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Israeli officials visited Russia, discussed Iran on rare trip

Israel is trying to have it both ways by increasing its assistance to Ukraine while preserving its security ties with Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a joint press conference with his Iranian and Turkish counterparts following their summit in Tehran on July 19, 2022. (Photo by Grigory SYSOYEV / SPUTNIK / AFP) (Photo by GRIGORY SYSOYEV/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images)

The Israeli Foreign Ministry told Al-Monitor that two senior Israeli diplomats traveled to Russia this month on a rare visit. They met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin and discussed Moscow's armament of Iran among other issues. 

Israel's Hayom newspaper first reported Friday on the May 3 visit to Moscow, the first such senior-level ministerial encounter since the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. 

The Israeli Foreign Ministry confirmed to Al-Monitor that Deputy Director General for Euroasia Simona Halperin and Deputy Director General for Strategic Affairs Joshua Zarka were the two diplomats on the trip.

The visit stands out as Western diplomats have avoided traveling to Russia since its invasion of Ukraine.

The ministry noted that the encounter focused on strategic affairs, a term often used by Israeli diplomats when the Iranian file is discussed. The Russian Foreign Ministry said that the parties held a comprehensive discussion on regional issues currently on the table of the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Neither of the sides referred to the war in Ukraine. 

The report mentions two recent additional talks between senior Israeli and Russian officials in Jerusalem.

Russia has expressed on numerous occasions its dissatisfaction over what it perceived as Israel’s rapprochement with the pro-Ukraine camp. Bilateral tensions increased last Tuesday after reports that Russian national Jamal Khuswan and his wife were among the 10 civilians killed by the Israel Defense Forces when airstrikes killed three Islamic Jihad seniors in the Gaza Strip. 

The reaction by the Russian representation in Ramallah was relatively mild. Israeli diplomatic sources told Al-Monitor that officials from both sides were in contact since the announcement that Khuswan was among the victims, but the Israeli ambassador in Moscow was not summoned by the Russian Foreign Ministry for a reprimand. 

Iran armament

Over this past year, Israel has become increasingly concerned for its coordination with Russia in Syria that enables the Israeli air force to act freely in Syrian skies against Iranian or Iran-affiliated targets. As such, Jerusalem has been careful not to provoke Moscow. The relatively mild reaction from Russia after Israel’s Gaza operation perhaps reflects willingness on Russia’s side to minimize bilateral frictions. Thus, with pressure increasing from the West to engage more publicly with the pro-Ukraine camp, Israel is trying to keep its contacts with Russia as discrete as possible. 

Israeli security experts fear rapprochement between Russia and Iran beyond the Syrian arena. After reports of Iran supplying drones to Russia in its war against Ukraine, the Tehran Times reported on Friday that Iran is expected to get a first shipment of Russian SU-35 warplanes next week.

Still not all Israeli senior security officials are convinced that Israeli concerns about Syria should dictate Israel’s relations with Russia.

Addressing a conference in Paris on Wednesday, former IDF intelligence chief Amos Yadlin argued that the Russians are not interested in opening a new front in Syria and are not expected to turn against Israel in that arena should Israel more openly join the pro-Ukraine camp. For Yadlin, Israel must clarify its policy on Ukraine not only because of the moral aspect but also out of concern for its relationship with its biggest ally, the United States.

When Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken spoke on the phone last week, the issue of Russia and Ukraine also came up. A statement issued by the State Department said the two "discussed global issues of mutual concern, including recent developments in Sudan, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, and cooperation on countering Iranian malign influence." 

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