PM speaks with Putin, agrees to hold postponed Moscow meeting ‘in near future’

PM speaks with Putin, agrees to hold postponed Moscow meeting ‘in near future’

Leaders discuss bilateral issues in phone call initiated by Israel after PM canceled trip to Russia in order to broker election merger between far-right parties

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Bocharov Ruchei state residence in Sochi on August 23, 2017. (AFP Photo/Sputnik/Alexey Nikolsky)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Bocharov Ruchei state residence in Sochi on August 23, 2017. (AFP Photo/Sputnik/Alexey Nikolsky)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin on the phone Thursday after having postponed a visit to Moscow for talks with the Russian leader to instead stay home and broker an electoral alliance between two nationalist parties in a bid to unify a right-wing bloc ahead of national elections.

In a statement, the Prime Minister’s Office said the leaders would hold face-to-face talks in Moscow “in the near future” and that Netanyahu had congratulated Putin on the occasion of Defender of the Fatherland Day, a public holiday celebrating the military in Russia.

The Russian embassy in Israel said Netanyahu and Putin discussed “international and bilateral issues” during the call, giving no further details. Moscow said the call was initiated by the Israeli side.

On Wednesday, Kremlin officials told Russian state media the meeting between Putin and Netanyahu was postponed for several days due to Israeli internal political reasons.

The meeting scheduled for Thursday would have been their first extensive face-to-face talks between the two leaders since an incident in September that led to a Russian plane being downed by Syrian air defenses during an Israeli airstrike, which angered the Kremlin.

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 last July.

An Israeli military delegation meets with Russian officials in Moscow on September 20, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

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 incident.

Their meeting would have also been 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 raising concerns in Israel.

A Russian official characterized Netanyahu’s cancellation to the Kan public broadcaster on Wednesday as “very odd.”

“Netanyahu waited a long time for this meeting,” the official said on condition of anonymity. “Even if the Kremlin does take his reasons into consideration, this meeting is not going to be rescheduled for the near future in my opinion.”

On Wednesday evening, Netanyahu successfully brokered a unity pact between Jewish Home and Otzma Yehudit, in a bid to boost the number of seats held by right-wing parties after the elections, with an eye on his next potential coalition government.

He promised Jewish Home the 28th spot on the Likud’s parliamentary list and two cabinet ministries in a future government if it merged with the extremist Otzma Yehudit.

Recent polls project Likud winning about 30 of Parliament’s 120 seats, while Jewish Home and Otzma Yehudit may not have had enough support to enter the Knesset separately. Together, the two small parties were more likely to cross the electoral threshold and capture several parliamentary seats.

The Jewish Home party votes on a pre-election alliance with Otzma Yehudit in Petah Tikva, February 20, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

The agreement prompted accusations from critics who said Netanyahu was pandering to extremists.

Otzma Yehudit’s leaders are self-declared disciples of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, who was banned from the Knesset 1980s after serving a single term for his racist views. The American-born rabbi, whose movements are considered terrorist organizations by the US and Israel, advocated turning Israel into a Jewish theocracy and supported the forced removal of Palestinians and other non-Jews deemed disloyal to the state.

The Jewish Home party sealed the deal in a committee vote on Wednesday night.

Netanyahu’s move to unite right-wing nationalist parties ahead of Thursday’s party list deadline was one of several last-minute negotiations across the spectrum to form broader blocs.

Israel Resilience leader Benny Gantz and Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid announced an electoral alliance early Thursday morning, saying in a statement they would present a joint list that “will constitute the new Israeli ruling party.”

Agencies contributed to this report.

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