The US remains Israel’s chief ally and cannot be replaced by Russia, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday before flying home after a two-day visit to Moscow.
“It is not desirable or practical to replace the United States [with Russia]. The US is the cornerstone of our foreign relations,” Netanyahu told reporters.
He had visited Moscow for the third time this year, and had held his fourth face-to-face meeting with President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday.
Although the trip was a celebration of 25 years of diplomatic ties, it fueled speculation that Israel is seeking to grow closer to Moscow and to distance itself from Washington, particularly in light of Netanyahu’s contentious relationship with President Barack Obama, with whom he has met only once in the past year.
But Netanyahu said that the idea that his frequent trips to Russia were part of a plan to replace Washington with Moscow is “nonsense.”
“I’m not looking for an alternative. We have a firm relationship with the US,” Netanyahu said, describing it as “steadfast and unwavering.”
Israel wants strong ties with as many countries as possible, the prime minister said.
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Regional issues have demanded coordination with Russia and this particular meeting took place to mark 25 years of diplomatic relations.
On a separate note he added that he expects a deal to be reached soon with Turkey for the full restoration of diplomatic ties after almost six years.
As Netanyahu readied to leave, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov issued a statement which appeared to imply that Netanyahu had accepted the 2002 Arab Peace Plan, something which Netanyahu’s office immediately denied.
“During Mr Putin’s talks with Mr Netanyahu yesterday, Israel made no demands to make amendments to the Arab Peace Initiative,” Lavrov said in a statement on Twitter.
This was based on statements Lavrov made during a joint press conference with Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riad Malki.
The Arab Peace Plan, also known as the Saudi Initiative, offers Israel normalized relations with the Arab world in exchange for a withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines and a resolution on the Palestinian refugee issue.
The Prime Minister’s Office said that the issue of the Arab Peace Initiative was not raised during his talks with Putin and that the prime minister has been clear in the past about the fact that the 2002 plan needs to be revised to account for regional changes.
In the last month, to counter French moves to impose on Israel a resolution concerning its conflict with the Palestinians, Netanyahu has spoken publicly of the need for a regional peace process based on a revised version of the Arab Peace Plan.
It is presumed that among the items Netanyahu would want revised is the issue of a two-state solution on the pre- 1967 lines, something he has persistently opposed.
Israel considers a withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines to be suicidal from a security perspective.
The Arab League, which has endorsed the 2002 plan, has already rejected Netanyahu’s call for a revision, as have the Palestinians. Both have insisted that the offer of normalized ties rests on Israel’s acceptance of the original Arab Peace Plan.
On Wednesday Russia also rejected Netanyahu’s drive to revise the plan. Russia plays a critical role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process because it is a member of the Quartet and holds one of five permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council.
Lavrov told reporters that the Arab Peace Plan “is integral and embraces the entire set of relations between Israel and the Arab countries, including Palestine of course. There is no need to amend it.”
According to a translation of his words by the TASS News Agency, Lavrov said that the initial plan was already universally accepted.
“Saudi Arabia was the first to forward the initiative, which was later joined by the League of Arab States (LAS) and the entire Organization of Islamic Cooperation,” Lavrov said according to TASS.
He explained that the next step necessary to move the process forward was a much touted report, analyzing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an attempt to help renew negotiations that have been frozen for the last two years.
“Together with partners in the Quartet we are preparing now a report with the respective recommendations. We expect that this report will become an important contribution toward efforts on reviving the peace process,” Lavrov said according to TASS.
But the report which was supposed to be released last month has been delayed due to disagreements about Quartet members, primarily the United States, about its language.
The report “is designed to confirm and update the international legal framework for the Palestinian-Israeli settlement. We hope that our partners in the Quartet will try to finish the work on this report, especially the recommendations contained in it, as soon as possible,” Lavrov said according to TASS.
He added that he hoped that moving forward, the Quartet would have a larger role in any future peace process.
Malki visited Moscow just as Netanyahu was wrapping up his visit.
Netanyahu’s last visit was in April. PA President Mahmoud Abbas also visited that month, during which time he met with Putin.
On Thursday, Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh will be in Moscow to meet with Lavrov.
Earlier in the day, when meeting with Moscow’s Jewish community, Netanyahu spoke about Syria and said he was doubtful that Syrian President Bashar Assad will continue to rule Syria in the future.
He clarified that Israel is not involved in any attempts to unseat Assad and that it is involved in the Syrian conflict only to the extent that is necessary to protect Israeli interests.
This is particularly true with regard to Iran which already operates in Syria.
“We want to ensure that Syria does not become a launching ground for attacks against Israel, not by Syrian forces, not by Iranian forces, not by Hezbollah and not by Islamic forces.
“My policy is to take all steps necessary to prevent this,” he said.
“We are standing by our redlines with respect to Israel’s security,” he said.
Once the Syrian conflict has ended it is unlikely that the country will look the same as it did before the outbreak of its civil war, he said.
“I do not know if we can put the Syrian omelet back in the egg,” Netanyahu said.
Syria is not the only country in this situation, he said. Iraq, Libya and Yemen no longer exist the way they used to, so a new order will be needed.
Netanyahu told the Jewish community he has discussed at length this new order with President Vladimir Putin when the two met.
“Its important that they [the former regimes] are replaced in a way that does not generate future tragedies or endanger our state,” he said.
Israel has launched dozens of strikes in Syria in April against suspected arms transfers to Lebanon’s Hezbollah terrorists.
Israeli leaders have sought assurances from Russia, which sent forces to Syria last year to help Assad, that it would not allow Iran and Hezbollah to be bolstered by the partial military withdrawal that Moscow announced last month. Israel and Russia have maintained a hotline to prevent any accidental clash between their aircrafts over Syrian territory.Reuters contributed to this report.
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