Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is meeting Friday for the first time since taking office with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the seaside resort city of Sochi.
The two leaders are expected to discuss a number of security issues, including Israel's fears over Iran’s strengthening in Syria, the campaign against the Iranian nuclear program – which Bennet will attempt to enlist Putin in – and Russian officials' fears over uncoordinated Israeli attacks in Syria.
Bennett and Putin are also expected to discuss renewing tourism between the two countries. Bennett was planning to tell Putin that Israel will to 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.
A senior official said that “the trip’s main purpose is to establish a close relationship between Bennett and Putin and to show that the change of government in Israel hasn’t caused any damage to the ties and cooperation between the countries."
The two men have spoken twice on the phone since Bennett entered office. The first was when Putin called to congratulate Bennett after he was sworn in and invited him for a meeting. The second conversation took place a few weeks ago, when Bennett called Putin to wish him a happy birthday. The two also discussed other matters.
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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.
Bennett and Putin are expected to meet for a two-hour private meeting and will only be joined by Minister Zeev Elkin and a Russian translator. This is unusual for Putin, and Israeli officials see it as a sign that the president wants to communicate directly with Bennett.
Officials said that if the meeting is longer than planned, or doesn’t start on time, Bennett may not be able to return to Israel before the Sabbath.
A senior Israeli official expressed satisfaction with the recovery of trade between the countries after the coronavirus pandemic. Before the pandemic erupted, the annual trade between the two countries was about $3 billion. In the past two years the trade dropped significantly, but in the first six months of the year it improved considerably and exceeded $1.5 billion.
The aides accompanying Bennett may meet their counterparts in Russia and the Russians may raise “real estate demands” regarding the Russian churches’ properties in Israel, an official said.
The meeting with Putin is described as personal. Elkin will join Bennett and serve as a translator, as his presence is seen as helpful in establishing a personal relationship between the leaders.
Elkin, who was close to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, attended almost all the latter’s meetings with Putin over the years. By joining Bennett on the trip, he could help break the ice between the two.
An official said Netanyahu had left the prime minister’s office without briefing Bennett in an orderly fashion and Elkin was the one who filled in the new prime minister on Israel's sensitive relations with Russia. In the last six years Elkin has headed the two states’ joint committee for economic cooperation, intended to solve disagreements and advance issues that are not diplomatic or defense related.
The committee is expected to reconvene in the next few days, after suspending its activity during the COVID-19 crisis.