Interview'How many Israelis were killed by Iranians in last 3 years?'

Russia’s envoy says plane downing still rankles, blames US for fatal Gaza riots

Amb. Anatoly Viktorov urges Jerusalem to coordinate better with Moscow on Syria, backs Abbas refusal to consider Trump peace plan, says calling Hamas terrorists harms diplomacy

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

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

Moscow’s defense establishment is “extremely disappointed” with the Israeli military’s response to the downing of a Russian military reconnaissance plane in September, Russia’s top envoy to Israel said, calling on Jerusalem to better coordinate with the Kremlin its activities in Syria.

Ambassador Anatoly Viktorov also said that Israel’s demand that no Iranian troops be stationed in all of Syria was both “unrealistic” and unnecessary, since Tehran has no plans to attack Israel. He noted, somewhat derisively, that no Israelis have been killed at the hands of Iranians in recent years, while dozens of Iranians fell victim to Israeli air strikes in war-torn Syria.

In a wide-ranging interview in Russia’s Tel Aviv embassy, Viktorov also discussed Moscow’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying he fully understands why Ramallah refuses to even consider the US administration’s forthcoming peace proposal, and stating that the recent months of riots at the Gaza border were “caused directly” by the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem.

He not only reiterated Russia’s refusal to consider Hamas a terrorist organization but added that branding the Palestinian group as such “undermines” the peace process. Israel should consider engaging with Hamas, he added, calling it “a legitimate political force.”

On September 17, a Syrian S-200 surface-to-air missile shot down a Russian Il-20 plane during an Israeli attack in Syria’s Latakia area, resulting in the death of 15 Russian troops.

While President Vladimir Putin initially termed the incident the result of a “chain of tragic accidental circumstances,” Moscow subsequently directly blamed Israel for the incident, and claimed that the Israeli fighter jets were hiding behind the Russian spy plane, thus drawing the Syrian fire. Jerusalem rejects the accusation, insisting that the Israeli F-16s had returned to Israeli airspace by the time the Russian plane was hit.

“A very serious incident took place,” Viktorov told The Times of Israel in the interview, speaking in English.

“What is needed in our view is to recognize and internalize what happened in order to avoid any such incident in the future. But in order to avoid it we will need to agree on what was the cause of the incident.”

As things stand, the Russian and Israeli militaries disagree on the cause of the incident, the envoy said. “Of course our military is extremely disappointed with the Israeli assessment of this incident,” he added.

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 air strike. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

The incident triggered a serious diplomatic crisis between Jerusalem and Moscow that is still ongoing. The Russian Defense Ministry deemed Israel’s maneuver an “unfriendly act” and last month, in response to the incident, delivered the advanced S-300 missile defense system to Syria.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to continue attacking Iranian targets in Syria, but also sought a meeting with Putin to discuss the future of the so-called “deconfliction” mechanism aimed at preventing the two air forces clashing over Syrian skies. But so far, Putin has not agreed to a meeting, despite several Israeli requests. (Prior to the Syrian downing of the Russian plane, the two leaders had met three times in 2018 alone.)

Mistake is worse than a crime?

Viktorov declined to discuss the downing of the plane in any detail, saying he was not a military expert. But he dismissed the Israeli argument that Israel had no fault in it.

“There were some maneuvers by the Israeli jets, which [at least] contributed to this situation, and according to the assessment of our Defense Ministry it was not friendly behavior, to put it mildly,” he said, while acknowledging that Putin had called it a “tragic chain of accidents.”

Asked whether Moscow believes Israel acted deliberately to harm the Russian plane or if it was an accident, he replied: “There is a well-known [Russian] expression: What is worse than a crime? A mistake.”

Russian Ambassador Anatoly Viktorov and his wife host Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara at a reception marking Russia Day in Jerusalem, June 14, 2018 (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

As a matter of principle, Russia recognizes Israeli security concerns and has therefore asked Iran to distance its troops in Syria some 100 km from the Israeli border, a demand to which Tehran agreed, Viktorov said.

At the same time, he dismissed Israel’s official position not to accept any Iranian military presence anywhere in Syria.

“It’s an unrealistic request,” the Moscow-born veteran diplomat said, “because the presence of Iranian, as well as Russian, troops on the territory of Syria is legitimate. They’re there at the request of the legitimate Syrian government. And Israel could not demand from the Russian authorities to move Iranians from Syrian territories,” he said.

The mobile command center from which Israel says an Iranian operator flew a drone from Syria into Israeli airspace on February 10, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

Tehran and Moscow are partners with Damascus “in fighting against terrorists in Syria,” he went on, stressing that Russia told Iran to limit its military activities there to this particular goal. “As far as we know, the Iranian government does not plan to attack Israel first.”

Israel says that Iran has already attacked Israel, noting that the Islamic Republic launched an explosive-laden drone from Syria toward Israel on February 10. An Israeli Apache helicopter downed the drone 30 seconds after it crossed into Israeli airspace.

Viktorov was unimpressed by that argument.

“May I ask you a question as well: How many Israelis were killed by Iranians in the last three years? And how many Iranians were killed during the attacks carried out by Israel on the territory of Syria this year?”

Asked to elaborate on his point, he replied: “It’s self-explanatory.”

The remains of an Iranian drone that was shot down by the Israeli Air Force after it penetrated Israeli airspace on February 10, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

While Israel sees Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria as part of a potential existential threat posed by Iran, no Israelis have been killed as a direct result of Iran’s presence in Syria. Dozens of Iranian troops stationed in Syria have reportedly been killed by Israeli airstrikes in recent years.

Asked about Iranian leaders’ continuous threats to annihilate Israel, Viktorov said: “Such a position is not acceptable for us, and we’re explaining our position to the Iranians.”

