Bennett speaks with Russia’s Putin for first time since becoming PM

Two leaders discuss Moscow’s regional role, efforts to return Israeli civilians and remains of soldiers held in Gaza; agree to meet soon

Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia, July 1, 2021. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia, July 1, 2021. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

For the first time since he took office last month, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett spoke with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, the Prime Minister’s Office said Monday.

The two leaders discussed a number of security issues, with Bennett thanking Putin for the role his country plays in maintaining regional stability as well as efforts by Russia to assist in the return of Israeli civilians and the remains of Israeli soldiers held in the Gaza Strip, the PMO said in a statement.

They agreed to hold a meeting together in the near future, according to the statement.

Bennett also thanked Putin for the good wishes he sent after the new government was confirmed on June 13.

Previous prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was in power for over 12 consecutive years, met face-to-face with Putin, who gained power in 2012, many times over the course of their respective lengthy terms in office.

During Monday’s phone call, Bennett expressed his appreciation for the historical connection between the Russian people and the Jewish people, the statement said, adding that the two men talked about the role of Russian immigrants to Israel as a “bridge between the countries.”

Since the then-Soviet Union lifted restrictions in 1989, over a million Russians have immigrated to Israel.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Kremlin in Moscow on January 30, 2020. (Maxim Shemtov/Pool/AFP)

Israel and Russia have maintained close coordination over their militaries’ activities in Syria, and Putin has often served as a mediator on Israel’s behalf.

In February an Israeli woman who crossed into Syria caused a major international incident. She was returned to Israel via Russia after over a week of diplomatic wrangling, but at a steep cost that included the release of Syrian captives in Israel, and reportedly involved Israel buying coronavirus vaccines for Syria.

The woman, whose identity is barred from publication, was indicted for her actions on charges including illegally exiting the country.

In January 2020 — shortly before elections in March of that year — Netanyahu traveled to Moscow to escort home Naama Isaachar, who was sentenced to more than seven years in a Russian prison on drug charges, and was freed after Putin’s intervention.

And in April 2019 — just days ahead of the election that month — Netanyahu announced that the body of Zachary Baumel, an IDF soldier missing since 1982, had been discovered and was being returned to Israel for burial. Putin said that Russia aided in the search for Baumel’s remains, and reports of other Russian efforts to recover the remains of other missing Israelis have circulated since then.

Russian forces have been helping Syrian President Bashar Assad put an end to his country’s devastating civil war, while Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes over recent years in Syria that it says are aimed at stopping Iranian military entrenchment in the country. The two militaries reportedly operate a line of communication to prevent their forces from clashing in Syria.

In 2018, relations between Israel and Russia became strained when Syrian forces shot down a Russian plane during an Israeli airstrike on the Latakia province of Syria, but their ties quickly recovered.

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