Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, March 9, 2017.
(photo credit: KREMLIN PRESS SERVICE)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday that Iran is building up its ground forces in Syria with the intention of establishing a naval base on the Mediterranean.
These moves, Netanyahu told diplomatic reporters in a conference call after the meeting, have wide-ranging regional ramifications.
“I spoke with President Putin at length about the strategic significance of Iran’s creating a permanent presence in Syria, or its attempt to do so,” the prime minister said.
“I said that it would undermine the stability, and actually hurt the possibility of a diplomatic arrangement [for Syria]. I made it clear that it is something that will be unacceptable to the State of Israel.”
He said he believes Putin internalized the message.
To help get his message across, Netanyahu was accompanied by Maj.-Gen. Herzi Halevi, the head of Military Intelligence.
The prime minister left for Moscow on Thursday morning and returned home in the evening. This was his third visit to Russia in the last 11 months, a testament to Moscow’s influence in the region as a result of its intense engagement in Syria. In addition to the visits, Netanyahu and Putin speak regularly on the phone.
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Netanyahu said that Iran’s efforts to establish a permanent presence in Syria in any future arrangement in the country was the reason for his visit. Russia is a central player in the on-and-off talks under way about the future of Syria.
An Iranian presence in Syria, Netanyahu said, goes against the “long-term interests of everyone, except the Iranians.”
“I made it clear to President Putin our resolute opposition to the consolidation of Iran and its proxies in Syria,” he said. “We see Iran trying to build a military force, military infrastructure, with the intention to be based in Syria, including the attempt by Iran to build a seaport. All this has serious implications in terms of Israel’s security.”
Netanyahu said that if the ultimate intention of the current efforts to put an end to the fighting and reach an agreement on the future of Syria is to create “a border of peace, or a region of peace,” then it makes no sense to put the Islamic Republic, which has stated its intent to destroy Israel many times, right on Israel’s border, inside Syria.
The prime minister said that while this may sound obvious, sometimes the obvious needs to be stated.
Netanyahu said that he and Putin discussed at length Iranian efforts to establish a naval base in Syria. What was hardly mentioned in the meeting, he said, was the diplomatic process with the Palestinians.
The prime minister said he told Putin once again that Israel has no intention of ever leaving the Golan Heights, and wants the world to recognize that reality.
Netanyahu said that at the end of the meeting, Putin gave him a 500-year-old copy of Josephus Flavius’s War of the Jews written in an Italian dialect, which was printed soon after the invention of the printing press.
At a joint photo opportunity before their meeting in the Kremlin, Netanyahu used Putin’s greetings for a happy Purim as a peg to blast Tehran.
“I thank you for your good wishes on Purim,” the prime minister said. “Some 2,500 years ago in ancient Persia, there was an attempt to wipe out the Jews, which did not succeed, and which we commemorate with this holiday.”
Today, Netanyahu said, Iran – the heir of the Persians – has similar designs: to wipe out the state of the Jews. “They say this clearly, and it is etched on their ballistic missiles,” he said.
The prime minister continued: “I want to say clearly that Israel is today a state with an army, and we are able to defend ourselves.
Extreme Shia Islamic terrorism does not only threaten Israel, but rather the region and the world. I know that we are partners in the desire to prevent any victory for Islamic terrorism, from any direction.”
In his comments, Netanyahu said that Russia has played an important part in the fight against Sunni Islamic terrorism represented by Islamic State and al-Qaida.
“It is obvious that we would not want that terrorism to be replaced by extreme Shia Islamic terrorism, led by Iran,” he said.
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