In Russia, Knesset speaker acknowledges tensions on Syria, Iran
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In Russia, Knesset speaker acknowledges tensions on Syria, Iran

Yuli Edelstein, a former Soviet forced labor inmate, hails increased cooperation between countries, says Jerusalem swayed Kremlin officials on Syria policy

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein meets with Chairwoman of the Russian Federation Council Valentina Matvienko in Moscow on June 27, 2017. (Knesset spokesperson's office/Israeli embassy in Moscow)
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein meets with Chairwoman of the Russian Federation Council Valentina Matvienko in Moscow on June 27, 2017. (Knesset spokesperson's office/Israeli embassy in Moscow)

MOSCOW — Meeting with his Russian counterpart in Moscow on Tuesday, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein acknowledged “tension” over Syria and Iran, as the two parliamentary leaders hailed increasingly friendly ties between Moscow and Jerusalem.

Both Russia and Iran are backing Syrian President Bashar Assad in the ongoing civil war. Despite being allied with Tehran, Moscow coordinates its air space with Israel over Syria when the IDF carries out periodic airstrikes on weapons arms convoys by Lebanese terror group and Iran proxy Hezbollah. Israel has also reportedly sought Russia’s help in preventing Iran from gaining a foothold on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, which abuts Israel’s border.

As part of the coordination efforts, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has traveled to Moscow several times for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the past two years, as well as numerous phone calls. The prime minister also traveled to Russia to mark 25 years of diplomatic relations in 2016, in a visit that was seen as marking a warming of ties.

Edelstein — a former Soviet refusenik who spent three years in forced labor camps for teaching Hebrew — on Tuesday kicked off a three-day official visit to Moscow, coinciding with 30 years since his release. The visit will see him become the first Israeli politician to address Russia’s upper chamber of parliament and hold a series of high-level meetings.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein holds a working meeting with his Russian counterparts in Moscow on June 27, 2017 (Knesset spokesperson's office/Israeli embassy in Moscow)
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein holds a working meeting with his Russian counterparts in Moscow on June 27, 2017 (Knesset spokesperson’s office/Israeli embassy in Moscow)

On Tuesday, Edelstein met with Valentina Matviyenko, chairwoman of the Federation Council, the upper chamber of parliament, who had issued the invitation to Edelstein.

“I would summarize it with one sentence,” said Edelstein after the working meeting in a joint press conference with Matviyenko. “We are looking at the issues for cooperation that need improvement, economy, education, Holocaust remembrance, the fight against anti-Semitism — all the things that unify us. “

“At the same time, it’s no secret that in our region, there is tension. It’s also no secret that Russia plays a role in our region,” he added.

The Knesset speaker suggested that Israeli lawmakers on the powerful Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee were able to sway their Russian counterparts during a meeting held last week in Israel’s parliament.

“I must note, and I know this from my colleagues in Israel — from the members of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee — that last week there was a very serious, very open discussion there [with their Russian counterparts],” said Edelstein. The Russian MPs, “I will allow myself to say, learned some things, and saw the complicated reality in Syria with a slightly different eye,” he asserted.

Matvikeyenko — seen as the third most powerful political leader in the country after Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov — praised the coordination between Israel and Russia, characterizing the talks between Netanyahu and Putin as “very good and deep dialogue.’

“We have good coordination with the government on security and on economic issues. We have a positive dynamic,” she said, speaking in Russian through a translator.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting in Moscow on March 9, 2017. (AFP/Pool/Pavel Golovkin)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting in Moscow on March 9, 2017. (AFP/Pool/Pavel Golovkin)

During the press conference, Matviyenko also denied allegations Russia meddled in the US elections and condemned anti-Semitism.

The US accusations are “simply hysteria,” she said. “It does not match reality. Russia never meddled and never meddles in any elections.”

She said Russia “condemns any forms of xenophobia and anti-Semitism.

“We condemn those who deny or try to deny the Holocaust,” she added.

At Matviyenko’s invitation, Edelstein on Wednesday will become the first Israeli leader to address Russia’s Federation Council, an honor generally reserved for heads of state, according to the Knesset spokesman. He will also visit the Moscow apartment where he was arrested, the courthouse where he was tried, and the prison where he was detained for months before his trial in 1984.

On Thursday, the Knesset speaker will also meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the leader of the State Duma lower parliamentary chamber, as well as with local Jewish leaders.

While the visit is an official one, Edelstein has highlighted its personal resonance, describing it as “coming full circle” in his history.

In 1979, the Ukraine-born Edelstein applied for an immigration visa to move to Israel, which was rejected by the Soviet authorities and had him join the ranks — and accompanying ostracization — of the “refuseniks.”

Over the next few years, Edelstein taught Hebrew and Zionism clandestinely in the Soviet Union, until his 1984 arrest in his Moscow apartment on trumped-up drug allegations. After a brief trial, he was sent to various labor camps near Siberia and sustained a serious injury after falling from a watchtower. In May 1987, after serving two years and eight months, he was released. Edelstein immigrated to Israel two months later with his late wife, Tatiana (Tanya).

After entering politics in 1996 and holding a number of ministerial portfolios, including the Immigration Absorption Ministry, Likud MK Edelstein in 2013 was appointed the Knesset speaker.

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