'Important, close and even intimate dialogue' with Putin

Netanyahu in Russia for shortened trip as indictment announcement looms

PM delays takeoff amid storm over Likud TV clip; cancels Moscow Jewish event and will return to Israel a day earlier than planned; Kremlin meeting to focus on Iran in Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on July 11, 2018. (AFP/ Pool/Yuri Kadobnov)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on July 11, 2018. (AFP/ Pool/Yuri Kadobnov)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu late Tuesday night headed off on a shortened visit to Russia, where he will meet President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday to discuss Iran. Before departing, he said he was canceling a planned event with Moscow’s Jewish community, reportedly to prepare for an expected indictment announcement against him in the coming days.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is expected late this week or early next week to publish conclusions on three corruption cases against Netanyahu. Police have recommended bribery charges in all three, but the prime minister denies any wrongdoing.

Netanyahu, who landed early Thursday morning, is now scheduled to return to Israel in the evening instead of Friday morning, as originally planned.

The expected announcement of plans to charge Netanyahu is a necessary step before a hearing, only after which Mandelblit can file a formal indictment. The process can take up to a year.

Netanyahu has urged the attorney general to delay the announcement until after April 9 elections, but Mandelblit has resisted attempts to sway his timetable.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks at the Globes conference in Jerusalem on December 20, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The premier delayed his flight to Moscow late Tuesday, by about an hour, to deal with a political crisis sparked by a campaign clip that featured a Likud activist in front of Israeli soldiers’ graves and calling rival Benny Gantz a “dangerous leftist” who would cause hundreds of deaths.

Netanyahu had been scheduled to leave at 11 p.m., but left after midnight.

Following the broadcast on the Likud TV Facebook channel, Netanyahu faced a slew of criticism, including from an organization that represents families of fallen soldiers. He then ordered the video deleted, apologized for the “unfortunate error,” and announced that those responsible for the incident had been suspended.

The Netanyahu-Putin meeting was originally set for last Thursday, but was postponed at the last-minute as Netanyahu remained in Israel to push for a merger of right-wing parties ahead of the upcoming elections.

That deal has earned him growing criticism in Israel and the United States for trying to secure the extremist Otzma Yehudit party a place in the next Knesset.

Netanyahu said Tuesday his talks with Putin would focus on Israel’s military efforts to thwart Iran’s attempts to establish a military presence in Syria.

“Our talks will center around the Iranian entrenchment in Syria,” he said. “We are taking action against [Iran], we are attacking its bases and we will continue acting against it.”

“We will continue acting until we get the Iranians out of Syria, because Iran is threatening to eradicate Israel and we will not let it have a military base near our border.”

He reiterated that message in comments to reporters before his departure and said he also hoped deepen the “important, close and even intimate dialogue with the president of Russia, which is so important for the security of Israel.”

The Wednesday meeting will be the two leaders’ first extensive face-to-face talks since the downing of a Russian plane by Syrian air defenses in September during an Israeli airstrike, for which the Kremlin blamed Jerusalem.

Netanyahu has since spoken with Putin by phone and met 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 last July.

Netanyahu has 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 plane incident.

Their meeting will also be their first since US President Donald Trump announced in December he would withdraw all American soldiers from Syria, in a move that was welcomed by Putin but raised concerns in Israel.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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