Former Mossad chief warns of serious crisis with Russia

Amid crisis in Russia ties, lawmakers urge greater US involvement in Syria

‘Netanyahu takes pride in his relationship with Putin, but the Russian leader is much less romantic,’ warns Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah

Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni at a faction meeting in the Knesset on January 16, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni at a faction meeting in the Knesset on January 16, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Opposition chief Tzipi Livni and Yesh Atid lawmaker Ofer Shelah on Sunday called for greater American involvement in Syria amid a burgeoning dispute between Israel and Russia over the downing of a Russia spy plane by Syrian anti-aircraft missile fire over Syria last week.

Blaming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for allegedly pursuing only limited “tactical” coordination with Russia over Syria, the lawmakers urged the government to work to bring the US more actively into the Syrian arena in order to better contain Iran’s military entrenchment in the country.

The Israeli government did not immediately respond to Russia’s official blaming of Israel earlier Sunday for the loss of the plane.

In a statement, Livni said the Israeli Air Force was “doing its job preventing Iran’s entrenchment in Syria. That’s a shared interest of Israel and Russia, who have known until now how to maintain a respectful dialogue and important military cooperation mechanisms that ensured the IDF could keep its freedom of action in Syria in pursuit of both countries’ interests.”

With the Russian position on Israeli air operations in Syria apparently changing, she added, it was time to “go beyond just protecting our tactical military capabilities” in the country. “We must define a shared strategic goal, including with the United States, an international initiative that will prevent the terror state Iran from turning Syria into a forward base for destabilizing the region.”

Former Mossad director Danny Yatom. (Photo credit: Olivier Fitoussi /Flash90)

Former Labor MK and ex-Mossad chief Danny Yatom suggested the crisis with Russia may get worse, saying in an Army Radio interview Sunday that “this is the beginning of what could be a very serious crisis with Russia.” He warned: “The Russian military has a broad spectrum of possible actions it can take, up to and including contemplating shooting anti-aircraft missiles at our planes.”

The comments came shortly after the release of a Russian report into the Monday incident, in which Moscow again blamed Israel for the downing of the jet and accused the IDF of deceiving it about the intended location of the airstrike.

In a press briefing, the Russian defense ministry rejected the findings of the IDF about the incident and insisted that the Israeli pilots who conducted the raid on a Syrian military facility in Latakia had used the Russian reconnaissance aircraft as cover during their assault — something Israel has repeatedly denied.

Israel has blamed the Syrian military’s “reckless” launching of its air defenses, which the IDF said continued long after the Israeli F-16 fighter jets returned to Israeli airspace.

However, the Russian defense ministry’s announcement on Sunday indicated that Moscow was siding with its close ally Syria, a move that Israeli analysts say may significantly limit the IDF’s ability to conduct operations against Iran and its proxies in Syria.

Yesh Atid MK Shelah, a longtime member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, responded to the Russian claims by slamming Netanyahu for allegedly pursuing only “tactical coordination” with the Russians, and joined Livni’s call to involve the Americans.

Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah speaks during a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on November 19, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“Israel is not at fault for the downing of the Russian plane, and the defense ministry in Moscow knows it,” he said in a Sunday statement. “So why is it blaming us? In order to signal that Syria is no longer open to us, and that the rules of the game are changing.”

Shelah added: “Netanyahu takes pride in his relationship with Putin, but the Russian [leader] is much less romantic: he has interests, and he acts accordingly. As long as the prime minister only thinks about tactical coordination, and doesn’t push a broader initiative that brings the Americans into the picture, then Putin will take photographs with him, but [Putin’s] people on the ground will be the ones setting the [conditions for Israeli operations] as they see fit.”

Earlier Sunday, in comments made shortly before the Russian report was released, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said Israel’s Syria policy remained unchanged despite Moscow’s displeasure over the downing of the spy plane, and implied that attacks against Iranian- and Hezbollah-affiliated targets would continue.

“We act with discretion and responsibility,” Liberman told Israel Radio in an interview. “Nothing has changed and nothing will change. This is our policy.”

Israeli fighter jets conducted the airstrike last Monday night on a weapons facility in the coastal city of Latakia. The Russian spy plane, with 15 crew members on board, was shot down by Syrian air defense forces in a counterattack against the Israeli planes.

“We do not intend to have a public argument with Russia via the media,” Liberman added. “We acted as we have always acted, according to the same coordination system [with Russia], and we will continue to act this way in the future. Responsibility for this tragic incident lies with Syria, with [Syrian President Bashar] Assad’s army… These are the facts.”

In this file photo taken on Saturday, March 4, 2017, the Russian Il-20 electronic intelligence plane of the Russian air force with the registration number RF 93610, which was accidentally downed by Syrian forces responding to an Israeli air strike, flies near Kubinka airport, outside Moscow, Russia. (AP Photo/Marina Lystseva)

The defense minister added that “the situation is under control. We are in continuous dialog” with the Russians.

He also said that the incident had been blown out of proportion, both by the media and by the official rhetoric, which did not reflect the discussions and meetings held in recent days.

“We have made it clear that we will not allow Syrian territory to become a front for Iran against the State of Israel,” he said. “We will continue to act to prevent this and we have all the means and all the possibilities.”

Though Israeli officials have said, generally, that the military conducts operations inside Syria against Iranian and Hezbollah targets, the IDF rarely acknowledges specific airstrikes, preferring instead to adopt a formal policy of neither confirming nor denying the attacks attributed to it. Its admission of last week’s attack was therefore a striking exception.

In its Sunday report, the Russian defense ministry said Israel had “misled” the Russian military about the location of the attack, saying it was going to take place in northern Syria, while Latakia was in fact situated on the western coast. (The port city is located in the country’s northwest.)

Despite the IDF’s insistence on its innocence, the incident initially threatened Israel’s coordination efforts with Russia — known as the deconfliction mechanism — which is meant to prevent such clashes and inadvertent casualties.

A before and after photo of an ammunition warehouse which was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike on a Syrian base in Latakia, September 18, 2018 (ImageSat International (ISI/Ynet)

However, a senior Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the hotline between the Israeli and Russian militaries has continued to operate as normal, though some “improvements” may be made in the future.

For now, there are “no changes to the deconfliction mechanism,” the officer said on Sunday, adding, “but both sides will use this opportunity to make adjustments.”

According to the officer, the deconfliction mechanism was used as recently as Friday afternoon. He refused to comment on the nature of the operation that required the coordination, saying only that it was not an airstrike.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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