Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday that his talks in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin were focused on keeping Iran from filling the vacuum left by the Islamic State in Syria and combating Iranian-sponsored radical Islamic terrorism.
“One of the things that we are fighting against together is radical Islamic terrorism. Of course, there was significant progress last year in the fight against the terrorism of radical Sunni Islam led by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, and Russia has a very important contribution,” Netanyahu said ahead of his meeting with the Russian president.
“It’s obvious that we wouldn’t want this terror to be replaced by radical Islamic Shiite terror led by Iran,” he said.
While Russia has played a major role over the last year in Syria combating the Islamic State and the Syrian rebels, Israel is concerned that the Kremlin not allow Iran, Russia’s ally in supporting Syrian strongman Bashar Assad, a permanent foothold in the country.
After their meeting, Netanyahu said Putin had “internalized” his warning, telling Israeli reporters that he expressed Israel’s “strong opposition to Iran’s entrenchment Syria.”
Iran is “seeking to build its military forces, military infrastructure, in order to establish itself in Syria, including an attempt to build a seaport,” Netanyahu said, calling this “grave for Israel’s security.”
During their discussion, Netanyahu said he also brought up the Golan Heights, telling the Russian leader that Israel will never leave the area. “He already knows this issue,” Netanyahu said, indicating that he has discussed the matter with Putin during their previous meetings.
The prime minister further said he asked for Putin’s help in bring back from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip two missing Israeli civilians and the bodies of fallen soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, who died in the 2014 Gaza war. Netanyahu said Putin “promised to do anything in his power to help us with this.”
Absent from the discussion, however, was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Moscow’s possible interest in Jerusalem as a channel of communication to the White House was also not mentioned, Netanyahu said. “We talked about Israeli interests,” he indicated.
Following their talk, at the Kremlin, Netanyahu thanked Putin for his wishes ahead of the Jewish festival of Purim, which starts Saturday night, noting that modern Iran now threatens the Jews as the ancient Persians did then.
“Twenty-five hundred years ago in ancient Persia, there was an attempt to wipe out the Jewish nation that was unsuccessful, which is being marked with this holiday,” the prime minister said.
“Here today in Persia’s successor, Iran, there is another attempt to wipe out the Jewish state. They say this as clearly as possible. They inscribe it on their ballistic missiles,” he said.
Netanyahu said that Iran was a threat not just to Israel, but to the whole region.
“Today, Israel is a state with an army and we are able to defend ourselves. But the threat of Shiite Islamic extremism is not just a threat to us, but rather to the entire region and world peace. I know that we share the desire to prevent any victory for radical Islam from any direction,” he said.
During the meeting, Putin said he was “very pleased” with his “close and trusting contact” with Netanyahu.
“We meet regularly in person, are regularly in contact by telephone, and work together at the ministry and agency level,” Putin said. “You often come to Russia right on the eve of holidays, and so I want to take the opportunity to congratulate you on the upcoming Purim holiday and wish everyone in Israel happy holidays and prosperity.”
Netanyahu was on a whirlwind visit to Moscow for his third meeting with Putin in a year, and headed straight home on Thursday evening.
He was greeted at the airport by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov. On the tarmac, Bogdanov, Moscow’s point man for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, warmly embraced his Israeli guest.
Ahead of the visit, Netanyahu’s office said: “The prime minister will express Israel’s strong opposition to the presence of Iranian forces, and those of its proxies, on our northern border and in the Mediterranean Sea in the context of the talks on a settlement of any kind.”
“The prime minister also intends to reiterate to President Putin the fact that the [Syrian-held] Golan Heights is not part of the discussion on any outline” of a peace agreement, his office said in a statement.
Netanyahu and Putin were also expected to discuss the ongoing military coordination between the two countries to ensure their forces don’t clash over Syria’s skies.
A source close to Netanyahu reportedly said Wednesday, hours before he arrived at the Kremlin, that “Moscow allows us to act against Hezbollah in Syrian airspace.”
Russian and Israeli authorities denied the report. “There is just no such agreement or coordination,” a senior official in Jerusalem told The Times of Israel.
Israeli officials have long accused the Iranian Revolutionary Guards of trying to build an anti-Israel front on the Syrian Golan, alongside Hezbollah forces and local Druze opposed to Israel. Netanyahu has sought Russia’s help in seeking to thwart the attempts of Iran and its terrorist proxy Hezbollah to use Syria as a base from which to attack Israel.
Last week, Chagai Tzuriel, the director-general of the Intelligence Ministry, told The Times of Israel that keeping Iran and Hezbollah from getting a foothold on the Golan was at the top of the agenda for Israel’s security apparatus.
“Since Russia began intervening in the Syrian war a year ago, Russia became an important actor in Syria itself,” said Eyal Zisser, a Middle East expert from Tel Aviv University. “But of course this intervention has to do with the strategic interest of Israel. Russia became a neighborhood country, so you need to coordinate, you need to establish open channels of communication in order to ensure that no accidents will occur along the border.”
Russia partnered with Iran to assure the survival of the Syrian regime, which gives Netanyahu and Putin much to discuss, Zisser said, especially as the civil war appears to be at a turning point. Forces of President Basher Assad have recently recaptured the city of Aleppo from the rebels and it is currently unclear what the Syria-Russia-Iran alliance will attempt to achieve next.
“The future of Syria might be dictated by Russians, Turks and Iranians. And Israel probably wants to share with the Russians its ideas and concerns about such a process,” Zisser said.
The Golan Heights, which are close to Damascus, pose a particular headache for Israel, he added.
“The Syrian regime, with the support of the Iranians and Hezbollah, might want to make a comeback and recaptured those territories which were lost several years ago to the rebels,” Zisser predicted.
Forces affiliated with the Islamic State group are making territorial gains on the Golan Heights’ south, which also worries Jerusalem, although they are careful not to engage in a direct confrontation with Israel, he said. “They have other priorities, such as fighting each other and fighting the regime. But IS on the border is not something Israel is happy with.”
Netanyahu, who flew to Moscow in a small jet, taking with him no press and a small number of advisers, is expected to return to Israel on Thursday evening, leaving Russia immediately after his meeting with Putin. He is accompanied by Minister Ze’ev Elkin — who also serves as his personal translator — acting national security adviser Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Jacob Nagel, his chief of staff staff Yoav Horowitz, his Military Secretary Brig.-Gen. Eliezer Toledano and the head of the IDF’s intelligence branch Herzl Halevy.