The Putin-Trump news conference that made Netanyahu smile

There, at a news conference being watched by the whole world, both leaders – both! – acknowledged Israel’s security concerns in Syria and the need to address them.

Trump, Putin meet for summit in Helsinki, July 16, 2018 (Reuters)
The Democrats hated Monday’s news conference between US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin; even some Republicans cringed when Trump said he believed Putin’s denial of involvement in the 2016 US election over what his own intelligence agencies maintain; and many Europeans leaders surely recoiled at the US president appearing so cozy with a man they view as a real and present threat.
But one man who was definitely pleased at what he saw at that extraordinary news conference in Helsinki on Monday was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
No, his pleasure had nothing to do with the two leaders’ answers to the questions about the alleged election collusion, or their discussion about how they will deal with their competition in the field of gas and oil.
Netanyahu was pleased because his full-court diplomatic press leading up to this meeting – a diplomatic campaign that brought him to Moscow last week for less than 24 hours, and included a phone conversation with Trump on Saturday – paid off.
There, at a news conference being watched by the whole world, both leaders – both! – acknowledged Israel’s security concerns in Syria and the need to address them.
And Netanyahu did nothing to try to conceal his satisfaction. On the contrary: he issued a statement after the news conference “commending” the abiding commitment to Israel’s security that Trump articulated during that address to the media.
“The friendship between Israel and the US has never been stronger,” he said.
The prime minister also gave a warm shout out to Putin, saying that Israel “also very much appreciates the security coordination between Israel and Russia, and the clear position expressed by President Putin regarding the need to uphold the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement between Israel and Syria.”
One of Netanyahu’s key talking points over the last few weeks has been the need to uphold the 1974 Separation Agreement that followed the Yom Kippur War, which separated Israel and Syrian troops.
That agreement created a 235 km. buffer zone on the Golan Heights which Israel is demanding be respected, even as it is deeply concerned that Iranian or Shia forces moving south with Syrian President Bashar Assad’s troops may try to violate it.
Then comes Putin, who within the first five minutes of his statement alongside Trump says: “The south of Syria should be brought to the full compliance with the treaty of 1974, about the separation of forces of Israel and Syria. This will bring peace to the Golan Heights, and bring a more peaceful relationship between Syria and Israel, and also provide security of the State of Israel.”
Trump, Putin said, “paid special attention to the issue during today’s negotiations. And I would like to confirm that Russia is interested in this development and will act accordingly.”
Had this been the only reference to Israel during the 45-minute news conference, then for Netanyahu, that would have been enough.
But there was more. When Trump was asked to provide some details of possible arrangements where the US and Russia could work together in Syria, he also mentioned Israel, and did so glowingly.
“We’ve worked with Israel long and hard for many years, many decades,” Trump said. “I think we’ve never – never has anyone, any country, been closer than we are.
“President Putin also is helping Israel. And we both spoke with Bibi Netanyahu, and they would like to do certain things with respect to Syria, having to do with the safety of Israel. So in that respect, we absolutely would like to work in order to help Israel. And Israel would be working with us. So both countries would work jointly.”
Does that mean that all of Netanyahu’s wish list was answered at the news conference? No.
First, Putin also came down strongly behind the Iranian nuclear deal – though no one really expected anything different.
Secondly, the Russian leader did not commit to removing the Iranians from Syria, another key Netanyahu demand, though Trump said that “the United States will not allow Iran to benefit from our successful campaign against ISIS.”
Netanyahu has long warned that nothing would be gained if the areas in Syria evacuated by Islamic State were then filled by Iranian forces or their proxies.
That both Trump and Putin chose at this extremely high profile setting – with the whole world watching – to stress their understanding and even commitment to Israel’s security concerns in Syria is no mean diplomatic achievement, and one for which Netanyahu can rightfully be proud. This understanding and commitment is not something that “just happens,” and is by no means a given.•