Israeli officials dismissed reports on Wednesday regarding a deal whereby Russia would not deliver state-of-the-art S-300 antiaircraft missiles to Syrian President Bashar Assad, in exchange for an Israeli agreement for Russian troops to take part in the UN peacekeeping force on the Golan.
According to the London-based Arabic daily Ashraq Al-Awsat, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni discussed the delivery of the S-300s with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. While the delivery of the weapons system, which Israel has called a game-changer, was not expected until the middle of next year, reports are that it could come as early as within a few weeks.
Livni – who is also the head of Israel’s negotiation team with the Palestinians – traveled to Russia on Tuesday where she met with Lavrov and with Russian Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov. A spokeswoman for Livni said the diplomatic situation in the Middle East, and US Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to re-start talks, were the focus of the discussions, not the S-300s.
Officials in both the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office said they were unaware of any such deal in the works. One Foreign Ministry official said that, while he had not heard of any such arrangement being discussed, it sounded very unlikely.
According to the conditions of the Israel-Syrian disengagement agreement that was brokered after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, permanent members of the UN Security Council cannot take part in the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force that has been monitoring the Israeli-Syrian border on the Golan Heights for the past 40 years.
Israel and Syria would have to sit together under the auspices of the UN to change the clause of that agreement, the official said, something that seems unlikely considering the situation in Syria.
Russia first expressed interest in participating in UNDOF last month, after Austria announced it was withdrawing its 380 personnel from the 1,000-man force, because of the “uncontrolled and immediate danger” to Austrian soldiers.
This sent UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon scrambling for countries willing to fill in for the Austrians. Fiji has agreed to add 380 troops to its 183 already operating as part of UNDOF, largely in a support capacity.
According to Radio Australia, Fiji’s interim prime minister, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, said Russia offered to assist Fiji with the deployment.
Col. Jone Baledrokadroka, a former Land Forces commander in the Fiji Army, told Radio Australia that the suspension of Fiji’s defense relationship with Australia has given rise to its Russian partnership.
“Fiji is not really able to deploy to such UN hotspots without assistance from larger countries,” Baledrokadroka said. “Equipment has been provided by the Russians for the deployment of the battalion.”
Baledrokadroka said Moscow “has its own interests in the Middle East, and it is using Fiji. Fiji has become like a mercenary.”
Israel is keen on the UNDOF force remaining on the border, but is leaving it up to the UN to determine how to man the force. Jerusalem has not had to formally make any statement about possible Russian participation, because of the terms of the Israeli-Syrian disengagement agreement that preclude the Russians from taking part.
Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin told The Jerusalem Post last month he did not see Russian participation in UNDOF happening in the near future because of the legal issues. He also said it would be a mistake for Israel to make it seem as if finding replacements for the Austrians, due to leave at the end of the month, was its problem. Rather, he said, it was a UN obligation.