Russia said to spurn Israeli bid to send top officials to discuss downed plane

Jerusalem reportedly wanted to dispatch national security adviser to Russia last week, and even weighed visit by PM or defense chief to relieve tensions; Moscow said no

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as they prepare to deliver joint statements, after a meeting and a lunch in the Israeli leader's Jerusalem residence, June 25, 2012. (AP/Jim Hollander, Pool/File)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as they prepare to deliver joint statements, after a meeting and a lunch in the Israeli leader's Jerusalem residence, June 25, 2012. (AP/Jim Hollander, Pool/File)

Russian officials reportedly rebuffed an Israeli attempt to dispatch a high-level government representative to Moscow last week following the downing of a Russian spy plane by Syrian air defenses during an Israeli airstrike.

Israel initially sought to send a delegation led by its national security adviser, Meir Ben-Shabbat, along with air force officials, the Haaretz newspaper reported late Tuesday. The government also considered having Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman personally visit Moscow to tend to the spiraling diplomatic crisis between the two countries over the deadly incident.

But Russia spurned the offers, preferring that the explanations over the downing of the plane be left to military officials, according to the daily.

The report also underlined the Russian Defense Ministry’s decision to blame the Israeli military, rather than the government, for the Russian casualties. The report suggested the wording was predicated on the Russian military officials’ belief that the Israeli government was being misled by its “unprofessional” air force.

An Israeli air force delegation was ultimately sent to brief their Russian counterparts on the incident and persuade them the Syrian operators were at fault.

The delegation returned with impression that Moscow had accepted their explanations. But Russian defense officials then publicly rejected the Israeli account, and, in a devastating critique, blamed Jerusalem for the plane being downed and for the deaths of the 15 Russian servicemen on board.

The Russian spy plane was downed while Israeli fighter jets were conducting an airstrike last Monday night on a weapons facility in the coastal city of Latakia, which the IDF said was going to provide weapons to the Hezbollah terror group and other Iranian proxies. It was shot down during a counterattack by Syrian air defenses.

A before and after photo of an ammunition warehouse which was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike on a Syrian base in Latakia, September 18, 2018 (ImageSat International (ISI/Ynet)

Since the downing of the IL-20 spy plane, Israel’s relationship with Moscow has rapidly deteriorated.

Although Russian President Vladimir Putin told Netanyahu in a call last Tuesday he blamed the incident on a “tragic chain of accidental circumstances,” Moscow has since accused Israel of failing to provide adequate warning time ahead of the attack and failing to accurately specify the location of the targeted area, and said one of the Israeli pilots used the Russian reconnaissance plane as a shield after the attack, hiding behind it to avoid being hit by the Syrian surface-to-air missile.

Israel has repeatedly denied these allegations. It maintains that it notified the Russians 12 minutes before the attack.

Israeli and Russian military officials are scheduled to meet in order to address the growing rift between the two countries, Netanyahu said earlier on Tuesday.

Speaking to reporters before boarding a flight to New York, Netanyahu also said Israel would continue to fight Iran’s efforts to establish a permanent military presence in Syria. “We will do whatever is necessary to protect Israel’s security,” he said.

The security cabinet, which met Tuesday morning, released a statement around the same time, with a similar message.

A computer simulation released by the Russian Defense Ministry September 23, 2018, purports to show Israeli jets near a Russian reconnaissance plane, in red, off Syria’s coast before it was accidentally shot down by Syria forces responding to the Israeli airstrike. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

“The security cabinet has instructed the IDF to continue to take action against attempts by Iran to establish a military presence in Syria while continuing the security coordination with Russia,” the statement read, echoing comments made by Israeli defense officials over the past week.

Netanyahu said he spoke twice with Putin in the wake of the incident and expressed his “sincere” condolences over the Russian servicemen who died in the “tragic event.”

In the three years since Jerusalem and Moscow agreed to establish a so-called deconfliction mechanism to avoid clashes over Syrian skies, Israel has been “very successful” in thwarting Iran’s effort to entrench itself in Syria and provide advanced weaponry to the Hezbollah terror group, Netanyahu said.

“That doesn’t mean there weren’t exceptions, but by and large it has been a great success,” he said.

In this file photo taken on Saturday, March 4, 2017, the Russian Ilyushin Il-20 electronic intelligence plane of the Russian air force with the registration number RF 93610, which was accidentally downed by Syrian forces responding to an Israeli air strike, flies near Kubinka airport, outside Moscow, Russia. (AP Photo/Marina Lystseva)

This crisis has threatened the coordination between the countries’ militaries, with potentially serious implications for the Israel Defense Forces’ ability to fight Iran in Syria.

Netanyahu said Tuesday that the IDF and Russian military would work to resolve the issue.

“I reached an agreement with Putin that work groups from the IDF and Russian army will meet soon for this purpose,” he said.

In his short press briefing, the prime minister made no mention of Russia’s latest actions in Syria: the decision to provide Syrian dictator Bashar Assad with the powerful S-300 air defense system and to establish electronic warfare equipment along the Syria coast, which could jam Israeli radars and communication equipment.

On Monday, both Jerusalem and Washington warned Russia against its declared intention to provide the Syrian military with the advanced surface-to-air missiles within two weeks, saying the move would further destabilize the region and increase already-high tensions.

Putin informed Netanyahu of the decision to provide Syria with the S-300 system in a phone call Sunday.

In response, according to a statement by Netanyahu’s office, “The prime minister said providing advanced weapons systems to irresponsible actors will magnify dangers in the region, and that Israel will continue to defend itself and its interests.”

Concurrently, US National Security Adviser John Bolton said Russia’s decision was a “major mistake” that would cause a “significant escalation” of  tensions. He urged Moscow to reconsider.

Channel 10 news quoted a senior American official who noted that the system could also endanger US Air Force jets operating against the Islamic State group in Syria.

“Bringing more anti-aircraft missiles into Syria won’t solve the Syrian army’s unprofessional and indiscriminate firing of missiles and won’t mitigate the danger to aircraft flying in the area,” the unnamed official said.

US National Security Adviser John Bolton speaks at a Federalist Society luncheon at the Mayflower Hotel, Monday, Sept. 10, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Earlier on Monday, the Kremlin issued a devastating critique of Israel over the plane incident, accusing Israel’s air force of “premeditated actions,” and warning that the incident would harm relations between the two countries.

“According to information of our military experts, the reason (behind the downing) were premeditated actions by Israeli pilots which certainly cannot but harm our relations,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists.

Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov produced data that he said had been collected by Russian air defense systems in Syria purportedly indicating that one of the Israeli F-16 fighter jets was flying close to the much larger Russian plane. When the F-16 was targeted by a Syrian missile it suddenly veered off, resulting in the missile homing in on the bigger target.

Konashenkov also said that data showed that the Israeli jets remained over the Mediterranean Sea off Syria’s coast after the Russian plane was downed, though Israel has said its fighters were long gone by the time the Syrian missiles were launched.

Russia had originally agreed to sell the system to Syria in 2010, but scrapped the plan at Israel’s behest. However, the Syrian military has already received training on use of the system.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu noted on Monday that Russia had also intended to supply Syria with the systems in 2013, but had held back because of Israeli concerns. Now, he said, “the situation has changed, and that isn’t our fault.”

Peskov said the measures were “not directed against third countries but towards defending our own military.”

However, Syria’s Ambassador to Russia Riyad Haddad said following the announcement that Damascus required the S-300 “in order to defend Syrian land from Israel’s aggressive actions.”

Russia already has its own S-300 air defense system in Syria, along with the more advanced S-400 system.

Judah Ari Gross, Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.

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