President Vladimir Putin demanded from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett that Israel sharpens its coordination of strikes in Syria with Russia, as the two leaders held a five-hour discussion in Sochi, their first meeting since Bennett took office in June.
The leaders also discussed ways to curb Iran's nuclear program and renewing tourism between the two countries. The Palestinian issue, meanwhile, was sidelined.
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Other than the demand for Israel to be “more precise,” there seems to be little difference between the Russian and the Israeli positions on Syria.
Putin and Bennett discussed Tehran’s increased foothold in Syria and Israel’s efforts to keep Iran away from its border with Syria.
The two parties, however, do not have the same interests when it comes to Iran. They held a thorough discussion of intelligence evaluation on the Iranian nuclear project. Russia has information and thorough knowledge of the attempts of the Iranian regime to strengthen its nuclear capabilities, thanks to Russian-Iranian ties.
Putin presented the traditional Russian stand at the meeting, which supports a diplomatic solution to Iranian nuclear enrichment. Bennett took the opportunity to encourage Putin to reconsider his positions on the matter.
Bennett explained why Israel believes that a return to the nuclear agreement is futile and presented a series of steps intended to restrain Iran and lead it to backtrack on its plans. It is too early to tell whether Bennett’s arguments had an effect on the Russian position.
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While the Palestinian issue was sidelined at the meeting, Putin "recommended" to the prime minister to seek a solution to the problems with the Palestinians but did not exert any pressure and the issue was taken off the table immediately thereafter.
Bennett and Putin held a five-hour meeting and were joined only by Minister Zeev Elkin and a Russian translator. This is unusual for Putin, who has even invited Bennett to his private house, and Israeli officials see it as a sign that the president wants to communicate directly with Bennett.
"We are dealing with a lot of problematic issues, but we also share a common ground and have good opportunities to collaborate on certain topics, certainly when it comes to counterterrorism," said Bennett before the meeting.
Putin added that Russia and Israel "were able to maintain a very professional relationship that was based on mutual trust with the previous government. We can say that you visit marks 30 years to the renewal of our diplomatic relations."
The two leaders also touched on renewing tourism between the two countries. Bennett had planned to tell Putin that Israel would allow Russian tourists who have been vaccinated with the Russian vaccine Sputnik V into Israel in the next two months, although the vaccine is not recognized by the World Health Organization.
On Thursday, however, Bennett said he wanted to reconsider the move, potentially postponing entry to December 1, due to the eruption of the new variant.
Bennett achieved the three goals he had set before the meeting: To "prove" to the Israeli public that ties with Putin remained close after the Netanyahu era; the establishment a direct channel of communications between the two leaders, and signaling to leaders in the region that Israel continues to have Russian military support against Iranian and Syrian targets.
This is Bennett’s second visit to a foreign leader, following his trip to the White House in August to get to know U.S. President Joe Biden and strengthen ties with him. “On the trip to the United States Bennett needed to mend the relations with Biden and the leaders of the Democratic Party, which had been damaged during Netanyahu’s term. On the trip to Russia Bennett must mainly not spoil them. He must see to the continuation of the good relationship with the current administration,” an official said.
On Saturday evening President Putin telephoned Prime Minister Bennett to invite him and his wife for a visit in St. Petersburg, Russia. Bennett accepted the offer and said he would love to have a follow-up visit.