Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Moscow Monday for a five hour visit to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, where Netanyahu said they will be disussing bilateral military coordination in Syria in the face of Iranian attempts to solidify their forces on the ground there.
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"This is something we are adamantly opposed to and are working to stop," Netanyahu said in comments he made before flyling.
Netanyahu said he and Putin will also be talking about Iranian inroads in Lebanon, Israel's northern neighbor. He said Iran was trying "to turn Lebanon into one big missile site, a site for manufacturing precision missiles against the State of Israel. This is something we are not prepared to tolerate."
He said miltiary coordination between Israel and Russia was essential and ongoing.
Netanyhahu is accompanied by Minister Zeev Elkin, a member of the security cabinet who is considered to have close ties with Russian officials, as well as National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and outgoing Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi.
The meeting, which was set up earlier this month during a telephone conversation in which the two leaders exchanged New Year’s greetings, is expected to focus mainly on Iran’s military consolidation in Syria and U.S. President Donald Trump’s ultimatum to Europe on amending the nuclear deal with Iran.
On the issue of Iran’s growing presence in both Syria and Lebanon, Israel’s main goal is to maintain its freedom of action in both countries’ airspace. Netanyahu is expected to insist on Israel’s right to operate to prevent the smuggling of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah in Lebanon through Syrian territory.
The Israeli delegation will also seek to understand how Russia envisions its future involvement in the region and how strongly it opposes the American effort to reopen the nuclear deal. Specifically, assuming the Russians will oppose any changes in the agreement, Netanyahu wants to discover how willing they are to put themselves on the line over this issue.
Netanyahu is also expected to accompany Putin on a visit to the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow, where an exhibit on the Sobibor death camp is about to open.
In August, a diplomatic crisis erupted between Israel and Russia after Poland decided not to include Russia in a project to build a museum and memorial to the camp’s victims in which Israel was included. The Nazis closed Sobibor following an uprising led by Alexander Pechersky, a Jewish officer in the Soviets’ Red Army, and Russia was angry at Israel over its exclusion from the project even though Israel made clear that it had no objection to Russian participation.
Netanyahu’s visit to the Jewish Museum is thus meant to ease this crisis. But it is also a way for Russia to poke Poland in the eye, just after Poland’s parliament infuriated Israel by passing a law which is widely seen as suppressing discussion of the role Poles played in the Holocaust.
Last month, Putin made a surprise visit to a military base in Syria and met with Syrian President Bashar Assad there. The Kremlin said at the time that "Russia gave the broadest military backing to the government in Syria, our longtime ally, in the country’s civil war." According to that announcement, Putin said once again that Russia would withdraw its troops from the country, but would leave limited forces the Hmeimim air force base, near Latakiya, as well as at the naval base in Tartus. The Russian president also said that if terrorism in Syria"raises its head,” Russia will strike back at the terrorists with full force.
In a speech to the soldiers, after announcing the withdrawal of troops, Putin said: “Friends, the homeland awaits you.” Russian television footage shows Putin getting off the plane at the military base and shaking hands with Assad. According to Russian media reports, Assad thanked Putin for his soldiers’ contribution to the fighting in Syria.
About three weeks earlier, Assad visited Russia. According to the Kremlin's announcement at the time, the leaders agreed that the focus of efforts in Syria were changing from a military operation to “eradicate terror,” to the search for a political solution. “We have a long way to go before we declare a complete victory over the terrorists, but the military operation is indeed in its final stages," Putin said, after the meeting in Sochi, on the Black Sea. “I think the most important thing now, of course, is political questions.”
Shortly after his meeting with Assad in Russia, Putin held a summit on the issue of Syria with Iranian President Hassan Rohani and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. At the meeting, Rohani said that the foreign involvement in Syria should be ended but that any foreign presence in the country would be acceptable on condition the foreigners were invited by the Syrian government. Rohani did not mention specific countries. He added that the last terror cells in Syria must be uprooted and that conditions are ripe for a political settlement.