President Reuven Rivlin has canceled what would have been the first Israeli presidential visit to Australia in more than a decade in favor of a Moscow meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a statement from Rivlin’s office said Thursday.
Officials said the decision was made following a meeting between Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday morning, during which Netanyahu told the president that meeting with Putin was diplomatically more pressing than his planned visit to Australia.
The move ruffled feathers in Canberra, with a senior Australian official fuming that this was not acceptable behavior toward a friendly nation and an ally, according to the Ynet news website. The official said that the Australians are both disappointed and upset, adding that friends should not be taken for granted.
Netanyahu and Putin spoke Wednesday about the American and Russian-brokered ceasefire due to come into effect in Syria on Saturday. During the conversation, the two agreed on the need for a bilateral meeting at the highest level, apparently intending for Rivlin to visit the Kremlin. This even though Rivlin’s is largely a ceremonial position.
Putin spent Wednesday on a round of phone calls with regional leaders to discuss the imminent ceasefire in war-torn Syria, among them Syria’s Bashar Assad, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman.
Israel has also been anxiously watching reports that Russia is about to deliver sophisticated S-300 missile defense batteries to Tehran.
Officials have been working in parallel on presidential visits to Australia and Russia, Haaretz said. The Australians had issued an invitation two weeks ago, with the Russians doing so only four days ago.
Unwilling to offend the Australians but also reluctant to turn down an invitation to Moscow, Rivlin sought to determine which was a higher priority for Israel. “After it was clarified that it was important to hold a meeting with Putin, [the president] accepted it,” the president’s office said.
Australian officials said that the Australian prime minister and other ministers had altered their schedule to accommodate Rivlin and that the country’s governor general had postponed a trip overseas for the same reason. Requests to visit by other foreign leaders had been rejected, they said. Australia is due to go into an election period, making it unlikely that alternative dates would be found in 2016, the officials added.
This is not the first time that Israel-Australia ties have been strained. In May 2010, Canberra expelled an Israeli diplomat in the wake of the assassination of Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai, apparently by Israeli assassins using Australian passports.
Tensions boiled once more that month after an Australian citizen was hurt during a pre-dawn raid by Israeli forces to take control of a flotilla of ships trying to break Israel’s naval blockade on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.