The Russians 'well understand' Israel's security concerns

Liberman: Israel won’t accept Russian curbs on its activity in Syria

Defense minister says ‘direct friction’ with Moscow averted despite strike on Iranian base, adds that ‘all options are on the table’

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman leads a faction meeting of his Yisrael Beytenu party at the Knesset on March 12, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman leads a faction meeting of his Yisrael Beytenu party at the Knesset on March 12, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said Monday that Israel will not allow Russia to impose restrictions on its activities in Syria.

In an interview with the Walla news site, Liberman refused to confirm that Israel was responsible for a strike on Iranian forces at a Syrian air base last week, despite an unnamed senior military source having told The New York Times that the Jewish state was behind it.

“We have to do our job,” Liberman said, adding that “all options are on the table.”

“We will not allow Iranian consolidation in Syria. We won’t allow any restriction when it comes to Israel’s security interests,” he continued.

At the same time, the defense minister asserted that Israel had succeeded in averting “direct friction” with Moscow and that the two countries were in constant contact, “which has proven itself.”

“We don’t meddle in Syria’s internal affairs and don’t try to fix the world,” the defense minister added. “We only deal with Israel’s security and the Russians understand this very well.”

Photo released by Iranian media reportedly show the T-4 air base in central Syria after a missile barrage Monday. (Iranian media)

He asserted that Iran also targets Israel through its proxies Hamas and Hezbollah, terror groups that would not be able to function “for a single day” without funding from Tehran.

Liberman warned that Israel will also not allow Gaza to become an “Iranian base” either.

He said that Israel’s strategy regarding the coastal enclave entails its demilitarization, a prisoner swap deal with Hamas, and finally its rehabilitation.

“Gaza residents have to understand that they can become the Singapore of the Middle East,” he said. “As long as Hamas is in control there, there will be nothing.”

Tehran threatened Monday to deliver a response to the alleged Israeli strike, saying it would come “at the right time” and that Israel would “regret” what it had done.

“The Zionist entity will sooner or later receive the necessary response and will regret its misdeeds,” Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi told reporters in a weekly meeting, according to Iranian news media.

“The Zionist regime should not be able to take action and be exempt from punishment,” Qasemi said, adding that “the Syrian and resistance forces will respond in a timely fashion and appropriately in the region.”

Last Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a stern speech at a state ceremony on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, warned Iran not to test Israel’s resolve, asserting that the Jewish state would respond to Tehran’s “aggression” with “steadfastness.”

“We are preventing Iranian activity in Syria. These are not just words,” Netanyahu asserted.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the official state ceremony held at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem marking Holocaust Remembrance Day on April 11, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Also on Wednesday, responding to the escalating threats between Israel and Iran, Russian President Vladimir Putin asked Netanyahu to avoid any steps that could increase instability in Syria.

Netanyahu, for his part, said Israel would continue to counter Iran’s efforts to build up its military presence in the war-torn country.

Israel has refused to officially comment on the attack, for which it has been blamed by Iran, Russia and Syria. Two US officials were also quoted as saying that Israel had carried out the strike, adding that Washington was informed in advance.

The Israeli military official quoted in The New York Times on Monday confirming that Israel had carried out the strike told columnist Thomas Friedman that “it was the first time we attacked live Iranian targets — both facilities and people.”

The senior official also noted that last Monday’s strike on the T-4 Air Base near Palmyra in central Syria came after Iran had launched an explosives-laden drone into Israeli airspace in February. The strike reportedly targeted Iran’s entire attack drone program at the base. Iranian media reported that seven members of the country’s military were killed in the strike, out of at least 14 reported fatalities.

February’s drone incident was “the first time we saw Iran do something against Israel — not by proxy,” the official said. “This opened a new period.”

There was no official confirmation of the unnamed official’s statements.

Military officials said Friday that the Iranian drone was carrying enough explosives to cause damage. Its precise intended target in Israel was unknown, they said.

The tensions with Iran also come against a backdrop of heightened tensions between Syria, backed by Iran and Russia on the one side and the United States and its European allies on the other.

On Saturday, US, French and British missiles destroyed sites suspected of hosting chemical weapons development and storage facilities Saturday, in a move lauded by US President Donald Trump as “perfectly executed.” It came in response to a suspected toxic gas assault by in the Syrian town of Douma by President Bashar Assad’s forces.

It was the biggest international attack on Assad’s regime since the start of Syria’s seven-year war.

Alexander Fulbright and agencies contributed to this report.

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