By Marcy Oster
JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israel hasn’t had any problems with the Assad regime in Syria but will not accept the presence of Iranian troops near his country’s border, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said July 12 following a two-day trip to Russia.
The Israeli leader met with President Vladimir Putin during the visit and caught Croatia’s victory over England in the FIFA World Cup semifinals.
Here are the highlights from Netanyahu’s whirlwind visit to Russia:
A warning on Syria
“We had no problem with the Assad regime,” Netanyahu told reporters as he left Russia for Israel. “For 40 years, not a single bullet was fired in the Golan Heights.” He also said that “I have set a clear policy that we do not intervene and we have not intervened. This has not changed.”
Netanyahu also called for “the removal of the Iranians from Syrian territory.” The prime minister made the statement hours after Israel hit three military posts in Syria in response to a Syrian drone that Israel shot down over the Sea of Galilee. That was days after alleged Israeli airstrikes targeted an army base in Homs said to be the site for deployment of Iranian drones like the one Israel shot down in February.
Come for the game, stay for the diplomacy
Putin appeared to be confused about the purpose of Netanyahu’s visit to his country, welcoming him in Moscow “during your private visit to the FIFA World Cup,” according to a readout from the Kremlin. Putin continued: “Nonetheless, this does not deny us the pleasure of meeting and discussing current issues. In general, our bilateral relations are developing quite positively. I will not quote figures now but they are positive. This applies not only to our economic interaction but also to our political interaction.”
In response, Netanyahu thanked Putin for inviting him to watch the soccer tournament’s semifinal in Moscow, where the prime minister sat with his wife, Sara, and posed holding an Israeli flag.
“Every visit such as this is an opportunity for us to work together to try to stabilize the situation in our region, increase security and increase stability,” Netanyahu said.
But before leaving for Russia, Netanyahu indicated that the visit was planned as a meeting to talk about regional issues.
“I am now leaving for Moscow for a very important meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin,” he said as he entered the plane. “We will discuss Syria, Iran and Israel’s security needs. I very much appreciate the excellent direct connection, without intermediaries, between myself and the Russian president. It is very important for the national security of the State of Israel.”
A warning from Washington
Hours after Netanyahu met with Putin, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a former presidential candidate, tweeted a warning to Israel about making deals with Russia. This followed reports last month that Israel and Russia have reached or were seeking a deal on pulling Iranian forces out of southern Syria.
President Donald Trump and Putin are scheduled to meet in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16, and a deal about the future of Syria is expected to be on the agenda.
Graham’s tweet read, “To our friends in Israel – be very careful making agreements with Russia re Syria that affect U.S. interests. I don’t trust Russia to police Iran or anyone else in Syria. U.S. must maintain presence in Syria to ensure ISIS doesn’t come back and to counter Russia/Iran influence.”
He added: “US withdrawal from Syria = major disaster for Kurdish allies, U.S. interests and regional stability.”
Very special guests
The Netanyahus invited two guests to watch the World Cup match with them.
“We decided to bring with us two wonderful children who are bravely fighting cancer: Mika Lipsker, whom my wife and I have known for nine years, and Alon, whose parents emigrated from Russia and who likes soccer very much,” a Netanyahu statement said. “We are very moved that we can realize a dream for them.”
Lipsker, 18, is from Katzir; Alon Eizarayev, 13, is from Petach Tikvah.