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7 weeks after election win, Putin finally calls to congratulate Netanyahu

Incoming prime minister expresses hope that war in Ukraine will end soon, and determination to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on July 11, 2018. (AFP/Pool/Yuri Kadobnov)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on July 11, 2018. (AFP/Pool/Yuri Kadobnov)

Russian President Vladimir Putin called Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday morning, hours after the Likud leader announced he had formed a government.

Putin, who has developed a close relationship with Netanyahu over the past decade, congratulated him on his election victory in November and on establishing his coalition, according to the Israeli readout of the call.

“There is mutual confidence that Russian-Israeli relations will continue to develop progressively, and contacts at various levels will continue,” said the Russian Foreign Ministry after the call.

While Russia has shown frustration at Israel over its stated sympathy for Kyiv around the ongoing war in Ukraine, Putin might be optimistic about Netanyahu’s return. Earlier this month, an official delegation from the Moscow city government visited Israel, a visit unlikely to have occurred without a green light from Putin as Netanyahu prepared to officially take the reins in Israel.

Still, this was Netanyahu’s and Putin’s first known conversation since the November 1 elections. Other prominent world leaders spoke with Netanyahu in the days immediately following the vote.

The two leaders spoke about Ukraine, and Netanyahu said he hoped a way to end the conflict and the suffering of civilians could be found soon.

Some expect Netanyahu to make an effort to serve as a mediator between Kyiv and Moscow, a role that former prime minister Naftali Bennett unsuccessfully pursued.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met with US President Joe Biden in Washington Wednesday night, the fourth night of Hanukkah, with the latter likening Ukraine’s struggle against Russia to the Maccabees’ uprising.

A Ukrainian soldier looks at a damaged Russian military aircraft on Snake Island, in the Black Sea, Ukraine, Dec. 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Michael Shtekel)

Nearly 10 months into the fighting, Russia has faced a series of humiliating setbacks on the ground in Ukraine. But Putin has continued to talk tough, saying Wednesday that Russia will continue developing its military potential and the combat readiness of nuclear forces.

Russia’s invasion has met with stiff resistance from Ukraine, which has halted the invading army’s advance and even pushed it back in some key southeastern regions. Western nations have been pumping weapons and resources into Ukraine to assist it in battling Russian forces.

According to the Russian readout, the two men discussed the “international situation.”

Putin also congratulated Netanyahu and Israel on the Hanukkah holiday.

According to Netanyahu’s office, he and Putin also spoke about Iran’s nuclear program, which has fallen from the top of the international agenda as the war in Ukraine, high energy prices, and protests in Iran dominate headlines. In addition, talks in Vienna have been suspended for months, as chances for an agreement look increasingly slim, and Biden has been filmed saying the deal is “dead.”

Netanyahu emphasized that Israel was determined to prevent Tehran from getting a nuclear weapon and to stop it from entrenching its forces over Israel’s northern border in Syria, where Moscow has much influence and military presence.

A local resident sits outside a building destroyed by Russian, Iranian-made, drones after an airstrike on Bila Tserkva, southwest of Kyiv, on October 5, 2022, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP)

The Iran-Russia military relationship is blossoming. In recent weeks Russia is believed to have used Iranian drones to attack Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, leaving tens of thousands of people without power as winter sets in.

Earlier this week, Britain warned that Russia is set to provide Iran with advanced military technology that will threaten security in the Middle East and around the world.

Moscow will supply the military components to Tehran in return for Iranian attack drones, which Russia has been using in its invasion of Ukraine, UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace told parliament.

Earlier this month, the US said Russia was moving to provide Iran with advanced military assistance, including air defense systems, helicopters and fighter jets.

Netanyahu informed President Isaac Herzog late Wednesday that he had come to agreements with his coalition partners to form Israel’s 37th government, delivering a promise of right-wing and religious-led political stability seven weeks after the country’s fifth election since 2019 and minutes before the expiration of his mandate to form the next government.

Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu informs President Isaac Herzog that he has managed to form a government, in a phone call shortly before a midnight deadline, December 21, 2022 (Likud spokesperson)

After Netanyahu’s November election victory, a series of world leaders called the Likud leader.

Zelensky spoke with Netanyahu in the days following the elections, but the exact date is not known. He said the prime minister-elect had agreed to look at supplying Ukraine with much-needed air defense systems as it battles to fend off Russia’s invasion.

Zelensky told reporters that Netanyahu assured him he will “consider” supplying Ukraine with Israeli systems.

Though Israel has supplied humanitarian aid and some non-lethal equipment, such as helmets and flak jackets, Ukrainian officials repeatedly pressed it — without success — for air defense weapons.

The reasoning behind the decision appears to be Israel’s strategic need to maintain freedom of operations in Syria, as part of its efforts to prevent Iranian entrenchment on its doorstep. To that end, Israel cooperates with the Russian military, which largely controls Syria’s airspace.

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