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Netanyahu talks Syria, World Cup with Putin

Kremlin says leaders discuss ‘joint efforts to provide security’ near Israeli-Syrian border during phone call

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Kremlin in Moscow on May 9, 2018. (AFP/Sergei Ilnitsky)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Kremlin in Moscow on May 9, 2018. (AFP/Sergei Ilnitsky)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin Friday about Syria and the security coordination between the two countries there, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Kremlin said.

While the volatile situation in Syria was the main focus of the call, Netanyahu also used the opportunity to congratulate Putin on Russia hosting the football world cup, which opened Thursday with a 5-0 Russian victory over Saudi Arabia. Israel did not qualify.

On Syria, the Kremlin said Putin and Netanyahu talked about “joint efforts to provide security near the Syrian-Israeli border” during their phone call. They also “expressed readiness to boost the coordination of their actions with regard to Syria, including in countering international terrorism,” the Kremlin said.

Netanyahu has spoken and met with Putin regularly in recent years regarding Syria, where Russia is fighting on behalf of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The two most recently met in Moscow last month. Shortly after that meeting, an airstrike in Syria attributed to Israel targeted an Iranian military base. Like Russia, Iran is a key backer of the Syrian regime.

Israel has repeatedly vowed it will not tolerate an Iranian military presence in Syria and has carried out strikes against Iran-backed forces and attempts to smuggle advanced weapons to Hezbollah.

Both Syria and Iran deny there is an Iranian military presence in Syria, a claim repeated this week by Assad. This is routinely dismissed as nonsense by Israeli, Arab and Western defense officials.

This file photo provided on Friday October 20, 2017 by the government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media, shows Iran’s army chief of staff Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, left, looking at a map with senior officers from the Iranian military as they visit a front line in the northern province of Aleppo, Syria. (Syrian Central Military Media, via AP, File)

Reports earlier this month said Israel and Russia reached an agreement for the withdrawal of Iranian forces from southern Syria. An Israeli official later told Channel 10 that no such deal was reached, with Netanyahu stressing to Putin that Israel wants Iran out of all of Syria, not just the area near the Israeli-Syrian border.

While the official acknowledged that talks have progressed and that the Kremlin appears more understanding of the Israeli position, Netanyahu still made clear that his government will not shy away from using military force to keep Iran completely out of Syria.

Separately, the Prime Minister’s Office said Netanyahu congratulated Putin during their phone call Friday on hosting the World Cup soccer tournament, as well as the celebration of Russia’s national day, which the Russian embassy in Israel marked Thursday with a reception in Jerusalem, a nod to Moscow’s recognition of Western Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

It was widely believed to be the first-ever national day event by a foreign embassy to take place in Jerusalem.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a reception marking Russia Day in Sergei’s Courtyard, Jerusalem, June 14, 2018 (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

Virtually all foreign embassies in Israel hold their annual independence day or national day celebrations in the Tel Aviv area. Even the US, which earlier on May 14 relocated its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, will hold this year’s July 4th reception in Airport city, outside Tel Aviv.

In April 2017, Russia surprised many by recognizing Western Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. However, Moscow has made plain that it considers East Jerusalem the capital of a future Palestinian state and vehemently opposed the US administration’s December 6 decision to recognize all of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

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