Netanyahu Fails to Impress Putin Ahead of Knesset Poll

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu travelled to the Black Sea city of Sochi on September 12th for his 13th meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin to ostensibly discuss Iran and the “harm” it does to Israel’s security.

However, Netanyahu was interested in a more pressing issue, five days before the general election in his country, namely securing support from hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants in his country.

Putin, who kept Netanyahu waiting for about three hours before he met him at his summer residence in the Black Sea city, was apparently aware of Netanyahu’s prime interest.

Putin made sure to make a point about his country’s interest in the September 17th Knesset election in Israel as well as about the 1.5 million Russian immigrants in Israel functioning as a bridge between Moscow and Tel Aviv.

“The results of the Knesset election are very important to Moscow,” Putin said at a press briefing following his three-hour meeting with Netanyahu. “It hopes that politicians will be elected who maintain close ties with Russia.”

Netanyahu’s interest in Russian votes in the election boils down to the fact that Russian immigrants are the main support base for his rival Avigdor Liberman and his secular nationalist Yisrael Beytenu Party.

Netanyahu was hoping to secure a statement from the administration of US President Donald Trump about creating a “‘defence pact’” with Israel to boost his chances in the election. He failed to get this. He was also hoping to get something from Putin to boost his election chances. He got nothing from the Russian leader either. Perhaps Putin’s lack of enthusiasm for Netanyahu is linked to Moscow’s anger at his latest statements that he would annex parts of the occupied Palestinian West Bank to his country following the September 17th election.

Moscow detracted the potential move two days before Netanyahu’s plane touched down in Sochi. It said the annexation of parts of the West Bank would torpedo chances for Middle East peace. Equally angry at Netanyahu’s plan are Arab states whose foreign ministers said on September 10th that the plan is an “aggression” that will undermine chances of a peaceful settlement with the Palestinians. Nevertheless, the Israeli premier and the Russian leader had serious issues on the table to discuss, including security coordination between their countries in Syria, especially when it comes to Iranian threats to Israeli security.

Israel has been striking Iranian and Hezbollah positions in Syria for a long time now, but it is keen on avoiding friction with Russian troops in the war-torn Arab state. Netanyahu referred to the importance of security coordination between Israel and Russia at the press briefing with Putin.

“Security coordination is always important, but it is especially important now, in light of the past month’s sharp spike in the number and the scope of Iran’s attempts to harm Israel from Syrian territory and transfer precision missiles to Syria,” the Israeli premier said.

He added that his country would not tolerate this threat, which is why Israel and Russia needed to avoid friction, especially when Israel acts against Iran in Syria.

Iran has been a pivotal part of the ongoing war in Syria, offering solid support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as Russia does. Israel has always viewed Iranian presence in Syria as a danger coming close to its borders. In late August, Israel said it had struck Iranian military sites in Syria to prevent potential drone attacks by Iran. At his joint press briefing with Netanyahu, Putin seemed mindful of the Israeli concerns. He noted the importance of cooperation on security issues between Tel Aviv and Moscow. Largely thanks to Netanyahu’s efforts, he said, security ties and military cooperation between the two states have taken on a new quality.