En route to Paris, Netanyahu defends Qatari cash shipments into Gaza

PM says he’ll do what’s needed to bring calm, ease humanitarian crisis in Strip; denies link to submarine graft case; insists French put kibosh on bilateral meeting with Putin

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday defended allowing Qatar to fund  Gazan civil servant salaries, saying the cash infusion was necessary to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in the coastal enclave.

Netanyahu made the comments before boarding an airplane to Paris for an Armistice Day anniversary ceremony, confirming he will not meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on the trip and also distancing himself from a massive naval acquisitions graft probe that has embroiled several former associates.

Netanyahu said he would do “whatever I can” to keep residents of Gaza border areas south while also preventing a humanitarian crisis in the Strip. He called allowing in the Qatari money “the right step.”

“These things were done, under certain conditions, in order to prevent a humanitarian crisis,” he said of the move, which also has the backing of the military and the security cabinet of top-level ministers.

“We held serious discussions. It’s a question of alternatives,” he said of the cabinet.

He indicated he was willing to a pay a political price for either moves toward war or calm.

A Palestinian school girl runs to cover from heavy rain in her way back to home in Gaza City, Saturday, Nov.10, 2018. (AP/Hatem Moussa)

On Friday, $15 million in Qatari cash entered the Gaza Strip in several suitcases to pay the salaries of Palestinian civil servants in Gaza in a bid to ease tensions in and around the impoverished territory.

A total of $90 million is to be distributed in six monthly installments of $15 million, according to authorities, primarily to cover salaries of officials working for Hamas.

Palestinian protesters hurl rocks at an Israeli army vehicle during a demonstration near the border between Israel and Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on November 9, 2018. (Photo by Said KHATIB / AFP)

Qatar has also said it would hand out $100 to each of 50,000 families in poverty, as well as larger sums to Palestinians wounded in clashes along Gaza’s border with Israel.

The transfers, which had been opposed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, came after Israel allowed in Qatari fuel, allowing the Strip’s sole power station to provide double the amount of electricity daily.

Qatar is thought to be part of a multilateral efforts, together with Egypt and the UN, to push the sides toward a negotiated ceasefire or long-term calm.

‘Know nothing on submarines’

Speaking to reporters as he was boarding his plane to Paris shortly before midnight Saturday, Netanyahu also sought to distance himself from police recommendations against several former confidantes in a case regarding the acquisition of submarines and other naval vessels from German shipbuilding mammoth ThyssenKrupp.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland (unseen) hold a joint press conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem on October 31, 2018. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

Netanyahu, who is caught up in three other graft probes, has not been named a suspect in the case, though he has been questioned in the investigation.

On Thursday, police recommended indicting Netanyahu’s cousin and former lawyer David Shimron for acting as a go-between in the suspected bribery scheme, as well as the former head of the navy, Netanyahu’s former national security adviser and others.

The prime minister accused the media of not “hesitating to accuse me of the most absurd claims that don’t hold water… but in this case there wasn’t even an absurd claim.”

David Shimron seen at a Likud press conference in Tel Aviv on February 01, 2015. (Flash90)

Shimron said Thursday that Netanyahu was unaware of his dealings.

“You know that I didn’t know,” Netanyahu told reporters Saturday. “I suggest to wait until the end of the process and not rush to judgement.”

No meeting with Putin

On Sunday morning, Netanyahu will participate in the two main events to commemorate the end of fighting on November 11, 1918, at the Place de la Concord and Arc de Triomphe in downtown Paris.

Dozens of world leaders, including US President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin, UK Prime Minister Theresa May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres and others are set to participate in these events.

French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel sign the Golden Book on November 10, 2018, as they sit in the train carriage where the armistice ending World War was signed in the clearing of Rethondes (the Glade of the Armistice) in Compiegne, northern France. (Philippe Wojazer/Pool/AFP)

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah is also in Paris to attend the events surrounding the armistice centenary.

Though World War I predated Israels creation, Netanyahu said the conflict had “great importance” because hundreds of thousands of Jews participated in the fighting, which he said foreshadowed the Jewish people’s ability to defend itself.

Later on Sunday, the Israeli prime minister will join several other worlds leaders for lunch at the Elysee Palace, hosted by the wife of French President Emmanuel Macron, Brigitte Macron.

