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Israel rebukes Russian envoy for harsh interview; he claims words were distorted

Foreign Ministry summons Anatoly Viktorov for dressing down after he supposedly said Israel-Arab conflict destabilizing Middle East, while Iran isn’t

Russian Ambassador to Israel Anatoly Viktorov at the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv, November 2019. (Raphael Ahren/TOI)
Russian Ambassador to Israel Anatoly Viktorov at the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv, November 2019. (Raphael Ahren/TOI)

The Foreign Ministry on Wednesday summoned Russia’s ambassador to Israel to rebuke him for supposedly saying the Jewish state’s conflict with the Palestinians and other Arab entities was the main cause of instability in the Middle East, rather than Iran.

Russia’s embassy on Wednesday night claimed Ambassador Anatoly Viktorov’s comments had been taken out of context and distorted by the Jerusalem Post. The embassy said it had sent a letter of complaint to the Post’s editor and had held constructive dialog with Israeli officials on the matter.

The Post said it stood by its reporting.

In the interview with the Post published Tuesday, Viktorov was quoted as criticizing Israel for targeting arms shipments for Hezbollah and questioning whether the Lebanese terror group had truly dug tunnels under the Israel-Lebanon border as Israel has alleged.

The Russian mission said the newspaper’s correspondent has “added personal commentary” to the quotes, which themselves had been “taken out of the context” while distorting the main essence of the conversation.

It called the incident “annoying,” but maintained it would not affect friendly ties between Moscow and Jerusalem.

The Foreign Ministry earlier said Viktorov was “seriously reprimanded” for his comments by Alon Bar, the ministry’s political director.

“Bar rejected out of hand the comments published in the interview and emphasized that they are inconsistent with the reality in the Middle East,” a Foreign Ministry statement said.

Bar also said regional issues, “especially the Iranian threat and terror groups who do Iran’s bidding, particularly Hezbollah,” should be discussed through diplomatic channels, “with reference to the reality and threats which Israel is dealing with and not outrageous and dangerous false visions,” according to the statement.

The Foreign Ministry also noted that Viktorov had told Bar that he intended to send a letter to the Jerusalem Post, claiming some of the quotes attributed to him weren’t accurate.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry building in Jerusalem. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In the interview, Viktorov was quoted as accusing Israel of fueling violence, referring to airstrikes in Syria that have targeted Iranian military positions and arms convoys heading to Hezbollah.

“Israel is attacking Hezbollah, Hezbollah is not attacking Israel,” he said, adding that Israel should not attack “the territories of sovereign UN members.”

Viktorov was also quoted as rejecting the idea that Israel coordinates such attacks with Russia, saying any warning Jerusalem gives Moscow on such attacks is about the safety of Russian forces in Syria — there to support the regime as it quells a lingering civil war.

Israel has a channel of communication with Russia to prevent the two countries’ militaries from clashing in the Syria arena. However, in 2018, Russia blamed Israel when Syrian air defenses accidentally shot down a Russian plane during an airstrike, killing all 15 crew members.

Israel, which rarely admits to carrying out the strikes, has kept up a determined campaign aimed at keeping Iran-backed fighters from gaining a foothold in Syria.

The campaign has included thousands of airstrikes on targets linked to Iran and alleged weapons convoys, according to reports and accounts from officials speaking anonymously.

A picture taken on June 3, 2019, during a guided tour with the IDF shows soldiers walking near the entrance to a tunnel at the Israeli side of the border with Lebanon. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Regarding tunnels found by the Israel Defense Forces last year under the northern border and which the IDF said were dug by Hezbollah in preparation for a major future assault on the country, Viktorov was quoted as saying there was “no proof Hezbollah created the tunnels.”

Viktorov also blamed the US for the unraveling of the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers that removed sanctions from Iran in return for the dismantling of its nuclear program.

The deal, still supported by the other signatories — including Russia — is crumbling as the Trump administration reimposed harsh sanctions and Iran has increased its uranium enrichment.

On a more positive note, he said Russia supports the recent US-brokered normalization deals between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, as well as the moves towards a similar agreement with Sudan.

But he said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must still be addressed with the aim of reaching a two-state solution.

“We strongly believe that the Palestinian question should not be put aside,” he said. “The normalization should not replace a Palestinian-Israeli settlement, because this problem will remain and will continue to endanger not only the countries and peoples of the region but also many others around the globe,” he said.

Viktorov reiterated Russia’s offer to host Israeli-Palestinian talks in Moscow.

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