Liberman thanks Moscow for ‘understanding’ Israel’s security concerns in north

Defense minister, in Russia, says it’s important to keep an open line between the IDF and Russian army; Netanyahu, Putin speak by phone on Syria situation

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman meets with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu in Moscow on April 26, 2017. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman meets with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu in Moscow on April 26, 2017. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Thursday thanked Russia for “understanding” Israel’s security concerns, during a meeting with his Russian counterpart in Moscow.

“The State of Israel appreciates Russia’s understanding of our security needs — especially on our northern border,” Liberman told Sergei Shoigu. “It is important to continue the dialogue between us and to keep an open line between the IDF and Russian army.”

Before leaving Israel for Russia, Liberman had tweeted, “The main focus of the security forces was and remains preventing Iran and its offshoots from establishing themselves in Syria.”

The Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin had a call with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Thursday evening to discuss the situation in Syria.

The Kremlin said the conversation focused on “some aspects of the Syrian settlement,” which it didn’t specify, following up on the two leaders’ talks in Moscow earlier this month.

The Liberman-Shoigu meeting followed Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov‘s demand Wednesday that all foreign forces — including those from Iran, Turkey and the US — leave southwestern Syria as soon as possible, as well as his remarks Monday at a press conference in Moscow that only the Syrian regime should field military forces in the country’s southern border areas.

“As regards the confrontation between Israel and Iran in Syria, we have agreements on the southwestern de-escalation zone. These agreements have been reached between Russia, the United States and Jordan. Israel was informed about them as we were working on them. They [the agreements] stipulate that this de-escalation zone should consolidate stability, while all non-Syrian forces must be withdrawn from this area,” Lavrov said.

Lavrov’s comment apparently referred to areas including the Syrian Golan Heights region abutting the Israeli Golan Heights and the border with Jordan, and indicated that Russia was open to Israeli demands that Iranian forces be kept far from Israel’s borders.

Israeli soldiers seen beside tanks near the Israeli-Syrian border in the Golan Heights on May 10, 2018 (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

The return of the Syrian army to Israel’s northern border in return for the distancing of Iran and its Lebanon-based proxy Hezbollah from the area has been the subject of back channel discussions between Israel and Russia over recent weeks.

Liberman visited Russia with a defense establishment delegation, hoping to flesh out the understandings to give Syrian President Bashar Assad control over the Syria-Israel border region.

Netanyahu’s office continues to insist publicly that Israel demands the complete ouster of Iran and Hezbollah from the whole of Syria.

A source told the Ynet news site on Thursday that “Israel is uninterested in partial agreements, but rather in an exit of all Iranian forces from Syria.”

On Wednesday, Netanyahu told ministers that he had spoken with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo primarily to urge the US government to demand that an evolving agreement on troop deployment in Syria between the US, Russia and Jordan make clear that Iranian forces must leave the whole of the country.

The agreement appears to be slated to demand that Iranian and Iran-backed forces stay 20 kilometers from the Israeli and Jordanian borders.

National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat. (Amos Ben Gerschom/GPO)

Amidst a flurry of activity relating to Iran, Meir Ben-Shabbat, Israel’s National Security Adviser, flew to Washington on Wednesday to coordinate positions with the Trump administration.

Next week, Netanyahu will leave for France and Germany to discuss Iran’s role in Syria and the nuclear deal which the Europeans are trying to salvage after the US withdrawal earlier this month. He is due to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. He may also call on Prime Minister Theresa May in the UK.

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