On Monday, Netanyahu and Macron are scheduled for a bilateral meeting, before the prime minister heads back to Israel, according to his office.

Netanyahu is hoping to convince Paris to pressure Beirut over what Israel says are Iranian plans to build precision missile factories in Lebanon, according to Hebrew media reports.

During his brief stay in Paris, Netanyahu is expected to meet with Merkel for a bilateral meeting, though neither Berlin nor Jerusalem confirmed the meeting.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on July 11, 2018. (AFP/ Pool/Yuri Kadobnov)

Netanyahu will not meet with Putin, despite his repeated efforts to schedule such a meeting.

“I respect the request of the hosts. Their request was not to schedule side meetings. I respect that request,” he said Saturday.

Israeli officials had said the French had requested no side meetings take place, citing logistics, but French officials said there was never a request for a side meeting.

A French official told The Times of Israel, several rooms have been made available for bilateral meetings at venue of the Global Peace Forum, where many of the world leaders will spend much of their time Sunday and Monday.

Netanyahu’s office has been working to arrange a meeting with Putin, which would be his first with Putin since Syrian air defenses downed a Russian military plane during an Israeli airstrike in Syria, killing 15 Russian servicement.

On Tuesday, Israel’s public broadcaster reported Russia canceled the sit-down in Paris between Putin and Netanyahu due to its continuing anger over Israeli airstrikes in Syria.

Israel had already begun preparing for the meeting before it was called off by Russia, according to Kan news.

A computer simulation released by the Russian Defense Ministry September 23, 2018, purports to show Israeli jets near a Russian reconnaissance plane, in red, off Syria’s coast before it was accidentally shot down by Syria forces responding to the Israeli air strike. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

Russia blamed Israel for the downing of the plane — a charge rejected by Jerusalem — and sent advanced S-300 anti-aircraft systems to Syria in the wake of the incident. Israel has rebuffed a Russian claim its jets hid behind the Russian reconnaissance aircraft.

Netanyahu had credited his close contact with Putin for the success of a mechanism between Israel and Russia that allowed the air force to carry out attacks against Iranian or Hezbollah targets in Syria.

The prime minister has spoken to Putin by phone since the incident.

While there has been a noticeable drop in reported Israeli raids following the September 17 incident, a senior Israeli official last month said the Jewish state has continued attacking targets in Syria.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at a joint news conference with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem in Moscow, Russia, August 30, 2018. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Monday accused Israel of endangering Russian troops by not informing Moscow before striking in Syria on several occasions.

Israel and Russia have coordinated their military efforts in Syria in recent years, in order to avoid friction and accidental conflict. Israeli officials do not generally discuss the full extent of that coordination, but they stress that the Israeli military does not seek Russian permission before carrying out operations.

Despite the Russian anger over the downed spy plane, Netanyahu has reiterated several times that Israel will continue to act to prevent Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria and the smuggling of advanced weapons into Lebanon.

Last month, Hadashot TV news reported that Russia was seeking to reset the terms of Israeli military operations in Syria and overhaul the existing Jerusalem-Moscow coordination system.

Russia insists that it receive further advance warning of Israeli strikes, the TV network said, though the report did not say how much. Israel usually informs Russia minutes before an airstrike.

Such a demand would likely limit Israel’s freedom of maneuver in Syria, with the report noting it could endanger Israeli aircraft and allow Iranian operatives more time to hide materials being targeted.

A senior diplomatic source quoted in the report said the demand was unacceptable operationally and that Israel must not acquiesce to it.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman later rejected the reported demands.

Illustrative photo of an Israeli F-15 fighter jet. (Tsahi Ben-Ami/Flash90)

The Israeli Air Force has carried out hundreds of strikes in Syria in recent years against targets linked to Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah, who Israel says are working to establish a military presence there that could threaten the Jewish state.

Like Russia, both Iran and Hezbollah are fighting on behalf of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime in the Syrian civil war.

A satellite imaging company published photos in October it said show four S-300 batteries deployed at a newly constructed site near the northwestern Syrian city of Masyaf, where Israel has reportedly carried out raids on targets allegedly tied to Syria’s chemical weapons program.

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

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