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Trilateral summit in Israel a coup for Netanyahu

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PAULA SLIER

“The very fact that this summit is happening here,” boasted Netanyahu, “is more evidence of the special standing of Israel among the nations of the world at this time.”

Netanyahu has been pushing to hold such three-way talks ever since Moscow boosted its presence in the region, and foreign fighters started arriving on Syrian soil after the war there started back in 2011.

For Netanyahu, the meeting was an opportunity to ensure agreement between Russia, which controls the skies of Syria and has helped prop up the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; the United States, which has troops in Syria serving as a peacekeeping force; and Israel, which has long sought backing for its demand that Iranian forces leave Syria at the conclusion of the country’s war. Aside from fighting in the north-west Idlib region, the war is thankfully almost over.

Think what you may about Netanyahu, the fact that he managed to bring two world powers to Israel for such a meeting sends a powerful message about Jerusalem’s international standing. It also underscores the success of the many meetings he’s held with American President Donald Trump, and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, which ultimately resulted in such a summit.

But while Netanyahu saw the meeting as an opportunity to counter Iranian influence, Russian national security adviser Nikolai Patrushev was quick to stress that Moscow backs Iran’s interests.

He denied that Tehran, as both Washington and Jerusalem believe, represents the main threat to regional security, and he called Israeli airstrikes in Syria against Iranian targets “undesirable”.

“Iran is in Syria at the invitation of the legitimate government,” Patrushev pointed out, and is “contributing a lot to fighting terrorists on Syrian soil and stabilising the situation there … Therefore, of course, we will have to take into account the interests of Iran.”

These remarks could not have come as a surprise to Netanyahu, although he would much rather Patrushev had not made them. But, as is the way with politics and diplomacy, when discussing Israel, Patrushev said, “We’re aware of Israel’s concerns … and hope the threats will be lifted.”

He said Russia paid special attention to ensuring Israel’s security because, “Here in Israel live a little less than about two million of our countrymen. Israel supports us in several channels, including at the UN [United Nations].”

This ambiguity – or these seemingly contradictory statements – highlights the difficulty Moscow faces as it tries to navigate the regional struggle between Israel and Iran without harming her relationship with either. It also suggests that what is said in public might not always echo what is going on in private. Netanyahu kept quiet about Patrushev’s comments although John Bolton, the US national security adviser, said he did not believe his Russian counterpart’s positive view of Iranian troops in Syria was the true stance of Russia, and that Moscow, too, hoped to see Tehran’s forces and proxies leave the country. In recent months, Russia has kept quiet about Israeli strikes on Iranian forces in Syria which while upsetting the Iranians, gives the Israelis reason to believe Russia is not as committed to Iran as it might publicly declare.

Patrushev, though, really ruffled feathers when he contradicted the American position on the US drone that was downed last week by Iranian forces. Trump earlier blamed Tehran for shooting it down while, Trump insisted, it was flying over international waters. “We were cocked and loaded to retaliate,” tweeted Trump, explaining the American reaction that came shortly afterwards. “When I asked, how many people will die, 150 people, sir, was the answer … 10 minutes before the strike, I stopped it, not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone.”

Patrushev said the Russians believed, as stated by the Iranians, that the drone was in Iranian airspace, and thus supported Tehran shooting it down. This was a slap in the face for Bolton, who sat alongside Patrushev as he delivered his remarks during a press conference.

It must have been awkward for both men. Patrushev is under personal sanction – both from the US and the European Union – due to his alleged role in Russia’s unofficial war against the Ukraine. Bolton is on shaky ground regarding his position in the Trump administration. As Bolton was arriving in Israel, Trump was telling American reporters that his security adviser was a “hawk”. “If it was up to him [Bolton],” said Trump, “he’d take on the whole world at one time.”

Already last month, there were reports that Trump was frustrated with Bolton and Defense Secretary Mike Pompeo over what he felt was their war-mongering against Iran. By Trump’s own admission, the two want military conflict while he has committed himself to avoiding costly conflicts on foreign soil. Trump’s comments suggest that he might in future disregard any advice from Bolton on Iran – and that Bolton could be out of a job soon.

In the final analysis, Netanyahu might have been able to organise this historic meeting, but when it comes to influencing Washington or Moscow, his power is limited. Netanyahu, no doubt, would rather the US took on Iran and did “the dirty work”, meaning that if war between Washington and Tehran was to erupt, it would be American, not Israeli soldiers on the frontline. Perhaps the next meeting should take place in the United States? And, perhaps Netanyahu is privately wishing for this too?

But, as tensions spike, there’s no guarantee that Jerusalem won’t be drawn in. The Israeli army has stepped up its alert status amid concern that Tehran could activate its proxies to lash out at the US by targeting Israel from either Syria, Lebanon, or Gaza. Netanyahu and other critics of the 2015 nuclear deal repeatedly warned – and it seems to have materialised – that the massive cash injection Tehran received under the agreement would be used to establish Iranian military bases in Syria, and to provide sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah and other proxies. Should such groups decide to attack Israel, they now have plenty of ammunition at their disposal.

Still, the feeling in the region is that war is not on the cards, at least not now. Bolton again reiterated that talks between Washington and Tehran were still possible should Iran renounce nukes, ballistic missiles, and terrorism. But his remarks came as new US sanctions went into force this week against senior Iranian officials including top diplomat Mohammad Javad Zarif, the head of Iran’s foreign ministry. Bolton said that while imposing these “significant new sanctions” on Iranian leaders, Trump “has held the door open to real negotiations”. Iran President Hassan Rouhani was quick to retaliate that Washington was “lying” about offers to negotiate. He called the White House “mentally disturbed” and “profoundly confused”.

While the exact contents of the trilateral meeting have not been made public, there are suggestions that Israel and the US offered Russia incentives to curb Iranian influence in Syria. These might have included legitimising the continued leadership of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Either way, Tehran is not happy. It is irked such a meeting took place – and in Israel to boot. That alone is a feather in Netanyahu’s cap.

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