to protect against aerial attack.