MKs demand Netanyahu answer questions about spurned Russia-Syria deal
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MKs demand Netanyahu answer questions about spurned Russia-Syria deal

Opposition lawmakers want PM summoned to explain why he rejected deal that would have seen Iranian forces leave Syria, in exchange for lifting sanctions against Tehran

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as they prepare to deliver joint statements, after a meeting and a lunch in the Israeli leader's Jerusalem residence, June 25, 2012. (AP/Jim Hollander, Pool/File)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as they prepare to deliver joint statements, after a meeting and a lunch in the Israeli leader's Jerusalem residence, June 25, 2012. (AP/Jim Hollander, Pool/File)

Three opposition lawmakers sent a letter to the chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Sunday, demanding that he disclose a letter presented to Israel from Russian officials on a rejected deal that would have removed Iranian-backed forces from Syria.

The offer was part of a pitch Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev gave to his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat, in September, and was aimed at fostering better ties between the United States and Russia through a deal on Iran and Syria, Channel 10 news reported last week.

The deal would have seen US forces leave Syria and Iranian militias pushed out, but was rejected by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu because it would also have involved an easing of sanctions against Tehran, the TV channel said.

The three MKs, Merav Michaeli (Zionist Union), Ofer Shelach (Yesh Atid), and Omer Bar-Lev (Zionist Union), demanded that chairman Avi Dichter (Likud) have the letter presented to the top Knesset committee and that Netanyahu be summoned to appear before the lawmakers to answer questions about the scotched deal.

Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman, MK Avi Dichter, left, and chair of the Defense Outlook and Force-Building Subcommittee, MK Ofer Shelah, speak at a meeting presenting a report on the military’s five-year Gideon Plan to the public, at the Knesset, on September 25, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“In light of the importance of the issue to Israel’s security, the (Foreign Affairs and) Defense Committee must understand exactly what the proposal included, what considerations led to the rejection of it, and who were the parties involved in the decision,” the three lawmakers wrote.

The report came just a day after US President Donald Trump abruptly announced the withdrawal of all his country’s troops from Syria, asserting that they had accomplished their mission of defeating the Islamic State jihadist group.

The announcement sparked concerns among Israeli and US lawmakers, who saw the American presence as also helping curb Iran’s military efforts in Syria, where, alongside Russia and its proxies, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah, it is fighting on behalf of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.

Another official quoted by Channel 10 said that, if Israel had not rejected the offer, the US pullout could have also been accompanied by the withdrawal of Iranian forces from Syria.

Zionist Union parliament member Merav Michaeli attending a faction meeting in the Knesset, December 5, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The report said Patrushev presented the proposal to Ben-Shabbat in Moscow on September 13, just days before ties between Jerusalem and Moscow were sent into a tailspin when 15 Russian servicemen aboard a military aircraft were killed by Syrian air defenses during Israeli airstrikes in Syria.

Russia has blamed the Israeli military over that incident — a charge rejected by Israel — and later sent advanced S-300 air defense systems to Syria.

The deployment of the S-300s was protested by the US and Israel, as it could complicate ongoing Israeli efforts to prevent Iran deepening its military presence in Syria and to thwart the transfer of weapons in Syria to Hezbollah.

Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes in recent years against targets linked to Iran, whose leaders have called for the destruction of the Jewish state.

Netanyahu spoke with Trump on Thursday about the US military drawdown in Syria, with his office saying they discussed “ways to continue cooperation between Israel and the United States against Iranian aggression.”

US forces, accompanied by Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters, drive their armored vehicles near the northern Syrian village of Darbasiyah, on the border with Turkey, April 28, 2017. (Delil Souleiman/AFP)

Earlier Thursday, Netanyahu said Israel would increase its activity in Syria to counter Iran’s influence and proxy militias.

Though Trump has in the past said he intended to pull American troops out of Syria, Wednesday’s announcement caught many State Department and Department of Defense officials off guard.

Many details of the plan to remove the approximately 2,000 US troops from Syria remain unclear, notably the exact timeline.

For Israel, the pullout leaves it without a staunch ally in the fight against Iran in Syria and potentially opens the door for the Islamic Republic to create a so-called “land bridge” through Iraq and Syria, into Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea.

Until now, American troops have been stationed in northeastern Syria, along the Iraqi border, blocking such a corridor, through which Iran could more easily distribute advanced weapons and technology throughout the region, especially to its Lebanese client, the Hezbollah terrorist army.

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