Russia / Mideast

Putin, Netanyahu struggle to mend ties in Paris

Article Summary
Despite the brief meeting on the margins of the Paris Peace Forum, Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu seem to have failed to fully mend bilateral ties damaged over the downed Russian spy plane.

The talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Paris turned out to be “successful and significant,” according to Netanyahu. Questions about whether the meeting would even take place were raised until the last moment. At first, Netanyahu even considered canceling the trip to France. However, he ultimately chose to take part in the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.

This was the first contact between the two leaders after the Syrian air defense system shot down a Russian Il-20 surveillance during an Israeli assault in mid-September. Moscow blamed Israel for the incident, yet, over the past few months the Netanyahu government has continuously tried to prove that relations with Russia were not disrupted.

“Our dialogue with Putin was quite successful and constructive," Netanyahu told journalists at a press conference that concluded the WWI commemoration. "I would call it rather significant. More details are unnecessary, I think.”

Netanyahu touched on this topic once more during the press conference, explaining the profound meaning of his visit to France and, more precisely, demonstrating Israel's growing role in world politics and its foreign policy achievements.

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“Indeed, I communicated with many leaders, including both President [Donald] Trump and President Putin, and I believe that it is beneficial for Israel, for our national interests," Netanyahu said. "We were accepted with great respect. … Undoubtedly, Israel is a growing power. If anyone needed proof, I would have invited them to Paris."

The format of events in Paris did not provide for free time for bilateral talks between leaders. While Moscow initially hoped for Putin to meet with Trump, the Israeli government anticipated a dialogue with Putin. Netanyahu claimed he had already arranged the meeting back in October, however, no date for official negotiations had been set.

In late October, some sources suggested that Putin and Netanyahu might meet in Paris. Putin’s Paris schedule only included the meeting with Trump, though Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov emphasized that the leaders of Russia and Israel may meet if they both wish to do so. Nevertheless, Peskov pointed out that Putin’s schedule was rather tight. Russians have taken every step to highlight that no one planned any official negotiations with Israel. However, sources in Israel who spoke with Al-Monitor not for attribution said that Netanyahu was certain the talks would inevitably take place — he was even quite outspoken about it.

In any case, it was later discovered that the French side had requested all visitors to avoid bilateral meetings during the commemoration, although leaders were still able to discuss political issues “along the way.”

The Israeli press reported, however, that the Russian side had refused to organize a meeting with Netanyahu, which made him cancel the trip altogether.

As Kan 11, an Israeli TV channel, claimed, Moscow canceled the meeting after certain media outlets in Israel spread information about Israel carrying out another bombing in Syria after the Il-20 incident.

The precise date of the attack has not been disclosed. Supposedly it took place after Netanyahu’s Sept. 27 speech at the UN General Assembly. Back then, Netanyahu promised that “Israel will continue its actions in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere.”

According to Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, Russian military leaders, not being able to ignore another attack, expressed their concerns through a Russian-Israeli communication system, choosing not to disclose the information to the general public and further exacerbate the crisis.

Jonathan Conricus, the official spokesman of the Israeli army, avoided directly answering Al-Monitor's questions on whether reports of the attack were true. He only emphasized that military officers are always willing to carry out any order given by commanders.

“It is impossible to cancel the event which was not planned,” officials in Moscow claimed, reacting to media reports about the cancellation of the meeting. Moreover, Netanyahu’s unwillingness to attend the event, at which dozens of national leaders would gather, merely due to Putin’s refusal to meet him, was itself dubious. However, Netanyahu's pool was only informed about the trip to France several hours before departure. During the commemoration in Paris, it was an issue of time management to meet everyone for a brief talk.

The meeting with Putin eventually took place shortly after the formal lunch. Netanyahu’s press service published a series of photos of the leaders discussing issues, with waiters cleaning up tables in the background. Initially, they had been standing and later decided to sit down. The Israeli side had clearly been prepared for the meeting — a Hebrew-Russian translator was always at Netanyahu's side. No one else took part in the meeting from the Russian side. Comments by Kremlin officials were scarce. “In the Elysee Palace, Putin met Netanyahu separately for a discussion,” Putin’s press secretary said.

It is unlikely that Netanyahu managed to address all the issues he wanted to during this dialogue. The Israeli side still hopes that Russia will oust Iran from Syria — meaning not only their military bases and the troops in the Golan Heights on the Israeli border, but also Tehran’s constantly increasing political and religious influence over Damascus and throughout the country.

However, Israel’s most critical issue is the ability to continue military operations against Iran and Hezbollah in Syria, despite the aerial protection afforded by the Russian S-300 systems. Israel hopes to continue its operations even if Russia does not stop Iranian actions. Al-Monitor spoke with Israeli politicians who claimed that Hezbollah has more than 100, 000 missiles. They argued that Iran transfered the majority of the weapons through Syria under the patronage of Russian armed forces. 

“They conduct weapons transfers to Lebanon, covered up by Russians, even attempting to use their military bases in Syria to provide weaponry. Our Russian partners were warned that Iranians use them as a human shield,” Minister of Jerusalem Affairs Zeev Elkin, who has repeatedly attended Putin and Netanyahu’s meetings, informed Russian journalists.

Both Elkin and Israeli diplomats insist that the incident above Latakia has not disrupted the dialogue with Moscow.

“Our relations with Russia are too profound to be influenced by such an event,” Alex Ben Zvi, deputy director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry's Eurasian department, told Russian Kommersant newspaper.

Netanyahu, in turn, aims to show that he is capable of influencing Russia’s decisions in this field. Obviously, Moscow hardly accepts this.

“Forceful measures cannot answer Israel’s security concerns, they just allow regional tensions to worsen,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told Spanish newspaper El Pais.

Consensus between Russia and Israel on the assaults on Syria is nearly impossible. As long as Israeli officials publicly claim that the attacks will continue, Moscow will not be willing to hold high-level talks. The “along the way” meeting in Paris does not count, as it has been significant mostly to Netanyahu and his followers. Moscow strives to settle the controversies around Syria and ensure that its skies are peaceful so there will be no need to use the S-300.

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Found in: Russia in Syria

Marianna Belenkaya writes on the Middle East for the Russian daily Kommersant. An Arab studies scholar with almost 20 years of experience covering the Middle East, she served in the Russian Foreign Ministry’s press pool from 2000 to 2007 as a political commentator for RIA Novosti and later became the first editor of the RT Arabic (formerly Rusiya al-Yaum) website, until 2013. She has written for the Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the Russian Profile Magazine and Al-Hayat and is now a regular contributor to the Carnegie Moscow Center. On Twitter: @lavmir

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