A senior Israeli official on Sunday denied emphatically a report that Jerusalem and Moscow have struck a deal under which Russia would withhold a Syrian-bound shipment of advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missiles. However, the official assessed that Russia would ultimately renege on its agreement with Syria.
According to the piece in the London-based Sunday Times, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu managed, during a meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi earlier this month, to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin of the risk such a deal posed to regional stability and Israeli civilians, leading to the cancellation of the planned sale of six batteries to Bashar Assad’s regime.
Reports of this cancellation have “no basis in reality,” the official said. “It’s a fairy tale. There was no agreement between Putin and Netanyahu.”
Still, the official assessed, “It’s likely that the Russians will try to stall for time and use this as a bargaining chip without following through on the deal [with Syria].”
Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin, who was present at the Netanyahu-Putin meeting as a translator, neither confirmed nor denied the report, although he noted that in the wake of the conversation between the two leaders, he had consistently maintained that “it would be wrong to classify the meeting as a failure.”
The Ukrainian-born Elkin told Army Radio that Israel’s sizable population of immigrants from former Soviet Union states was “clearly” a factor in Russian policy in the region. He noted, however, that Russian expats in Israel have “not prevented the Russian leadership from taking stands against Israel’s security… [and] supporting Israel’s enemies in the Middle East.”
In their meeting, Netanyahu reportedly warned Putin that Moscow’s sale of the sophisticated missile defense system to Assad could push the Middle East into war, and argued that the S-300 had no relevance to Assad’s internal battles against rebel groups.
Netanyahu and his national security adviser, Yaakov Amidror, explained to Putin that planes landing or taking off from Ben Gurion International Airport outside Tel Aviv would be within the 200-kilometer (125-mile) range of the S-300 system, the report said.
“We are very much concerned about this; the large Russian community in Israel is a major factor in our attitude to Israel, and we will not let this happen,” a Russian official told The Sunday Times.
In return, the official said, the Russians expected Israel to refrain from carrying out additional airstrikes in Syria, like the two the IAF reportedly conducted but never confirmed earlier in May, destroying shipments of advanced Fateh-110 missiles en route via Damascus to the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah.
Israeli officials have stated repeatedly over the past few weeks that Israel was not interested in a war with Syria but would do whatever it took to prevent the transfer of game-changing and nonconventional weapons from the Assad regime, or from Iran via Syria, to Hezbollah.
“The Israeli government has acted responsibly and prudently to ensure the security of Israeli citizens and to prevent advanced weapons from reaching Hezbollah and [other] terrorist organizations… and we will do so in the future,” Netanyahu said during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem last Sunday.
“The Middle East is in one of its most sensitive periods in decades, primarily Syria,” the prime minister added. “We are monitoring the changes there closely and are prepared for any scenario.”
During a visit to the Atlit naval base last Tuesday, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said that Israel’s policy on Syria was clear: “We do not interfere in the civil war, but we will not allow it to enter our territory.”
The Times report on Sunday contradicted earlier statements by Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who declared following the Netanyahu-Putin meeting that Moscow would honor existing contracts with its regional ally, including for the air defense systems.
“We’ve already carried out some of the deal,” Lavrov said, “and we will carry the rest of it out in full.”
A failure to honor signed contracts, Lavrov added in a television interview, would “harm the credibility” of Russia in other arms sales contracts. The deal was said to be worth $800 million.
Israel, on Monday, was set to begin a major defense drill preparing for the possibility of a chemical weapons attack on population centers.