Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday, and afterwards praised the “very successful” discussions that he said led to new understandings over their mutual concerns with the conflict in Syria.
“I set the goal of the meeting as strengthening coordination between Russia and Israel to prevent mishaps,” Netanyahu said. “I think we clarified some matters, and that is very important.”
At the end of the two-and-a-half hour meeting, Putin suggested that the military advisors accompanying Netanyahu have an immediate meeting with Russian defense officials, The Jerusalem Post reported.
“They went there and discussed in dealt the coordination between our armies on a number of issues that have been on the agenda,” Netanyahu said afterwards. “That is important because we must preserve the freedom of action of the IDF and the air force in areas that are important for our security. And I think that was achieved.”
Russian announced last month that it would withdraw most of its ground forces from Syria, but has continued to fly air missions. Israel has stressed to Russia and other regional actors its determination to maintain its security on the Golan Heights and ensure that rockets and other materials do not fall into the hands of Hezbollah or other terrorist groups that may want to target Israel.
“I have come to Russia to step up coordination on security matters, to prevent mistakes, misunderstandings,” Netanyahu said to Putin. “We are not going back to the days when rockets were fired at our communities and our children from the top of the Golan.”
Netanyahu and Putin were officially meeting to commemorate the 25-year anniversary of renewed diplomatic relations between the countries. The two leaders also discussed a long-in-the-works deal to provide pensions to Israelis who left the former Soviet Union. Putin also wished Netanyahu a happy Passover.
This is the the latest in a series of high-level discussions between the two countries over the past six months. Netanyahu and Putin created a hotline in October to ensure that the two countries’ air forces did not accidentally clash, and met in December on the sidelines of the Paris climate change conference to discuss increased military coordination. Russian diplomats publicly reassured Israeli politicians and journalists after the country’s withdrawal announcement that Israel’s national security interests would not be harmed, and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin traveled to Moscow a few days later to tell Putin that Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies gaining strength on the Golan border would be a “red line,” a stance that Netanyahu repeated on Thursday. Netanyahu also announced that he will next travel to Moscow on June 7.
In How Israel Navigated through the Hurricane of the Syrian Civil War, which was published in the March 2016 issue of The Tower Magazine, Jonathan Spyer highlighted aspects of Israel’s coordination with Russia.
It is no less important that Israel has been careful to maintain communication with the Russians, and a “deconfliction” regime appears to be in effect between Russian and Israeli air power over Syria. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, and Military Intelligence chief Herzl Halevi travelled to Moscow immediately following the Russian intervention, presumably to lay the groundwork for a channel of communication. As of now, this appears to have permitted Israel to continue to operate in the skies over Syria. Thus, while the emergence of a fledgling Russian-Iranian strategic alliance in the Middle East is surely of concern to Israel, the evidence to date suggests that the alliance by no means implies carte blanche for the Iranians to pursue all their regional goals under the umbrella of Russian air cover. On the contrary, the Russians, as the senior partner in the relationship, dictate when and to what extent cooperation takes place.
Netanyahu, according to the Times of Israel, told Russian President Vladimir Putin in “no uncertain terms” that Israel would not tolerate Tehran’s efforts to arm Israel’s enemies in the region, and that Jerusalem has taken and will continue to take action against any such attempts. The Times quoted the prime minister saying, “This is our right and also our duty.… There were no objections to our rights.… There was readiness to make sure that whatever Russia’s intentions for Syria, Russia will not be a partner in extreme actions by Iran against us.”
Israel appears to have taken at least two actions over Syrian soil since the Russian intervention, indicating that, for now, the agreement appears to be holding. Nevertheless, given Israel’s general satisfaction with the situation east of Quneitra under the present arrangement, Jerusalem will no doubt be watching the situation carefully and with some concern regarding the possible return of the regime and other Iran-backed forces to the area.