Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed Wednesday that Russian President Vladimir Putin told him the two countries could have found themselves at war had it not been for the close relationship between their leaders.
“Putin told me that were it not for our relationship, we could have found ourselves in the midst of a military clash… Only because we meet every few months has this been avoided,” Netanyahu said in an interview with Army Radio, a day before the Likud leadership primary.
“We have four times come close to collisions — our planes in Syria’s crowded airspace almost collided with Russian planes,” the premier continued, speaking openly regarding Israel’s conduct beyond its borders.
Israel has conducted hundreds of airstrikes in Syria targeting Hezbollah weapon shipments and Iranian military installations. The raids are coordinated with Iran-allied Russia to avoid a clash in the Syrian skies.
The Russian embassy declined to comment on the remarks Netanyahu attributed to Putin.
During Wednesday’s Army Radio interview, Netanyahu branded as “absurd” the Russian court ruling to jail Israeli-American Naama Issachar for seven and a half years for carrying several grams of cannabis while in transit at Moscow’s airport. The premier expressed hope that Putin would pardon her.
“I hope Putin will exercise his pardon power,” the prime minister said, a week after an appeal for the backpacker’s release was turned down by a Russian court.
He also doubled down on his promise to secure US recognition of Israel’s control over the Jordan Valley and West Bank settlements after the March election, saying he could not, for legal reasons, take the step as leader of a caretaker government.
Earlier this month, Netanyahu told reporters that he had spoken about his plans to annex the Jordan Valley during a meeting in Portugal with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. But two days later, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker said no such topic was raised at all during the sit-down.
Netanyahu first made the promise ahead of the September election.
In the interview, Netanyahu evaded questions regarding whether he will ask the Knesset to grant him immunity from prosecution in three corruption cases or whether he will continue chairing the Likud party even if the High Court of Justice rules to bar him from forming a government due to the criminal charges against him.
On immunity, the prime minister did not rule out the possibility, saying he wanted to “keep up the suspense.”
The premier avoided mentioning the name of his challenger in Thursday’s primary entirely, and when asked whether he would be willing to appoint MK Gideon Sa’ar to a ministerial post if the latter loses the leadership race, Netanyahu said he was not dealing with such issues at the moment.
Sa’ar himself was later interviewed on the same Army Radio program, during which he argued that the country was missing a “historic opportunity” because of Netanyahu, who has twice been unable to form a government after a pair of inconclusive elections this year.
“Thousands in Likud understand the need for change tomorrow in order to prevent a change [to the current right-wing rule] in March,” Sa’ar said of the Likud leadership race.
“Netanyahu as a person has strengths and weaknesses. I believe I will be better off at decision making and execution,” asserted Sa’ar.
“He’s not the only one who can run the party and the country — our history has proven the opposite,” Sa’ar continued. “Indeed, only Netanyahu can’t run the country! He’s just failed [to do so] in two elections.”
Israel goes to its third election in under a year on March 2.
Netanyahu is widely expected to remain Likud leader in Thursday’s vote.