Days after he was ousted from more than a decade in power, Benjamin Netanyahu promised Russian President Vladimir Putin that he would “be back soon,” Axios reported Tuesday.
After the new government came to power in June, Putin sent Netanyahu a letter thanking him for the “cooperation and mutual understanding between us for many years.”
“I appreciate the great work you have invested in strengthening the ties between our nations in many areas,” he wrote. “Your capabilities and experience will always be an asset to Israel.”
Netanyahu responded to the message on Twitter by thanking Putin for his comments.
However, according to Axios, when Russian Ambassador to Israel Anatoly Viktorov delivered the letter, Netanyahu responded: “Tell President Putin I will be back soon.”
The report, which comes two days before new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is scheduled to meet Putin for the first time, cited a source close to Netanyahu and a European diplomat.
Netanyahu, who has repeatedly tried to delegitimize Bennett and his new government, has long argued that only his personal relations with Putin kept Israel from clashing with Russia in Syria, where both their militaries operate.
“Putin told me that were it not for our relationship, we could have found ourselves in the midst of a military clash… Only because we meet every few months has this been avoided,” Netanyahu said in an interview with Army Radio in 2019.
Bennett will travel to Sochi in Russia on Friday after being invited by Putin.
“The two will discuss a series of diplomatic, security and economic issues involving both countries, as well as important regional matters, primarily Iran’s nuclear program,” the Prime Minister’s Office said.
It will be Bennett’s first meeting with the Russian leader since entering office. The leaders spoke two weeks ago when Bennett congratulated Putin on his 69th birthday.
The Kremlin acknowledged that Bennett would likely not have the same rapport with Putin.
“We try not to compare Mr. Netanyahu to the current Prime Minister because Netanyahu worked with President Putin for lots of years and they knew each other very well and it takes time to develop new personal relationships,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told i24News.
While Bennett will be hoping to get Putin to use his influence to curb Iran, the challenge was highlighted by Moscow hosting Iran’s military chief of staff just days before Bennett’s visit.
After meetings with his Russian counterpart, Major General Mohammad Hossein Baqeri hailed the close military ties between Tehran and Moscow.
“The military and defense relations have grown remarkably in recent years, and we hope that the growing course of cooperation would continue,” Iran’s Tasnim news agency quoted him as saying.
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid visited Moscow last month and met his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.
The Walla news site later reported that during that meeting, Lavrov asked for Israel to push the United States to agree to hold trilateral talks on the ongoing conflict in Syria.
The report followed recent reports of tensions in the Israel-Russia relationship over policies toward Syria.
Israel’s freedom of action in Syria was seriously curtailed after Russia provided advanced S-300 air defense batteries to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces following a 2018 incident in which the Syrian army, aiming at Israeli jets, knocked a Russian plane out of the sky instead, killing all 15 people on board.
Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes inside Syria in the course of the country’s civil war, targeting what it says are suspected arms shipments believed to be bound for Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group, which is fighting alongside Syrian government forces. Israel rarely acknowledges or discusses such operations.