Netanyahu takes home little from meeting with Putin

Sunday 19/03/2017
Wide gap. Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) meets with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Moscow, on March 9th. (AP)

Washington - Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu flew to Moscow to meet with Russian Presi­dent Vladimir Putin. Top of his agenda: To inform Putin of his opposition to what he views as Iran’s attempts to establish a per­manent military foothold in Syria. Prior to departure, Netanyahu told his cabinet in no uncertain terms that he would tell Putin that he did not want to see Iran establish a pres­ence in Syria.
Iran, Israel’s existential enemy, has been Syrian President Bashar Assad’s staunchest backer since unrest erupted there six years ago. This assistance has come at a cost; on March 6th, Mohammad Ali Sha­hidi, head of Iran’s veterans’ affairs office said 2,100 Iranians had died in Iraq and Syria “defending the holy mausoleums.”
Israeli officials have repeatedly warned about Iran’s increasing in­fluence in Syria. While Iran main­tains that its forces are in Syria sole­ly to defend Shia holy sites against Sunni and extremist attacks, four months ago the chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces said that in the future Iran may seek to expand its regional influence by establishing naval bases in Yemen or Syria.
Hence the major foreign policy item on Netanyahu’s agenda with Putin was to restrain or eliminate this presence in Russia’s client state.
As described on the president of Russia’s website, the Netanyahu- Putin meeting March 9th was a mixture of the mundane and apoca­lyptic, where it was reported that the pair “discussed the situation in the Middle East, in particular in Syria, in the context of joint efforts to combat international terrorism, and examined the main areas of bi­lateral cooperation”.
After Putin wished the Israeli prime minister a happy Purim, Net­anyahu used the opportunity to note their common interest in combating terrorism; he then upbraided Iran.
“I want to say that the threat of Shia Islamic terror is directed not only against us but against the re­gion and the entire world. I am sure that we seek to prevent the threat of all radical Islamic terror, no matter whether it is Shia or Sunni,” Netan­yahu said.
Beyond his sterile summit in Mos­cow, Netanyahu’s agenda for Russia is twofold. His immediate goal be­yond restraining Iran is to persuade Russia to assist in interdicting Ira­nian armaments crossing northern Syria to its Lebanese Hezbollah cli­ents. Netanyahu has stated that in defence of its national security Isra­el has carried out dozens of strikes to prevent such covert weapons smuggling. Last year, Israel’s For­eign Affairs and Defence Committee Chairman Avi Dichter said that Iran had tried to move forces into the Syrian Golan Heights, next to the territory that Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.
A Netanyahu long-term goal is to convince Russia in the wake of the sale of its advanced S-300 anti-aircraft system to Iran not to provide even more advanced weaponry, some of which has ap­parently entered the region. Height­ening Israeli anxieties, Hezbollah recently claimed to have obtained at least eight Russian-made, anti-ship P-800 Yakhont missiles. With a speed of 3,000kph and a range of more than 300km, Hezbollah’s pos­session of such armaments could threaten Israeli offshore natural gas installations.
Despite Israel’s concerns about Iran, Netanyahu and Putin of ne­cessity agreed to disagree. While Russia sees Iran as an island of rela­tive stability in a chaotic region, on March 6th Netanyahu accused Iran of being “the hotbed of global terrorism”, adding: “Tehran’s goal is to plant its flag atop the ruins of the free world. A member of our de­fence establishment has estimated that Iran accounts for more than 80% of our security problems.”
Beyond complaining, Netan­yahu’s meeting with Putin accom­plished little, as both Syria and Iran offer Russia strategic and economic benefits that dwarf anything that Israel can offer, a choice that Netan­yahu knows well he dare not force Putin to make, as he has no aces in his diplomatic hand of cards.
This is not how the visit was per­ceived in Israel. A commentator in the pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom newspaper remarked: “Netanyahu is today the sole statesman who enjoys unprecedented relations of confidence and friendship in both the White House and the Kremlin.”
As for utilising those contacts, a number of Russian analysts ob­served that Netanyahu’s visit should be viewed as part of broader international efforts aimed at drag­ging Russia into a new “anti-Iranian coalition”.
If the weighty questions of war and peace in the Middle East amid rising Russian influence remain un­resolved for Israel, one area for po­tential agreement for improvement is bilateral trade, which in 2014 reached nearly $3 billion. Russia is eager to expand its international trade because of sanctions, which one prominent journal estimates cost Russia more than $15 billion annually.
Whether Netanyahu will be sat­isfied with such modest economic accomplishments as opposed to convincing Russia to join a new “an­ti-Iranian coalition” will prove a sig­nificant test of his “unprecedented relations”.