President Reuven Rivlin has decided to cancel his official visit to Australia scheduled in two weeks time, and instead meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
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Rivlin made the decision after meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday morning, sources in the President's Residence said, adding that Netanyahu told Rivlin that from a diplomatic perspective, meeting Putin was more important at the moment.
"Because of regional developments related to the events in the Middle East, and the need for a meeting between the presidents of Israel and Russia in Moscow, the president is forced to postpone his trip to Australia, which was scheduled [for the same time]," the President's Residence said. "The decision was made in consultation with the relevant bodies in the foreign service and with the prime minister."
Rivlin announced his official visit to Australia a week and a half ago. It was meant to be the first visit of an Israeli president there since 2005. Senior officials at the Foreign Ministry said the contacts over a meeting with Putin were carried on at the same time as those for the a formal visit to Australia. The Australian answer arrived two weeks ago, while an invitation from Putin was only received four days ago.
Officials in the President's Residence said Rivlin was not sure what to do: On one hand he did not want to insult the Australian government and cancel the visit, while on the other he did not want to turn down an invitation from Putin. Therefore, he has asked for advice from other senior officials in order to decide which was more important diplomatically, they said. "After it was made clear to him of the importance of holding the meeting with Putin, he accepted it."
On Wednesday, Netanyahu spoke with Putin on the phone and discussed the details of the Syrian ceasefire, scheduled to start on Saturday. The Kremlin announced Netanyahu and Putin had agreed to hold meetings at the highest levels between the two nations, which reflects they discussed Rivlin's trip to Moscow.
The cancellation of the trip has aroused a large amount of anger in Australia. Australian officials said the schedules of the Australian prime minister and many government ministers were rearranged in order to adapt them to Rivlin's visit. The Australians are furious too that Rivlin prefers to fly to see Putin in Moscow over Canberra, where he would meet with head of one of the friendliest countries to Israel.
Australian officials said the governor-general canceled a planned overseas trip in order to host Rivlin, and the requests of other foreign leaders were put off in order to make room for Rivlin's visit. In light of the fact Australia is entering an election campaign, it is hard to see how it will be possible to host a visit by Rivlin in Australia during 2016, they said.
"We are very disappointed with this cancelation, especially that we were already made a lot of progress in arranging it," a senior Australian official said. "The leaders of the Jewish community are also disappointed and feel awful about this decision. We can all understand if Israel was at war or in an emergency, but the explanation we got isn’t very compelling."
Rivlin was scheduled to leave for Australia on March 13 and return March 22. The dates offered for the Moscow visit were March 16-18.
The President's Residence said Rivlin will speak to his counterpart, Governor-General of Australia Peter Cosgrove, within the next few hours, as well as with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull; and explain to them he intends to carry out his visit as soon as possible.