Putin apologizes to Israel for bizarre 'Nazi' comments

After a series of outlandish accusations from the Kremlin about Jewish complicity in the Holocaust, Russian President Vladimir Putin has apologized to his Israeli counterpart, Naftali Bennett.

Bennett and other Israeli leaders had taken offense at the suggestion that Jews had been partly responsible for their murder by the Nazis during World War II, an argument first made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Sunday in a misbegotten effort to explain why Russia was seeking to “de-Nazify” Ukraine, a country led by a Jewish president who lost family members in the Holocaust.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia, in 2021.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia, in 2021. (Israeli Government Press Office/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Bennett spoke with the Russian leader by telephone on Thursday. “The Prime Minister accepted President Putin's apology for Lavrov's remarks and thanked him for clarifying the President's attitude towards the Jewish people and the memory of the Holocaust," Bennett’s office said afterward.

The apology appears to conclude a nearly weeklong spat that offered yet another glimpse into the warped historical and geopolitical thinking guiding an isolated Kremlin that has grasped for justifications since launching an invasion of Ukraine in late February.

“Wise Jewish people say that the most ardent antisemites are usually Jews,” Lavrov told an Italian news outlet earlier this week. He also falsely said that Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler was himself partly Jewish.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. (Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service via AP)

At question in the contentious episode were false charges that Ukrainian society is rife with neo-Nazis who pose a danger to Russia. That argument is unconvincing for many reasons, among them the fact that Volodymyr Zelensky is the country’s democratically elected Jewish president. Some of his top advisers are also Jewish.

Though Lavrov’s comments were met with widespread condemnation, Russia’s Foreign Ministry expanded on them the following day in a social media post that accused Israel of naively abetting Ukrainian extremists who would in due time target Jews.

In fact, Israel had been a relatively tepid supporter of Ukraine since the Russian invasion, in part because Russia and Israel have become allies since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Russian Jews form a key component of Israeli society, but memories of the Holocaust there also run deep, making Lavrov’s comments particularly provocative — and potentially destructive to the relationship between Moscow and Jerusalem.

With few allies left, Putin may see more clearly than Lavrov does the danger of alienating Israel, especially by peddling historical falsehoods and antisemitic tropes.

On Thursday, Bennett first spoke to Zelensky, who “called Bennett and asked, as he has asked other countries' leaders, to help convince Putin to allow an air corridor to allow civilians and soldiers besieged at a factory in Mariupol to be evacuated. Bennett took up the gauntlet,” reported the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

Putin’s apology came in a subsequent call between the Russian and Israeli leaders, in which Bennett conveyed Zelensky’s request. Haaretz said the request was granted.