Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Victory Day parade in Moscow, May 2018.
(photo credit: PMO)
If Jerusalem and Moscow do not coordinate their actions and communicate their plans, they run the risk of facing off against one another in, at best, an aerial dog fight and should worse come to worse, a mid-air shoot out.
That’s why it is particularly worrisome that Russian President Vladimir Putin once again pushed off a face-to-face meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu. A few minutes of small talk after the formal lunch at the Paris conference commemorating the 100th anniversary of World War I, demonstrates that Putin is not freezing Netanyahu out entirely and makes for fascinating photos, but it comes nowhere near substituting for a “real behind-closed-doors face-to-face conversation.”
And Putin has made it clear that he has no “plans” – translation, no “interest” – in meeting Netanyahu in the near future.
Sputnik, a media outlet that pushes the Kremlin’s point of view and is usually a Russian news source with an agenda, reported that the reason for the tension between the two leaders is the September downing of a Russian military jet by a Syrian anti-aircraft battery with 15 Russian personnel killed. Russia asserts that the incident occurred because of Israeli aircraft. They believe that the Israelis shadowed the slow-moving Russian IL-20 military transport plane and that when the Syrian battery targeted the Israeli jets, the Syrian rocket struck the slower target and the Israeli fighters were able to escape.
Seeing each other in Paris was the first meeting between Putin and Netanyahu since the air accident. Israel disputed Putin’s claim that they are responsible for the midair catastrophe and has already provided audio tapes, video and radar maps of the incident. The Israelis assert that they have proved to Putin that their planes were far away from the Russian transport at the moment of the shooting. But Putin cannot let this go. He cannot be convinced.
The divide is so great that even descriptions of the conversation Putin and Netanyahu had in Paris are seriously disparate. The conversation, which took place at a dinner that brought together all the Western leaders in attendance to honor veterans of World War I was, according to Kremlin sources, simply a 10 to 15 minute meeting. The results were, according to the Russians, negligible at best.
The Israelis are using the terms “good and practical” to describe the conversation. Netanyahu has gone as far as saying: “I would even describe it as very important... I would call it rather significant. More details are unnecessary, I think.”
Every meeting between Putin and Netanyahu is important. Not meeting is a disaster. The Middle East is a pressure cooker that can explode at any moment. Working together, Netanyahu and Putin become the valves that release the pressures boiling up inside and threatening to erupt and spill over. At last count, 13 different countries have their air forces flying over Syria. At any moment – as we witnessed in September – the wrong fighter jet can be in the wrong place.
The Paris trip and the World War I memorial were of only marginal importance for Israel. The real point of the trip was to get Netanyahu and Putin together and to have them hash out this diplomatic and military dispute. In fact, when Jerusalem learned that Moscow would not confirm that their leaders would actually meet and speak, Netanyahu nixed the trip. In the end, Netanyahu made an appearance, Putin made an appearance and they spoke.
After the formal lunch, the Russian press service sent out a terse statement saying: “In the Elysee Palace, Putin met Netanyahu separately for a discussion.” The Israeli prime minister’s press team released pictures of the two men standing against a wall, truly on the sidelines, and then another picture of them sitting down as waiters clear the tables.
Putin was not prepared to speak to Netanyahu. Netanyahu was well prepared to speak to Putin. So prepared, that Netanyahu brought along a Russian/Hebrew translator. Putin had no one. The Israeli translator did double duty and translated for both of them.
Some would say that now, the proverbial glass is half-empty, others would call it half-full. To the impartial observer it looked like an informal, short meeting that took place on the sidelines of a larger meeting. But in matters involving the Middle East, a half full glass is a big success.The writer, a political commentator, hosts the TV show Thinking Out Loud on JBS TV. Follow him on Twitter @MicahHalpern.
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