Netanyahu came to Moscow on ‘private visit’ to watch soccer, Putin says

PM had repeatedly indicated his trip was geared primarily at a discussion of Iran’s efforts to entrench itself in Syria

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara, attending the World Cup semifinal match in Moscow on July 11, 2018, along with Mika Lipsker (18) and Alon Eizarayev (13), who are fighting cancer. (Courtesy)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara, attending the World Cup semifinal match in Moscow on July 11, 2018, along with Mika Lipsker (18) and Alon Eizarayev (13), who are fighting cancer. (Courtesy)

Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to contradict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday when he welcomed the latter to Moscow on what he called a “private visit” by the Israeli premier to watch a soccer match — a trip repeatedly billed by Netanyahu as geared toward discussing Iran’s efforts to entrench itself in Syria.

“I am very happy to see you in Moscow, this time during your private visit to the FIFA World Cup,” Putin told Netanyahu at the beginning of their meeting, according to a readout provided by the Kremlin.

“Nonetheless, this does not deny us the pleasure of meeting and discussing current issues,” the Russian leader added.

Putin went on to make some general comments about bilateral relations, which he characterized as “developing quite positively.” He did not mention Iran or Syria.

In his own public comments, Netanyahu congratulated Putin on the “very successful World Cup” that Russia is currently hosting.

“The entire world is watching with great interest, including us in Israel, and I must say I am as well. So thank you for the invitation to watch the game later this evening,” he added.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, July 11, 2018. (Israel Foreign Ministry)

The prime minister then quickly turned to what he had claimed was the purpose of his trip to Moscow.

“Every visit such as this is an opportunity for us to work together to try to stabilize the situation in our region, increase security and increase stability,” Netanyahu said, citing Syria and Iran as  Israel’s main concerns.

The cooperation between Moscow and Jerusalem “is a central component in preventing a conflagration and deterioration of these and other situations,” Netanyahu added.

After the meeting, Netanyahu briefly spoke to the traveling press before making his way to Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, where Croatia beat England 2-1 in overtime to advance to the final Sunday against France. On the bleachers, where he unfurled an Israeli flag, he met Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković.

PM Netanyahu chatting with Russian PM Dmitry Medvedev and Croatian PM Andrej Plenković during a FIFA World Cup semifinal in Moscow, July 11, 2018 (courtesy)

Earlier this week, Netanyahu took pains to hold up the upcoming meeting as an example of his strong working relationship with Putin.

“This week I will fly to Moscow for an important meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin,” he said, for instance, at Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting. “We meet from time to time in order to ensure security coordination and, of course, to discuss regional developments.”

Addressing reporters on the tarmac before departing for Moscow, he said he was on his way to “a very important meeting” with Putin. “We will discuss Syria, Iran and Israel’s security needs. I very much appreciate the excellent direct connection, without intermediaries, between myself and the Russian president. It is very important for the national security of the State of Israel.”

On Tuesday, the Prime Minister’s Office told The Times of Israel that Netanyahu would “likely go to part of the game depending on what time the meeting finishes.”

On Thursday, responding to questions from reporters about Putin’s comments, Netanyahu denied that he had overstated the purpose of his trip.

“Putin invited me to a game and also to meet and we moved the meeting forward because of the expected summit with [US President Donald] Trump,” Netanyahu said in Moscow before heading back to Israel.

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