Delivering the S-300 missiles to Syria should not be seen as a “unilateral punitive measure” against Israel, Viktorov said. Rather, Russia did it “because we have to defend the lives of our military men in Syria.”

The Syrian army on Thursday indicated that its possession of the S-300 has minimized Israeli attacks on its territory. But a senior Israeli official last week said that Israel’s air force has continued attacking targets in Syria.

Satellite photos released by ImageSat International on October 24, 2018, which are said to show a site near the northwestern Syrian city of Masyaf where Russian-made S-300 air defense systems were deployed. (ImageSat International)

Ready to listen

Viktorov, who has been serving as Russia’s ambassador to Israel since July, called for better coordination and intelligence sharing with the Jewish state regarding Syria.

“Sometimes we get the feeling Israel thinks it’s the only country that has a secret service. We also have a secret service that does surveillance, as do other countries,” he said. “Let’s exchange information.”

Israel routinely attacks Iranian targets in close proximity to Russian troops in Syria, but only gives Moscow one minute warning, he claimed. He urged Jerusalem to give Russia more time to look into such claims. “Let’s communicate,” he said. (Israeli military officials have said Israel gave Russia 12 minutes warning ahead of the September 17 strike.)

When it was put to him that Israel may not want to alert Russia too far in advance, lest Moscow warns its Iranian allies of an impending attack, he replied: “We’re not telling Syrians or Iranians to hide anything from Israel. That’s not our policy.

“If there are concerns on the Israeli side, we are ready to listen,” he said. “And if there are grounds for these concerns, we could take measures in our contacts with our Iranian and Syrian partners.”

Russian Ambassador to Israel Anatoly Viktorov, right, sits next to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a reception marking Russia Day in Sergei’s Courtyard, Jerusalem, June 14, 2018 (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

Wrong decision on Jerusalem

In April of 2017, Russia surprisingly recognized West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, stressing that the eastern part of the city should become the capital of a future Palestinian state.

But Viktorov harshly criticized US President Donald Trump for his December 6, 2017 recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and for moving the American Embassy there in May of this year.

“We thought that this decision would not contribute to the settlement of the protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but could add even more tensions,” he said. “Unfortunately, that happened.”

Hamas is part of Palestinian society, whether you like it or not

Since March, over 160 Palestinians have been killed during violent unrest at Israel’s border, which Viktorov blamed on the Trump administration’s policy change on Jerusalem.

“These protests were caused directly by the decision made by Washington,” he asserted, dismissing the idea that the so-called “March of Return” riots, spurred by Gaza’s Hamas rulers, are principally aimed at breaking Israel’s blockade of Gaza.

Thousands of Palestinians protest along the Gaza border with Israel, in the sixth ‘March of Return’ demonstration on May 4, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

Given Trump’s Jerusalem declaration, the Palestinian Authority is in its right to reject the US as a mediator in the peace process, Viktorov went on.

“We can understand them. Of course,” he said.

Unilateral actions rarely lead to the expected result, and what was needed now was a concerted effort by various international actors to advance the peace process based on international law and previous UN resolutions, he added.

Would he want to urge the Palestinians to at least look at the US administration’s much-awaited peace plan rather than outright rejecting it? “Why should we?” Viktorov asked in response.

Once the US moved its embassy to Jerusalem the Palestinians are justified in thinking that the American plan will offer them nothing of interest, he said.

Hamas: Part of Palestinian society

Viktorov, who until earlier this year was the director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Department for Humanitarian Cooperation and Human Rights, also spoke out in favor of Hamas, a terrorist organization avowedly bent on Israel’s destruction.

“We do not consider Hamas a terrorist organization,” he declared, “because Hamas is part of Palestinian society, whether you like it or not.”

Members of the Hamas terror group’s military wing attend the funeral of six of its fighters at a cemetery in the Deir al-Balah refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip on May 6, 2018. (Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

In 2005, Hamas was allowed to run in Palestinians elections at the behest of the US, which afterwards refused to recognize the election’s outcome, he recalled.

“But the reality is that Hamas is part of Palestinian society, and bearing in mind this reality, we’re keeping contacts with Hamas, discussing with them prospects of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, the issue of unification of Palestinian leadership, and humanitarian issues related to the situation in Gaza,” he said.

In the 1990s, Russia was fighting against terrorists on its territory, who some countries called “freedom fighters,” he said. “I don’t remember if Israel was among those who called them terrorists. I should check.”

Asked about Hamas carrying out and celebrating terrorist acts against Jews in the West Bank and inside Israel, he replied: “We’re condemning any violent actions. In our contacts with Hamas representatives we usually underline that it’s not acceptable.

“At the same time, we cannot say that all these 200 Palestinians killed in recent months are terrorists. It’s not true; it’s not fair. They are not terrorists.”

Russia understands the suffering of Israeli civilians who are attacked by rockets or incendiary balloons from Gaza, he said. But it was important to “urgently address the roots of this situation,” he added. “And those are the unsettled Israeli-Palestinian issues.”

Labeling groups like Hamas terrorist organizations “undermines the future political process,” Viktorov said. Rather, the group “should be involved in a possible political solution,” he suggested. Without Hamas as partner, any effort at peacemaking will soon reach a “dead end,” he argued, adding that Israel should also engage with Hamas.

Asked how he can expect Israel to negotiate with an organization dedicated to its destruction, he answered: “We are not saying that Israel should enter into urgent negotiations with Hamas on the whole range of issues related to the political settlement.

“But what we are saying is that Hamas is a legitimate political force in Palestine, and it’s upon the Palestinians to unify their political representation in future negotiations with Israel.”

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