MOSCOW – Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu emerged from his nearly four-and-a-half hours of talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin saying that the talks were “very good,” “genuine,” “direct,” and that not only have the two men developed a “chemistry,” but the two countries they lead have many overlapping interests.
None of which gives much of an indication of what really happened behind closed doors, or what was said when the two men met one-on-one for between an hour and 90 minutes. Those details, as Netanyahu himself said, will have to wait for his biography.
Until then the public must content itself with leaks – of which there have been few – and public statements.
From the public statements it is clear that the gaps between Russia and Israel on Iran remain.
Anyone who thought that Netanyahu was going to waltz into the Kremlin and persuade Putin to see Iran and the Geneva talks just as he does was fooling himself.
Netanyahu can’t even convince US President Barack Obama of this.
But that was never the expectation. The fantasy, perhaps. A hope, but not an expectation.
The expectation was for Russia to adopt a tougher line among the P5+1 countries – the US, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany. The expectation was to get Moscow, which has the closest ties of any of the P5+1 countries with Iran, to perhaps get in front of the ball and lead in a similar manner in which it led in September when a Syrian agreement to dismantle its chemical weapons program was reached.
It was not coincidental that Netanyahu, in his public comments with Putin, praised what he has started calling the “Russian model” on Syria. He would like to see that model adopted vis-à-vis Iran, and for Putin to lead the charge.
Will it happen? Will Putin step up to the plate? If he does, it is likely to be done slowly, imperceptibly, in baby steps, not dramatic lurches, and in a way that promotes Russian interests.
No one but Putin and his closest advisers know to what extent, if any, he was swayed by Netanyahu’s argument against the deal on the table in Geneva that gives Iran sanctions relief without demanding that they dismantle what could give them nuclear arms capabilities: the centrifuges and the heavy water reactor at Arak.
Putin gave no public indication that he was swayed. But that is not how Putin operates.
These types of conversations are not generally capped with an “ah-ha moment,” with one leader being completely swayed by the other.
Diplomatic officials thought that the conversation with Putin was indeed “good,” not necessarily because he adopted Netanyahu’s position, but perhaps because some of his arguments rubbed off and left an impression. And Israel does not have a bad history of using arguments that leave an impression on Putin.
Among the issues that did come up in Wednesday’s talks were Russian sales of state-of-the-art arms systems to Syria and Iran, an issue that has caused much consternation in Israel for over a decade.
Even though there are periodic reports of Russia selling these game-changing arms – such as the S300 – to Iran and Syria, the truth is that Russia has refrained from selling some of these weapons systems to those countries, an indication that Putin does listen, and even internalizes Israeli arguments, even if he doesn’t stand up behind the podium and say so.
In recent days senior Israeli officials are openly talking more and more about the Geneva talks as a marathon, not a sprint, and that even if an agreement is signed that will not be to Netanyahu’s liking, the battle will continue, the race will go on.
The Iranian nuclear file has been open now for some 30 years, and Netanyahu has no illusion it will now be closed in one fell swoop. The prevention of a nuclear-armed Iran is a long and difficult process.
If Netanyahu fails in his efforts to convince Putin and the world that the proposal on the table is a bad deal, then he will wake up on the morning after the proposal is signed and keep plugging away.
And Russia, where policy change is often measured in millimeters, not miles, will continue to be one of his targets.
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