Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C-R), Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot discuss regional developments with Russian officials, July 23, 2018.
(photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)
Russia is working to move Iranian forces and their proxies 100 km. from the Syrian border with Israel, a senior diplomatic official said Monday after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov.
The Israeli official said Jerusalem’s goal is to remove Iran from all of Syria, and if Moscow wants to deal in the first phase with the buffer zone, then that is fine, “but that does not satisfy us even in the first phase, because they [Iran] have weapons [in Syria] that go beyond that range.”
Israel’s stated position remains the removal of all Iranian forces and their proxies from Syria, although Netanyahu made clear in his talks in Moscow two weeks ago that the priority was to move these forces away from the border, and to remove Iran’s long-range missiles from throughout Syria.
The Israeli official characterized the meeting with Lavrov and Gerasimov at this time as “significant.”
“Now when the Syrian Army is returning to the border, it is important for us to ensure that Iran and Hezbollah do not return as well,” he said.
Netanyahu was joined in the meeting by Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, who spread out maps for the Russian visitors and showed intelligence information about where the Iranians have entrenched themselves throughout Syria, including close to the border.
Netanyahu, according to the official, said Israel will hold Syrian President Bashar Assad responsible for any Iranian aggression toward Israel coming from Syrian territory.
Other Israeli demands expressed at the meeting were that Syria close its border with Lebanon to prevent the transfer of weapons there; seal the border with Iraq as well to prevent pro-Iranian militias and weaponry from coming into Syria through Iraq; and that Iran stop the manufacture of precision missiles in Syria and remove its air-defense systems from the country.
“Iran wants to turn Syria into another Lebanon” in terms of the ability to fire missiles at Israel, the official said. “We will not let that happen and will not wait until they are entrenched. We are already willing to pay the price for this.”
At the beginning of the meeting, Netanyahu said the connection between Israel and Russia is “extraordinarily important and it exists, as you have seen, in the direct meetings between myself and President [Vladimir] Putin and between our staffs.”
Netanyahu said he appreciated Putin’s words at his press conference in Helsinki last week with US President Donald Trump regarding the importance of Israel’s security.
Earlier in the day, at the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu announced he would be meeting Lavrov and Gerasimov, but he made that announcement only after underlining Jerusalem’s ties with Washington.
Referring to a nascent US campaign to discredit Iranian leaders – a campaign that was manifest by a sharp tweet Monday from Trump against the Iranian regime, and a very critical speech delivered on Sunday by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – Netanyahu began the cabinet meeting by praising Trump and Pompeo for their position against the “aggression of the Iranian regime.”
“For years that regime was spoiled by the superpowers; it is good to see the US is changing this unacceptable equation. In this regard, I have to note that our diplomatic and military cooperation with the US is at an all-time high.”
The visit by Lavrov and Gerasimov
comes less than two weeks after the two men sat in on part of the meeting in Moscow between Netanyahu and Putin, and three days after Putin and Netanyahu spoke on the phone.
The prime minister said the two came to Israel at the request of Putin during that phone conversation.
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