Netanyahu to meet Putin for first formal talks since Syria downed Russian plane

PM says he’ll fly to Moscow on February 21 for meeting focused on stymieing Iran’s efforts 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 will travel to Moscow later this month for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the first formal  meeting since Russia blamed Israel for the downing of a military aircraft by Syrian anti-aircraft fire over Syria last year, the premier announced Tuesday.

Netanyahu said he will fly to Russia on February 21 for talks focused on Iranian efforts to establish a military presence in Syria.

He made the announcement during a press conference with Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen.

His office said the Israeli and Russian leaders would also discuss regional issues and improving security coordination between the countries’ militaries in Syria.

There was no immediate confirmation from the Kremlin, though spokesman Dmitry Peskov did announce a trilateral meeting between Putin, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on February 14 in Sochi. Peskov said the topic of the meeting would be 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, but contacts have all but stopped since the spy plane incident.

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

“In many ways we’ve blocked that advance, but we’re committed to continuously blocking it, continuously preventing Iran from creating another war front against us right here opposite the Golan Heights,” Netanyahu said in a press conference with Van der Bellen.

In September, 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 spoke 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 use air power in Syria against Iran. He has reportedly repeatedly sought a meeting with Putin since the incident.

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

Netanyahu’s visit to Moscow joins a number of other trips Netanyahu is expected to make abroad this month, including to Poland for a conference on the Middle East and Iran, and to India.

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