While President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett formally stressed opportunities for cooperation at the start of the first face to face in Sochi on Friday, Oct. 22 common ground between them appeared to be elusive.
- Neither of their opening remarks mentioned Iran by name. Putin said only, “We will be very glad to discuss regional issues.” This was a clear pointer to disagreement over the issue that was at the forefront of the Israeli prime minister’s agenda. Putin’s evasiveness was a mark of disapproval following the disclosure on Thursday that the Israel Air Force had resumed a training program in preparation for an attack on Iran’s nuclear program. Russia remains committed to the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran as one of its six signatories and holds no stock with threats however empty.
- The Russian president sought to turn the conversation to Syria. Mocow’s military intervention in that country’s civil war was the main prop of the Assad regime. He therefore stressed to Bennett: “As you know we are working hard to restore Syria’s basic utilities. There are problematical issues and difficulties, but also good opportunities for cooperation – naturally in all matters relating to the war on terror.” This was a broad hint at the need to discuss Israel’s repeated air strikes over Iranian and Hizballah targets in Syria lest they undermine Bashar Assad’s rule over the country.
According to our sources, officials in Moscow indicated before the meeting that they would prefer Israel to provide earlier advance warnings of coming air strikes than they do at present.
- In a sly dig at the situation of the prime minister who has led an ill-assorted government only since June, Putin commented: “We maintained good relations with the previous [Netanyahu] government for good reasons. I truly hope that despite the internal political battles, which are unavoidable in every country, your government will pursue a policy of continuity on Russian-Israel relations.”
- Before embarking on the flight to Sochi, the prime minister placed a puzzling phone call to Ukrainian president Volodymy Zelensky, without offering any explanation. If Bennett toyed with a plan to mediate between the two enemies, Putin and Zelensky, his timing was off. On Thursday, Moscow accused NATO of moving forces towards Ukraine. The Russian president condemned the step as “a direct and real threat to Russia.”