Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said “problems came up” in his meeting in Moscow on Thursday with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the issue of Israel’s freedom to operate militarily in Syria, where Russia has established a large military presence in support of President Bashar Assad.
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“Problems came up. Naturally there is always friction. If you don’t deal with the friction it could develop into something more serious. We’ve seen this on other fronts. This is something I wanted to prevent,” Netanyahu told reporters following the meeting.
The friction Netanyahu referred to may have had to do with an incident in which Israeli and Russian fighter jets flew dangerously close over Syrian territory. In November, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said a Russian fighter jet entered Israeli airspace due to a lack of coordination.
According to Netanyahu, “Our freedom of operation was not impaired. If you are in a position of friction again, and then again and again, you can find yourself in a position where things happen afterward that hurt your freedom of operation. There’s no problem at the moment, but coordination was needed so we could continue to be able to operate.”
Netanyahu noted that the presence at the meeting of Israel Air Force Commander Amir Eshel was helpful to the “correction” of the military arrangements with the Russians, which Netanyahu said was “very important to the IDF,” adding that the differences with Russia on military coordination in Syria appeared to have been “resolved.”
Another issue the prime minister said he raised with Putin was Russia’s sale of weapons systems to Iran, an issue Netanyahu said was discussed “in a serious and responsible manner. This also adds to our security in my opinion.” Netanyahu has expressed concern to Russia’s president that sophisticated weapons from Syria and Iraq could end up in the hands of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, a close ally of the Syrian government.
At the meeting, Netanyahu also told Putin that the Golan Heights must remain a part of Israel and is a “red line”.
Also present at the meeting were Immigrant Absorption Minister Zeev Elkin and acting National Security Council head Jacob Nagel.
“We are doing everything to prevent the emergence of an additional front of terror against us at the Golan Heights,” Netanyahu said at the start of the meeting. He declared, “With an agreement or without an agreement, the Golan Heights will remain under Israeli sovereignty.”
A senior commander said, “Israel isn’t concerned that Russia will assume an active role in the attempt to return the Golan Heights to Syrian hands. The main fear is that Russia will agree to such requests which have already been brought to the negotiations table by the Syrian side.”
U.S. State Department spokesperson John Kirby stressed Monday night that the Obama administration does not consider the Golan Heights to be part of Israel, a day after Netanyahu vowed they “will forever remain under Israeli sovereignty.”
“The U.S. position on the issue is unchanged,” Kirby told reporters during a daily briefing at the State Department in Washington. “This position was maintained by both Democratic and Republican administrations. Those territories are not part of Israel and the status of those territories should be determined through negotiations. The current situation in Syria does not allow this,” Kirby added.
Israel captured the Golan from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War and annexed it in 1981.