Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin reaffirmed their commitment to continue developing ties between Russia and Israel on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries, and amid a surge in Russian military forces in neighboring Syria in recent weeks.
In a phone call Friday, the Kremlin Press Service said the leaders “exchanged congratulations on the occasion of the 25th anniversary [on October 18] of the restoration of diplomatic relations between Russia and Israel and expressed commitment to further development of the multifaceted bilateral cooperation.”
The press service also said Putin “warmly congratulated” Netanyahu on his 67th birthday on Friday.
This was the sixth phone call between the two leaders this year amid Russia’s deepened involvement in the Syrian civil war on behalf of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Netanyahu and Putin also met twice this year, including in June when the Israeli PM made a high profile visit to Russia to discuss regional threats and mutual interests with the Russian leader. In their meetings, the two reviewed the ongoing security coordination between the Russian and the Israeli armies, especially their so-called de-conflicting mechanism, set up to assure the Israel Defense Forces does not strike Russian jets operating in Syrian airspace.
Netanyahu previously visited the Russian capital in September 2015 and in April 2016. In addition, the two briefly got together last November on the sidelines of the Paris climate conference.
Last month, Netanyahu defended Israel’s growing ties with Russia while affirming that its number one ally was the United States.
Netanyahu said during a speech at the Hudson Institute on September 22 that outreach between Israel and Russia made sense because of shared concerns about militant Islam, a desire to avoid clashes in Syria, and Russia’s interest in Israeli technology.
He was pressed by his interviewer, Roger Hertog, a philanthropist who is one of Hudson’s benefactors, to explain why Putin has been seeking closer relations with Israel, given Russia’s military backing for the Assad regime in Syria and its sale of an anti-missile system to Iran.
The “first interest is to make sure that militant Islam doesn’t penetrate and destabilize Russia,” Netanyahu replied. “There are many, many millions of Muslims in Russia, including in greater Moscow, I think it’s up to two million. And the concern that Russia has, which many other countries have, is that these populations would be radicalized.”
Another reason is to avoid a confrontations in airspace. “We can coordinate in order not to crash and clash with each other,” Netanyahu said.
Given Russia’s influence in Syria, Netanyahu said, Russia was also a useful conduit to keep Israel’s enemies from being empowered. Notably, another Assad ally is Hezbollah, the Iran-allied Shi’ite Lebanese militia that has warred frequently with Israel.
“We don’t want to see in the aftermath in Syria, whether with an agreement or without an agreement, we don’t want to see an Iranian military presence, we don’t want to see Shi’ite militias which Iran is organizing from Afghanistan, from Pakistan, and we certainly don’t want to see Iranian game-changing weapons being transferred through Syrian territory to Hezbollah in Lebanon,” the Israeli prime minister said.
Another factor was Russian interest in Israeli technology. Putin is “interested in technology and Israel is a global source of technology in many areas that are of interest to Russia — agriculture, dairy production, you name it, the standard fare.”
Finally, Netanyahu said, Israel has a substantial Russian-speaking minority.
“There’s a cultural, a human bridge,” he said. “We have a million Russian speakers in Israel. These and other reasons, I think, inform Russia’s policies. And I think it’s very important that we have this relationship.”
To applause, Netanyahu reasserted that Israel’s premiere alliance is with the United States.
“With the United States, we certainly have shared interests, but it’s the one alliance we have, and there may be one or two others, but nothing like this, that is based on shared values,” he said.