Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s first meeting as premier with Russian President Vladimir Putin went on for some five hours Friday, forcing the Israeli leader to extend his visit to Sochi until after Shabbat, his office said.
“The meeting was warm and positive and dealt with a series of issues of importance to the two nations,” said a statement from Bennett’s office after the two leaders met at the Black Sea resort town for their first face-to-face talks since Bennett took office earlier this year.
The statement said the official meeting at Putin’s residence lasted some five hours after which the two leaders “went outside to speak on the balcony of the residence and then walked through the paths of the grounds toward the sea.”
There was no immediate comment on the talks from the Russian side.
Bennett had initially planned to be in the air back to Israel three hours after the 10 a.m. meeting, but with talks running long, Bennett and his entourage were forced to remain in Sochi until Saturday night to avoid traveling on Shabbat.
The statement appeared to try and emphasize that the two were developing a personal bond. Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu had long argued that only his close personal ties with Putin kept the Israel-Russia relationship close, and a Russian official had earlier indicated that it would take time for the Russian leader to build the same rapport with Bennett.
Bennett later called the talks “excellent,” and said they were “extremely in-depth.”
“Russia is a very important player in our region, a kind of neighbor for us in the north,” Bennett said referring to Russia’s large military presence in Syria.
“As such, our relationship with Russia is strategic, but also on an almost daily basis, and we need to maintain this direct and intimate discourse,” Bennett wrote in a Facebook post. “With the Sochi beach in the background, Putin and I spoke about a wide range of issues, from his special relationship with the Jewish people to ways to deal with Islamic fundamentalism.”
Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin, who accompanied Bennett to act as a translator and advisor, said the two held “deep” discussions on Iran’s nuclear program and a “very wide” conversation on maintaining a coordination mechanism regarding Syria, which Israel views as a key part of its air campaign against Iran-backed forces transferring weapons or trying to gain a foothold in the country.
“It was decided to keep policies vis-à-vis Russia in place (regarding airstrikes) in Syrian territory,” he said in a statement.
Elkin said the pair also discussed setting up a task force to work on allowing Russian tourists into Israel. On Thursday, Israel announced that vaccinated tourists will be allowed to enter Israel beginning November 1, but only those with vaccines approved by the World Health Organization or US Food and Drug Administration, which does not include Russia’s Sputnik V shot.
Elkin claimed the FDA was close to approving the shot, though it’s unclear whether US regulators have even begun considering doing so. Approval of the vaccine by the WHO was held up earlier this month due to concerns around its manufacturing process, but on Wednesday the Russian Direct Investment Fund, which promotes the vaccine abroad, said the WHO had resumed its assessment of the shot.
A native Russian speaker who had also been a fixture in meetings between Putin and Netanyahu before breaking with the former prime minister, Elkin described the meeting as “among the warmest and most intimate held this decade,” and said the two also discussed “personal matters.”
At the start of the meeting in Sochi, Putin told Bennett that the pair had “many problematic issues” to discuss, but also many “points of contact and opportunities for cooperation, in particular when it comes to fighting terrorism.”
The Russian president also told Bennett — who became prime minister in June, ousting Netanyahu after 12 years — that he hoped and expected for Israeli-Russian relations to continue smoothly.
“I truly hope that despite the internal political battles, which are unavoidable in every country, your government will pursue a policy of continuity on Russian-Israel relations,” said Putin, noting his close ties with the previous Israeli government.
In his own comments ahead of the meeting, Bennett said talks between the nations “will be based on the deep connection between the two countries. We consider you a true friend of the Jewish people.”
Some one million Russian-speakers live in Israel, with Putin having called the country a Russian outpost in the past.
Bennett told Putin that he expects to “discuss a whole range of current issues, to strengthen ties between the countries in economic, technological, scientific and cultural matters.”
The prime minister also updated the Russian president about efforts to construct a museum in Israel commemorating Jewish soldiers who fought in various armies during World War II, including in Russia’s Red Army.
Bennett departed for Russia from Israel at 5 a.m. Friday morning, landed some three hours later and had been expected to fly back to Israel at 1 p.m., leaving plenty of time before Shabbat begins at sundown. Elkin said the meeting had been slated to last only two hours.
While Bennett is the country’s first Orthodox premier, social conventions and sensitivities for religious staff have generally prevented even secular leaders from publicly traveling on Shabbat. This is the second time Bennett has spent an unplanned Shabbat abroad. In August, a meeting with US President Joe Biden was pushed off as the president dealt with a deadly blast in Afghanistan, forcing the premier to mark the day of rest in Washington.
He was accompanied by National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata, diplomatic adviser Shimrit Meir and the prime minister’s military secretary, Maj. Gen. Avi Gil, along with Elkin.
“The ties between Russia and Israel are a significant element in the foreign policy of the State of Israel due to both the special status of Russia in the region and its international role, and to the million Russian-speakers in Israel, who constitute a bridge between the two countries,” Bennett said on the tarmac before departing Friday morning. “In general, the foreign policy and international status of Israel are significantly strengthening. There is considerable energy and the direction is very good.”
Putin and Bennett spoke two weeks ago when Bennett congratulated Putin on his 69th birthday.
“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 when the visit was announced several days ago. His spokesperson said the trip came at Putin’s invitation.
Netanyahu boasted of a close relationship with Putin, which he claimed created the space for Israel to wage a years-long air campaign against Iran-backed fighters in Syria. That campaign has continued under Bennett, although recent reports have pointed toward tensions in the Israel-Russia relationship over policies toward Syria.
According to a report earlier this week, Netanyahu promised Putin that he would “be back soon” in office following his ouster in June. 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.
Russia is also a member of the P5+1 group of countries that negotiated the Iran nuclear deal, with talks on the US rejoining the moribund pact possibly set to resume sometime soon, according to officials.
Israel has lobbied against the resumption of the deal and pushed for a concerted international effort to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons. On Thursday, Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, whose political base is largely made up of Russian speakers from the former Soviet Union, said a military clash with Iran was “only a matter of time.”
Bennett’s visit follows a trip by Foreign Minister Yair Lapid to Moscow last month, where he met with 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.
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.