Netanyahu says he got Russian assurances over Syrian threat

By ILYA ARKHIPOV AND JONATHAN FERZIGER | Bloomberg | Published: April 21, 2016

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he received assurances of military coordination in a trip to Moscow that would help Israel stop the transfer of weapons through Syria to its Iranian-backed Hezbollah enemy in Lebanon.

Netanyahu said his meeting Thursday with Russian President Vladimir Putin was "very successful." His senior military advisers will meet with Russian counterparts to work out a plan to help "preserve freedom of movement for the Israel Defense Forces and Air Force in the places most important to our security," according to a text message from his office in Jerusalem.

Putin greeted Netanyahu at the Kremlin where he told reporters at a picture-taking session before the meeting he was "very happy that we have regular contacts at the highest level." The discussions were intense because of "the difficult situation in the region," Putin said.

Netanyahu told Putin he made the daytrip because Israel must "do everything we can to prevent the transfer of sophisticated weapons from Iran and Syria to Hezbollah," the Lebanese Islamic movement that warred with the Israeli military in 2006 and is now fighting alongside government forces in Syria.

He repeated his April 17 declaration that Israel will never give up control of the southern section of the Golan Heights, which it captured in the 1967 Middle East war. Netanyahu also said he was invited back to Moscow for a June 7 visit marking 25 years since the two countries established diplomatic relations.

While Israel has largely stayed out of the Syria conflict, it has voiced fears that the Syrian section of the Golan will become a launching pad for regular militant attacks against it. Netanyahu confirmed earlier this month that Israel operates over the border to prevent Hezbollah from obtaining game-changing weapons, though officials have declined to comment on reports of Israeli involvement in specific attacks.

"Israel has clear red lines connected to our security," Netanyahu said. "Whether with an agreement or without an agreement, the Golan Heights will remain under Israeli sovereignty."

Netanyahu last met Putin in September when he flew to Moscow to make sure Israeli forces on the Golan were coordinated with the just-launched Russian military operations in Syria, which turned the war's tide. Putin's surprise order in March of a partial military withdrawal from Syria put pressure on the sides in the civil war to reach a peace deal, though a Russian-backed government offensive has threatened the viability of a seven-week truce.

Israel's military deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, says coordination with Russia is good with regard to Syria.

"The Russians come with the right mix of power," Golan said Wednesday at a briefing in Jerusalem. "We work hard to avoid negative engagements in the air, land and sea." He said any future military operation in Lebanon would be "much harsher than anything we've experienced in the last 20 years," causing "devastating damage" to Lebanese infrastructure and homes.

Netanyahu's relationship with Russia has flourished even as he passed up an invitation last month to meet President Barack Obama, with whom he's fallen out over his outspoken campaign against the White House-backed nuclear deal with Iran.

Israel and Russia, once Cold War foes, have been knitted together through the emigration to Israel of about 1 million Jews after the Soviet Union collapsed. Israeli exports to Russia have risen about 40 percent to $1.1 billion since Netanyahu took office in 2009 and Putin told Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Moscow last month that the two countries must boost trade.

"There is some chance for Israel to find guarantees for its security given the new changing situation in the region and in Syria," Alexei Malashenko, a Middle East expert at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said in a phone interview before the meeting. "Putin needs Netanyahu. It's not clear what will happen in Syria at the end, while Israel can be one of the most reliable partners for Russia."

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