Netanyahu in Moscow tells Putin Israel will continue hitting Iran in Syria

In first meeting since downed spy incident, prime minister praises deconfliction method; Russian leader accepts invite to visit Jerusalem to unveil World War II memorial

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on February 27, 2019. (MAXIM SHEMETOV / POOL / AFP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on February 27, 2019. (MAXIM SHEMETOV / POOL / AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Russian President Vladimir Putin that Israel will continue to take action against Iran in Syria, in the first significant meeting between the two since a major spat developed over a downed spy plane last year.

“The greatest threat to stability and security in the region comes from Iran and its proxies,” Netanyahu said. “We are determined to continue our aggressive activity against Iran, which calls for our destruction, and against its attempts to establish itself militarily in Syria.”

Israel and Russia have been at odds since September, when Syrian air defenses shot down a Russian reconnaissance plane while aiming at an Israeli jet that was targeting an alleged Iranian installation. The incident, which Moscow blamed Israel for, threatened to hamper Israel’s air campaign against Iranian entrenchment in Syria.

Netanyhau had credited his close ties with Putin for the success of a system allowing Israel to carry out strikes in Syria without becoming entangled with Russia, which is allied with Syria’s President Bashar Assad, but those ties reportedly took a hit in the wake of the spy plane incident.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu again credited the system in place between Israel and Russia.

“I have counted 11 meetings between us since September 2016,” Netanyahu told Putin at the start of the meeting. “The direct link between us is the deconfliction mechanism that prevented conflict between our armies and contributed to security and stability in the region.”

Putin welcomed his Israeli guest, but did not specifically mention Iran or Syria in his remarks. “It is very important that we continue to cooperate. Russia was a supporter of the establishment of Israel. We are happy to talk about the situation in the region and the security issue,” Putin said.

After the spy plane incident, Russia dispatched advanced S-300 air defense batteries to Syria, raising concerns they could be used against Israeli planes. They have yet to be deployed, according to intelligence assessments.

Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes over the last several years to keep Iran from gaining a foothold in Syria and thwart the transfer of advanced weapons to Tehran-backed Hezbollah. Moscow has said it will keep Iran from the Israeli border, but has said it cannot push Iranian forces out of the country.

At the beginning of the their brief statements, Netanyahu invited Putin to come to Jerusalem to attend the unveiling of a monument in honor of Soviet soldiers who died during the siege of Leningrad in World War II.

“We will never forget the role Russia and the Red Army played in the victory over the Nazis,” Netanyahu said.

Putin immediately accepted the invitation, noting that the memory of the soldiers who died at Leningrad was “sacred.”

The Leningrad memorial is set to be erected in the capital’s Armon Hanatziv promenade, overlooking Jerusalem’s Old City. There is no date for the event yet.

Netanyahu also said his government had recently decided to fund a new museum dedicated to the half million Jewish World War II veterans who fought in the Red Army.

Earlier this year, the world marked the 75th anniversary of the end of the Leningrad siege, which lasted from September 1941 to January 1944. Hundreds of thousands of Russians died during the blockade by Nazi Germany, most of them from starvation.

Wednesday’s meeting in the Kremlin was also attended by Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin, a former Soviet refusenik who translated Netanyahu’s remarks from Hebrew to Russian, National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and head of Military Intelligence Tamir Hayman.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and members of the delegations attend a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on February 27, 2019. (MAXIM SHEMETOV / POOL / AFP)

Netanyahu was set to fly back to Israel shortly after the meeting, cutting his trip short and 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.

Before taking off after midnight Wednesday, Netanyahu said he hoped deepen the “important, close and even intimate dialogue with the president of Russia, which is so important for the security of Israel.”

Netanyahu has 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.

Their meeting was also 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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