Netanyahu’s Moscow Meeting
September 21, 2015
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu met Vladimir Putin at the Russian president’s Novo-Ogarevo residence near Moscow, with the two leaders reaching agreement on a “joint mechanism” to “prevent misunderstanding between our forces.” Netanyahu’s twin goals seem to be ensuring Russia’s deployments do not strengthen Hezbollah, and gaining clarity about Russian intentions to prevent inadvertent clashes with Israeli forces.
Netanyahu’s trip comes amid accelerating Russian military deployments to Syria. News reports suggest that Russia is deploying fighter aircraft and reinforcing its naval base at Tartus with tanks, artillery, and air defense systems, while expanding an airfield near Latakia to host up to 2,000 troops.
Israel has largely remained on the sidelines of the conflict in Syria (despite the Assad government’s rhetorical hostility, Jerusalem sees all the potential alternatives as worse), and has notably not joined the United States in demanding that Assad step down). Nonetheless it remains highly concerned about the ability of Lebanon-based and Syrian-backed Hezbollah to strike targets in Israel—as during the 2006 war when Hezbollah rockets killed 120 soldiers and dozens of civilians.
Jerusalem worries that Russian weaponry could find its way to Hezbollah, and wants to ensure that if its forces have to carry out strikes in Syria they will not accidentally hit Russians, prompting Moscow to respond.
Netanyahu’s decision to travel to Russia on short notice, accompanied by senior security officials (including National Security Adviser Yossi Cohen, as well as the Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff and director of military intelligence) indicates the seriousness Israel assigns to the Russian deployments.
Despite Moscow’s longstanding support for Assad, relations between Russia and Israel have improved dramatically in recent years. More than 1 million former Soviet citizens now live in Israel (most support Netanyahu’s Likud and other Rightist parties), while Moscow and Jerusalem both view the spread of radical Islamism as a major security threat.
Israel has taken advantage of these closer ties to lobby the Kremlin against providing advanced weapons, especially air defense systems, to the Syrians, fearing they could be transferred to Hezbollah or other militant groups. With large quantities of Russian equipment now flowing into Syria, the Israelis want to emphasize the importance of keeping it out of Hezbollah’s hands.
They also want better insight into Russian intentions. Israel has carried out several cross-border strikes against the Syrian military, Hezbollah forces, and anti-Assad rebels. Facing pressure on all sides, the last thing Jerusalem needs is for an errant bomb to kill some of Assad’s new Russian advisers.
Jeffrey Mankoff is acting director and fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.
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