For more than a month, Binyamin Netanyahu waited in vain for the Kremlin to call with a date to meet with President Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile, he held back on Israeli air strikes in Syria. This week, the time for waiting was over.
The crisis between Moscow and Jerusalem blew up after a Russian spy plane was downed off the Syrian coast on Sept. 17. On Oct. 12, DEBKA Weekly 820 ran this story: “A Russian Hoax Hid a Missile Ambush Lurking for Israel Jets over Syria.” Moscow was after Israel for revenge, although it was Syria which shot the plane down. But the Russians had another pressing reason for lying in wait for Israeli aircraft. The Kremlin believed that to affirm its strong position in Syria and the Middle East, more was needed than the rush-delivery of 49 S-300 missile launchers to Syria, initially manned by Russian teams, to stand ready for Israeli overflights. To impress US President Donald Trump – ahead of their Paris summit – and the Islamic rulers of Iran – that Russia’s control of Syria’s skies was absolute, Putin needed the S-300s to be fired.
Israel was in no hurry to give the Russian military this opportunity.
Through October, Israeli fighters avoided Syrian skies and the S-300 missile trap and electronic measures awaiting them. Netanyahu ordered the air force to maintain a safe distance from eastern Mediterranean skies near the Syrian coast, as well as Lebanese skies near the Syrian border, and stick to southern Lebanon. At the same time, the prime minister put out feelers for an interview with Putin to mend their fences and get back to the military coordination that worked for the past two years. Putin agreed this was necessary when they two leaders last talked on Sept. 24.
But too much water has flowed under the bridge since then, and relations have gone from bad to worse. Even Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s frequent conversations with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu have petered out. The phone ringing at the Russian end of the line is no longer answered.
A string of events on Monday and Tuesday, Nov.5 and 6, led the relationship further into crisis.
Trump’s special adviser on Syria, James Jeffrey, arrived in Jerusalem on Monday to talk about issues coming up in the forthcoming US-Russian summit in Paris on Nov. 11, on the sidelines of the end of World War I centenary events. DEBKA Weekly’s sources report that they covered the question of when and how the Israeli air force would resume its aerial attacks on Iranian targets over Syria. Netanyahu showed Jeffrey intelligence evidence of Iranian military and civilian aircraft unloading shiny new weapons, mostly high-precision missiles, at Damascus military airport and Russian bases in Syria, for immediate delivery to Hizballah and the pro-Iranian militias deployed in the country.
The prime minister stressed to his guest that Israel could no longer sit back in the face of this dangerous buildup by its enemies and would have to resume air strikes without further delay, even at the risk of a clash with the new Russian S-300 air defense systems.
That Israel is getting set to recover the initiative against the Iranian build-up in Syria was not lost on the Kremlin. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had this to say (in an interview published on Monday with the Spanish El Pais newspaper): “Israeli strikes in Syria will not resolve Tel Aviv’s problems but will only increase tensions in the region.” He leveled a new accusation against Israel. “Unfortunately, Israel has not always met its obligations, primarily those related to the warnings by the Russian military against military operations in Syria,” he said. “In some cases, this endangered the life and health of our soldiers in Syria, for example, when Israeli planes bombed targets near Palmyra in 2017.”
Analysts dissecting Lavrov’s comments concluded that he mentioned the Palmyra incident as a warning that Moscow would not tolerate any loss of Russian lives in consequence of Israeli air operations.
Shortly after the Russian foreign minister’s comments were published, it was decided in Washington and Jerusalem that they called for a strong response. That same day, the Russian-speaking Ze’ev Elkin, Minister for Jerusalem Affairs and the Environment, acting in his capacity of co-chair of the Russia-Israel Intergovernmental Commission, summoned the Israeli correspondents of the Russian media to a rare briefing.
The minister made nine firm points:
- Israel is ready to attack Syria’s new S-300 air defense systems if they are used to fire on Israeli jets.
- “We consider the shipping of S-300s to Syria to be a bad mistake.”
- “The Syrian military are not always capable of correctly using the hardware transferred to them. In case of improper operation, civilian aircraft may be harmed.”
- The Syrians may decide to use these systems to down an Israeli military or commercial plane while “over Israeli territory,” he said. “Considering the mess in the Syrian army, shipping the S-300s might lead to the destabilization of the situation.”
- “By shipping these kinds of weapons to the Syrians, Russia bears partial responsibility for their use.”
- Israel does not usually retaliate to attack by international demarches but with practical action. Action would undoubtedly take place against the launchers used to attack Israeli territory or Israeli planes.
- “I hope greatly that there are no Russian military specialists [at S-300] sites.” Israel has for all these years being doing everything it can to make sure Russian military personnel are not harmed.
- The Iranians have repeatedly used the Russian military as a living shield and conducted arms relocation operations under the cover of the Russian military presence.
- Elkin cited Israel intelligence as reporting that the Iranian military has attempted to use Russian military bases for arms shipment operations. “We have good enough intelligence regarding Iranian actions, and we know how to warn our Russian colleagues about such attempts in good time.”
The minister’s words were crystal-clear and aimed the strongest possible message to the Kremlin that Israel has lost patience with the standoff and will no longer be deterred by the Russian S-300s from resuming its air strikes over Syria. To the contrary, those Russian systems will pay the price if Israel aircraft are harmed. Israel’s threat to the Russian military in Syria is without precedent and will no doubt incur an apt Kremlin response.