What was today’s most important diplomatic meeting, was also the least publicly discussed. And judging by the information blackout in its aftermath, that’s just what the organizers intended.
Very few details have emerged from the lengthy Moscow talks between Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu, the duo’s seventh face to face meeting in two years, in which the two leaders who are currently reshaping the middle east in the power vacuum left by the US, were expected to discuss military cooperation on Syria and Iran’s influence in the region.
The information fog after the meeting was so dense there wasn’t even a brief blurb on either Bloomberg or Reuters what the two spoke about in private; alternatively – and may this be a lesson for Trump – this is the intended outcome when there are no leaks.
The meeting came less than a week after Netanyahu met US President Donald Trump in Davos, and he said that he spoke with the Russian leader about the same issues concerning Syria and Iran that he spoke about with Trump. Both men, he said, “understand” Israel’s positions.
Netanyahu was also accompanied by the head of Military Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Herzi Halevi, and Putin brought Russia’s Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu to the talks.
With the Russian army just across the border in Syria, Netanyahu said that these meetings with Putin – and the type of cooperation that has developed between the defense establishments of both countries – is critical “so we don’t clash.” In addition, he said these meetings are also important because they allow the two sides to frankly tell the other about their positions. “In light of the changing situation, our policies also change,” Netanyahu said, adding that he relays to Putin Israel’s positions as “clearly and truthfully” as possible.
Netanyahu and Putin met for some 90 minutes privately, and also held talks on bilateral issues with their wider staffs. Netanyahu said the discussions were “concrete,” not “theoretical.”
Netanyahu said he and Putin talked about various “scenarios of escalation” in the region, and how they can be dealt with. Netanyahu said that with the Mideast at a crossroads, there is an opportunity to stabilize Syria and Lebanon, but that there is one actor – Iran – which is trying to do the opposite.
The prime minister said he raised the issue of the Iranian nuclear deal, and he told Putin that if changes were not made to the deal, then it was likely that the US would walk away from it.
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Russia’s president and the Israeli prime minister met at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow, where the two leaders took part in the opening of an exhibit to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day call called “Sobibor: Victorious over Death,” which is dedicated to the 1943 uprising in the Nazi extermination camp. The exhibit tells the story of Alexander Pechersky, a Red Army officer who led a successful breakout from the camp.
Putin said that memory of the Holocaust is “a warning against any attempt to jump on the idea of global domination, to announce, build or assert one’s grandeur based on racism, ethnic or any other supremacy. Russia categorically rejects any such attempt.”
Commenting on the meeting, the Russian president’s aide Yuri Ushakov vaguely told reporters that Putin and Netanyahu discussed a number of bilateral and regional issues, as well as the process of reconciliation in Syria. The Syrian National Dialogue Congress, currently taking place in Sochi, was also among the topics discussed, the Russian official said, without providing any details.
Senior Israeli official Ze’ev Elkin, who came to Moscow alongside Netanyahu, said the meeting between the two leaders was “very fruitful and lasted longer than it was planned” adding that meetings between Putin and Netanyahu have “contributed greatly to the security of our country.”
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There was some additional coverage in the Israeli local press, with Jerusalem Post which quoted Netanyahu saying that “if Iran is not stopped from entrenching itself militarily in Syria or turning Lebanon into a factory for precision missiles aimed at Israel, then Israel will stop it.” Speaking with Israeli reporters via a conference call after the meeting, Netanyahu said the discussions took place at a “watershed” moment.
“Will Iran entrench itself in Syria, or will this process be stopped?” Netanyahu said. “I made clear to Putin that we will stop it if it doesn’t stop by itself. We are already acting to stop it.”
The prime minister said he also spoke with Putin about the threat of Iran manufacturing precision weapons in Lebanon, something Jerusalem views as “a grave threat.” Netanyahu said he told Putin that “also here, if we need to act, we will act.”
The Israeli prime minister revealed some of the topics he discussed with Putin in a recorded statement posted on Twitter.
סיימתי עכשיו שיחות מעמיקות וטובות עם נשיא רוסיה, ולדימיר פוטין. אמרתי לו שישראל רואה בחומרה שתי התפתחויות:
1. הניסיון של איראן להתבסס צבאית בסוריה.
2. הניסיון של איראן לייצר בלבנון נשק מדויק נגד מדינת ישראל.
הבהרתי לו שאנחנו לא נסכים לאף אחת מההתפתחויות הללו ונפעל בהתאם לצורך pic.twitter.com/Goinf2ymG7
— Benjamin Netanyahu (@netanyahu) January 29, 2018
Netanyahu said he told the Russian president about his concerns of “Iranian attempts to create military bases in Syria,” and of Tehran’s alleged attempts to place “high-precision weapons” in Lebanon to target Israel. Tel Aviv firmly opposes such actions and will act on its own if the international community won’t handle the issue, he warned Putin. The reaction of the Russian president to these statements, however, remained a mystery.
In parting, Putin gave Netanyahu as a gift a letter the German industrialist Oskar Schindler, who save some 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust, sent to his wife.