Binyamin Netanyahu 248.88.
(photo credit: AP)
A senior Kremlin official confirmed Wednesday to the Russian paper Kommersant that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu did indeed make a clandestine trip to Russia on Monday.
Commenting on the visit, the official said that "this kind of development could only be related to new and threatening information on Iran's nuclear program."
The Russian newspaper quoted experts speculating that such a trip would only be justified under extraordinary circumstances, "for example, in the case of Israel planning to attack Iran."
The report comes despite a statement Wednesday from the Kremlin press service that "nothing is known" about reports of the visit. Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, also said he had no information, the Interfax news agency reported.
Nevertheless, there was never any official denial of the report from Moscow.
On Wednesday night, the Prime Minister's Office appeared to stick to its original version of events: that Netanyahu was occupied with "secret and classified activities" during his unexplained absence of over 12 hours.
The PMO announced that Military Secretary to the Prime Minister Lt.-Gen. Meir Kalifi was not in contact with the prime minister.
According to the announcement, Kalifi undertook an independent initiative to safeguard these activities, and National Security Adviser Uzi Arad had no part in the affair.
Earlier Wednesday, the office neither explicitly confirmed nor denied a story that appeared in Yediot Aharonot claiming that Netanyahu had flown to Russia to talk about planned Russian arms sales to Iran.
Instead, Netanyahu's spokesmen referred reporters back to the statement issued Monday evening amid a swirl of rumors that Netanyahu had gone abroad.
That statement, oddly released in the name of Kalifi and not in the name of spokesman Nir Hefetz, said, "The prime minister is visiting a security installation in Israel today."
Asked explicitly if Netanyahu had left the country, another Netanyahu spokesman, Mark Regev, referred back to that statement.
That statement, however, did not rule out the possibility of a trip abroad, since after briefly visiting a security installation, Netanyahu could very well have flown overseas.
Faced with anger from the Israeli press that the Prime Minister's Office had lied about Netanyahu's whereabouts, Channel 2 reported Kalifi saying Wednesday night that, "in matters of national security, I take the prerogative of not saying the whole truth."
Hefetz reportedly refused to issue Monday evening's statement in his name because he was unable to confirm its veracity.
The whole mysterious episode has focused the spotlight on a reported fissure inside the Prime Minister's Office, with Kalifi and Arad on one side, and Hefetz and Cabinet Secretary Tzvi Hauser on the other.
According to various new reports on Wednesday, Netanyahu - who was reportedly accompanied by Kalifi and Arad on the reported trip - leased a private jet from Merhav, a company owned by Israeli mogul Yossi Maiman, one of the shareholders of Channel 10 and EMG, an Egyptian company supplying gas to the Israel Electric Corp.
This was apparently done to make the trip as discrete as possible, since using an Israel Air Force jet - it was apparently thought - would have raised the suspicions of the Israeli media.
Maiman was reportedly not directly involved in leasing the jet, as this was done through a company he owns.
Senior Foreign Ministry officials, meanwhile, denied any knowledge of the trip, saying that Israel's envoy in Moscow was also not appraised of it.
What is almost as mysterious as whether the trip took place, is what might have been discussed, with speculation focused on Iran, possible Russian arms deals to Iran and Syria, or the disappearance of the Arctic Sea cargo ship - suspected of carrying Russian made S-300 anti-aircraft missiles bound for Iran - that went missing last month.
The trip, if indeed it took place, would not have been the result of an impromptu, emergency decision, since there was already talk among Netanyahu's inner circle during his visit to London and Berlin two weeks ago about a possible visit to Russia ahead of the United Nations General Assembly meeting at the end of the month.
Interestingly, almost exactly two years ago, then-prime minister Ehud Olmert paid a lightning visit to Moscow to meet with then-Russian president Vladimir Putin, a day after the Russian leader returned from a trip to Teheran in which he warned outside powers not to attack Iran and said there was no evidence it was developing nuclear arms.
Back then, the Prime Minister's Office tried to dissociate Olmert's trip from Putin's statements in Iran, but it was clear from the snap manner in which that meeting at the Kremlin was organized and announced that the Iranian nuclear issue would dominate the discussion.
At that time, however, the Prime Minister's Office issued a statement a day ahead of the trip, informing the media of the visit, even though they were not invited to cover it.