Netanyahu puts off meeting with Putin as he pushes for right-wing unity deal

PM delays visit to Russia while scheduling talks with Jewish Home party leaders to ensure alliance with nationalist Otzma Yehudit

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

A meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin was postponed Wednesday while Netanyahu makes last-minute efforts to ensure minor right-wing parties come together ahead of national elections.

A government source said Israel and Russia both agreed that the meeting scheduled for Thursday would be put off by a few days.

The two leaders would speak Thursday by phone and schedule another meeting as soon as possible, the source said.

Kremlin official Yuri Ushakov told Russian state news agency Ria Novosti that the meeting was postponed due to Israeli internal political reasons.

A meeting of the Likud secretariat scheduled for Wednesday and meant to finalize the electoral slate was also put off until the following day, Hebrew media reported.

Political parties have until Thursday to finalize their candidate slates for the April 9 Knesset elections.

The Kan public broadcaster cited sources close to the prime minister as saying that Netanyahu’s trip to Russia was delayed due to last-minute efforts at a unity agreement for the elections between three right-wing nationalist parties: Jewish Home, the National Union, and Otzma Yehudit.

Jewish Home and National Union already agreed last week to merge, and Netanyahu has urged them to also bring on board the extremist Otzma Yehudit. Talks for such a union have been ongoing, and earlier Wednesday Otzma Yehudit announced that a deal had been reached. However, there is strong opposition to the arrangement from within the more moderate national religious Jewish Home faction.

Left, Bezalel Smotrich (L) and Rafi Peretz posing after agreeing to form a joint Jewish Home National Union Knesset slate February 14, 2019. (Courtesy) Right, Otzma Yehudit party chair Michael Ben Ari (R) seen with Itamar Ben Gvir at the party’s inaugural election conference in Petah Tikva, on December 24, 2014, (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)

Netanyahu met with Jewish Home leader Rafi Peretz and MK Moti Yogev Wednesday morning to ensure that the alliance would hold.

Small right-wing factions have been strongly urged by Likud to team up for the elections after ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked split from Jewish Home and formed the New Right party, leaving their former colleagues hovering around the minimal level of support needed to enter the Knesset.

A failure on the part of any of these slates to clear the electoral threshold would mean thousands of “wasted” votes on the right, the prime minister has warned, endangering his chances of putting together a right-wing coalition.

The prime minister was scheduled to leave for Moscow on Wednesday evening with a delegation of senior military chiefs, including the head of the air force and the head of military intelligence, for talks on the situation in Syria.

Netanyahu has met with Putin numerous times since Russia’s 2015 military intervention in Syria, where along with Iran and allied proxy groups it is fighting on behalf of President Bashar Assad’s regime.

Illustrative. A screenshot from video on social media purporting to show airstrikes near Damascus on December 25, 2018. (Screen capture: Twitter)

Israel says it has carried out hundreds of airstrikes on Iran-linked targets as part of a campaign to prevent Tehran from establishing a military presence in Syria.

In September 2018, Syrian air defenses shot down a Russian military aircraft during Israeli strikes on Iranian targets in the country, killing all 15 servicemen aboard. Russia, which is allied with Damascus, blamed the Israeli military for the incident, a charge rejected by Jerusalem, and later transferred advanced air-defense systems to Syria in a move condemned by Israel.

Netanyahu has since spoken with Putin by telephone and talked with him on the sidelines of World War II commemorations in Paris in November, but the two have not held a formal sit-down since July.

Netanyahu had credited his close contacts with Putin for Moscow allowing Israel to continue to use air power in Syria against Iran. He has reportedly repeatedly sought a meeting with Putin since the September incident.

The meeting will also be their first since US President Donald Trump announced in December he would pull out all American soldiers from Syria, in a move welcomed by Putin but met with consternation in Israel.

AFP contributed to this report.

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