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Cabinet holds urgent vote on classified humanitarian issue related to Syria

Military censor bars publication of details about the discussion; in recent weeks, top Israeli officials have been in contact with their Russian counterparts about the matter

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Illustrative: Israeli soldiers guard at the Israeli side of the Quneitra Crossing, on the Israeli-Syrian border in the Golan Heights on March 23, 2019. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)
Illustrative: Israeli soldiers guard at the Israeli side of the Quneitra Crossing, on the Israeli-Syrian border in the Golan Heights on March 23, 2019. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

Cabinet ministers were called to an urgent, unscheduled vote held via video conference to discuss a classified humanitarian issue connected to Syria, which Russia was helping coordinate.

The details of the meeting, which lasted less than an hour, were largely barred from publication by the military censor.

In recent weeks, Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi have been in contact with their Russian counterparts Vladimir Putin, Sergey Shoygu and Sergey Lavrov about the matter.

Russia, which is closely allied with the Syrian regime, has regularly served as an intermediary between Jerusalem and Damascus, which do not maintain formal ties.

This was the case in 2019, when Moscow facilitated the return of the remains of fallen tank commander Zachary Baumel, who went missing in the 1982 Battle of Sultan Yacoub against the Syrian army in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Baumel’s body was recovered by Russian forces and handed over to Israel. Afterward, Jerusalem released four prisoners connected to Syria in what Israeli officials maintained was not part of an agreement but was a “goodwill gesture.”

Channel 13 reported that the issue had “the characteristics of prisoner exchanges,” without attributing the information.

Ministers were told about Tuesday’s cabinet meeting less than an hour before it started and informed that it dealt with a “sensitive security matter.”

The meeting, which was organized by both Netanyahu and Gantz, was held through secure video conferencing software. The ministers signed non-disclosure agreements before the start of the meeting.

Last Monday, Gantz’s office hinted at the topic of the meeting following the defense minister’s call with Shoygu.

“The two agreed to continue the important discussions between Russia and Israel… about the need to advance humanitarian efforts in the region,” Gantz’s office said in a statement.

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