In Change of Direction, Russia Welcomes Israel-Turkey Reconciliation Talks

Russian officials have so far been reserved about negotiations, but Putin's endorsement of the talks could provide a push toward clinching the rapprochement between the estranged allies.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the start of their meeting in Moscow, June 7, 2016.
Maxim Shipenkov / AP

MOSCOW—Despite tensions between Russia and Turkey, Russian President Vladimir Putin told a Moscow news conference Tuesday with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he supports reconciliation between Israel and Turkey. The Russian president's comments are seen as providing a substantial push in wrapping up efforts on a reconciliation agreement between Israel and Turkey, which are at a decisive stage.

"We view it in a positive manner," Putin said. "We think that any rapprochement between countries and peoples can have a positive influence on the entire international situation. The fewer problems there are between countries the better," he said. In reference to Israeli-Turkish reconciliation efforts, he said: "We welcome this process." 

Israel and Turkey, formerly erstwhile allies, have been at loggerheads since Israeli commandos stormed a Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, which in 2010 was part of a flotilla seeking to break the Israeli naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. Ten Turks on board the ship were killed in the clash. Negotiations on reconciliation are ongoing, and recently Netanyahu said that an agreement was near.

Putin's remarks at the news conference reflected a change in direction on the part of Russia, which up to now in private diplomatic discussions with Israeli representatives had expressed reservations regarding the reconciliation efforts. This is the first time that Putin or any other senior Russian official has expressed public support for the process.

Relations between Ankara and Moscow hit their worst point in recent memory after Turkey shot down a Russian aircraft over Syria last year, prompting a raft of sanctions from Russia. In April,  Putin promised support for the Syrian Kurds, saying they were a serious force in the fight against terrorism. Moscow has accused Ankara of hindering Kurdish forces in their battle against the Islamic State group and of using the fight against terrorism as a pretext to crack down on Kurdish organizations in Syria and Turkey.

The president's comments at the news conference were made just hours after Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told Turkey's TRT television that his country and Israel are very close to signing a reconciliation agreement. "We need one or two meetings to conclude matters," he explained.

At Tuesday's news conference, Putin also addressed the Palestinian issue, saying that his country supports a resumption of negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel. On the issue of global terrorism, Putin said Russia and Israel need to join forces. He called the two countries allies that will increase cooperation in the fight against terrorism, and noted that Israel has experience with the threat of terrorism from up close. 

In his comments at the press conference, Prime Minister Netanyahu said he spoke to Putin about continued enhanced coordination between the Israel Defense Forces and Russian army forces operating in Syria. "It's coordination that works well to avoid unnecessary encounters as well as to ensure that we are acting against the forces in Syria that are endangering us all," Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu also commented on recent reports that he had received massive donations from a French tycoon to finance political activities, against Israeli law. The prime minister said the affair was "systematic political persecution," and was "making a mountain out of a molehill."

Netanyahu's visit to Moscow marked the 25th anniversary of the reestablishment of relations between Israel and Russia. His meeting with the Russian president was the fourth in the past year. 

Netanyahu was accompanied by cabinet minister Zeev Elkin, the former immigrant absorption minister, who signed a pension agreement between the two states on Monday, and by Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel. During Netanyahu's visit to Moscow, Ariel will sign a memorandum of understanding with his Russian counterpart concerning cooperation in the fields of agriculture, the dairy industry and advanced dairy industry technology. Israel has boosted agricultural exports to  Russia over the past two years. 

Israel's Foreign Ministry and Strategic Affairs Ministry will also launch a public relations campaign called "Open the door to Israel," highlighting the country's achievements in education, technology and culture. 

On Wednesday, Netanyahu will meet with dozens of members of the Russian Jewish community. 

He will then visit a museum in Moscow housing an Israeli tank captured by the Syrian army in the battle of Sultan Yacoub during the first Lebanon war. Russia will return the tank to Israel in the coming months following Netanyahu's request to Putin during his April visit. The Israeli prime minister will return to Israel Wednesday night.

Reuters contributed to this report.