In an interview with a Russian newspaper, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Thursday touted Israel’s defiance of Western pressure to sanction Moscow, while warning that Israel would not tolerate the use of Russian-supplied weapon defense systems on its jets in Syria.
Liberman told the Kommersant daily that Israel maintained a frank and open relationship with Moscow and was not looking to clash with Russia in Syria.
“We greatly appreciate our relations with Russia,” Liberman, a former foreign minister, said. “Even when our close partners put pressure on us, like in the case of sanctions against Russia, we do not join them.”
The defense minister offered the recent example of a decision by the US and other Western countries to expel dozens of Russian diplomats in response to an assassination attempt on a Russian double agent in Salisbury, England, earlier this year.
“Israel did not join that action,” he said.
Israel has carefully navigated its relations with Russia in a bid to secure its security interests in neighboring Syria. The government of Vladimir Putin has become a major player in regional affairs, having boots on the ground — and jets in the air — only a few miles from Israel’s borders in the war-wracked country. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has met with Putin more often in recent years than with any other world leader, and has long painstakingly avoided offending Russia.
Liberman also reiterated that Israel would target a Russia-supplied S-300 air defense battery if Syrian dictator Bashar Assad tried to use such a system against Israeli jets.
“If the S-300 systems are not used against us — that’s one thing. But if they open fire against our planes, we will certainly retaliate,” Liberman said.
The interview focused largely on Iran — both on the country’s activities in Syria, where Israel fears Tehran is establishing a military presence with which it could threaten the Jewish state, and on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, which Liberman said Israel had proved was a military one with this week’s revelation of a trove of documents stolen from Tehran by the Mossad intelligence service.
“These documents that were published prove undeniably that Iran was actively working not only to enrich uranium, but to create an atomic weapon,” he said.
In recent weeks, Russian officials have indicated that Moscow was prepared to hand over the powerful S-300 missile defense system to Syria, something it has long refused to do in light of significant Israeli opposition.
Last month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told Russian media that Moscow’s “moral obligation” against selling the air defense system to Syria had ended.
This reversal, Lavrov indicated, was not due to Israeli actions in Syria, but to a joint American-British-French attack on Assad regime sites last month following an alleged chemical attack by the Syrian dictator in the city of Douma.
Since then, Liberman has repeatedly stated that Israel would not oppose such a move provided the system is not used against Israeli planes.
Liberman said Jerusalem hoped that Russia and Israel could reach an understanding about each other’s goals and interests in Syria — where Moscow is heavily backing Assad — in order to avoid unnecessary confrontation.
“We are not looking for any conflicts with Russia. The opposite — in recent years we have held open, clear and transparent dialogue with Russia, when our opinions are in line with one another and when they aren’t,” Liberman told the Russian newspaper.
“We are constantly holding transparent dialogue, without hiding anything,” he said.
The defense minister repeated Jerusalem’s stated policy as it relates to Syria: Israel will not intervene in the country’s civil war, unless one of its “red lines” is violated, notably the transfer of advanced weapons to terrorist groups, Iranian military entrenchment in Syria, or an attack on Israeli territory, even by errant fire.
“In my view, Assad is a war criminal who is responsible for the deaths of more than half a million citizens of his country, but we are not planning to get involved in internal Syrian matters,” Liberman said.
“What we won’t tolerate are attempts by Iran to turn Syria into a forward operating base against Israel. Any attempt by Iran to set itself up in Syria will be thwarted,” he said.
The defense minister said it would be “very wise” for Assad to not intervene in Israel’s attempts to prevent Iranian entrenchment in his country.
“If his forces, his air defenses fire at us, we will open fire at them,” Liberman said.
The defense minister was asked if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent revelation that the Mossad had smuggled over 100,000 documents out of Tehran, which detailed Iranian efforts to construct a nuclear bomb and affix it to a ballistic missile, offered proof that Iran had violated the 2015 nuclear accord.
The deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, now hangs in the balance as US President Donald Trump decides if America will remain party to it.
Liberman refused to comment on whether the files proved that Iran had breached the accord.
Why does Iran need enriched uranium, why does it need a nuclear program when they have huge natural gas and oil fields?
“We are talking about the Iranian nuclear program in general, not about two years or 12 years or 20 years,” he said. “We’re talking about why does Iran need enriched uranium, why does it need a nuclear program when they have huge natural gas and oil fields?”
The defense minister accused Iran of freezing its nuclear weapons program “in order to get the most benefit out of the deal and then to go back to it afterwards.”
The defense minister repeated an oft-heard Israeli comparison between the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and the 1938 Munich Agreement, which was meant to appease Nazi Germany, but ultimately led to World War II.
“It’s just like what they tried to do with Hitler, and in the end they paid a dear price. In the end, we will get an Iran with nuclear missiles, and in order to stop them after the fact we will have to pay an even dearer price,” Liberman said.
Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.