Netanyahu flies to Moscow for talks on Syria with Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend a meeting at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre in Moscow, Russia January 29, 2018.

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Moscow on Monday to discuss Israeli concerns about any expansion of Iran’s military foothold in Syria with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I will discuss with President Putin Iran’s relentless efforts to establish a military presence in Syria, which we strongly oppose and are also taking action against,” said Netanyahu, without elaborating, before boarding a plane for the visit, scheduled to last several hours.

Israel’s air force said last year it had struck suspected arms shipments to Iran’s ally, the Lebanese Hezbollah group, around 100 times.

Netanyahu said he and Putin “meet periodically in order to ensure the military coordination between the Israel Defense Forces and the Russian forces in Syria”.

Russia intervened in the civil war on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2015. Iranian forces, Hezbollah and other Shi‘ite Muslim militias also back Assad.

Israel fears Iran could be left with a permanent garrison in Syria, extending a threat posed from neighboring Lebanon by Hezbollah, which has an extensive missile arsenal and last fought a war with the Israeli military in 2006.

Netanyahu said he also planned to discuss with Putin “Iran’s effort to turn Lebanon into one giant missile site, a site for precision missiles against the State of Israel, which we will not tolerate”.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Timing of Trump peace plan depends on Palestinians: Pence

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence touches the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City January 23, 2018.

By Jeff Mason

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said on Tuesday the timing of a long-awaited U.S. Middle East peace initiative depended on the return of Palestinians to negotiations.

President Donald Trump’s advisers have been working on the outlines of a plan for some time. But Palestinians ruled out Washington as a peace broker after the U.S. president’s Dec. 6 recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

“The White House has been working with our partners in the region to see if we can develop a framework for peace,” Pence told Reuters in an interview in Jerusalem on the last leg of a three-day Middle East trip. “It all just depends now on when the Palestinians are going to come back to the table.”

Trump’s Jerusalem move angered the Palestinians, sparked protests in the Middle East and raised concern among Western countries that it could further destabilize the region. Palestinians see East Jerusalem as capital of a future state.

A White House official told reporters he hoped the plan would be announced in 2018.

“It’ll come out both when it’s ready and when both sides are actually willing to engage on it,” said the White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The official acknowledged that the United States and the Palestinian leadership had not had any direct diplomatic contact since Trump’s Jerusalem declaration.

Pence said in the interview that he and the president believed the decision, under which the United States also plans to move its embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, would improve peacemaking prospects.

Hanan Ashrawi, a senior official at the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), said the Trump administration had dealt a death blow to any prospect for peace.

“The extremist positions of this U.S. administration and the biblical messianic message of Pence not only disqualified the U.S. as a peace broker but created conditions of volatility and instability in the region and beyond,” Ashrawi said in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Pence discussed the Jerusalem issue during talks with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Saturday and Jordan’s King Abdullah on Sunday. He said the two leaders had agreed to convey to the Palestinians that the United States was eager to resume peace talks.

“We want them (the Palestinians) to know the door is open. We understand they’re unhappy with that decision but the president wanted me to convey our willingness and desire to be a part of the peace process going forward,” Pence said.

Asked if the Egyptians and Jordanians had agreed to pressure the Palestinians to return to talks, Pence said: “I wouldn’t characterize it as that.”

SUPPORTER OF NETANYAHU

The Palestinians want to establish an independent state in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and in the Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it in a move not recognized internationally. It says the entire city is its eternal and indivisible capital.

Pence said the U.S. State Department would spell out details in the coming weeks about a plan to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem by the end of 2019.

Israeli media have speculated that a 2019 embassy move could help Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu win reelection in a vote scheduled for November of that year.

Pence said he admired Netanyahu’s leadership and appreciated his friendship. Asked if he hoped for the prime minister’s reelection, Pence said: “I’m a strong supporter of Benjamin Netanyahu, but I don’t get a vote here.”

Pence toured Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial with Netanyahu on Tuesday before visiting the Western Wall, one of Judaism’s holiest sites. He stood solemnly with his hand on the wall and left a note, as people who pray there traditionally do.

The vice president also pressed European leaders to heed Trump’s call to forge a follow-up agreement to the Iran nuclear deal established under President Barack Obama’s administration.

“At the end of the day, this is going to be a moment where the European community has to decide whether they want to go forward with the United States or whether they want to stay in this deeply flawed deal with Iran,” he said.

Asked if he thought the United States would succeed in getting that kind of agreement with its European allies, Pence said: “We’ll see.”

Trump said earlier this month the United States would withdraw from the agreement unless its flaws were fixed.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Maayan Lubell and Ralph Boulton)

Palestinians may seek U.N. Assembly support if U.S. vetoes Jerusalem resolution

A protester carries a Palestinian flag at the end of a demonstration against U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital opposite to the American embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel December 12, 2017.

DUBAI (Reuters) – The Palestinian leadership may turn to the U.N. General Assembly if Washington vetoes a draft U.N. Security Council resolution to reaffirm Jerusalem’s status as unresolved, after President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize it as Israel’s capital.

The Palestinian United Nations envoy raised this option in remarks published in Saudi daily Arab News on Monday, ahead of a Security Council vote on an Egyptian-drafted resolution about Jerusalem’s status which the United States is expected to veto.

The draft says any “decisions and actions which purport to have altered the character, status or demographic composition of the Holy City of Jerusalem have no legal effect, are null and void and must be rescinded”.

Trump’s Dec. 6 decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to move the U.S. Embassy to the city has provoked widespread anger and protests among Palestinians as well as broad international criticism, including from top U.S. allies.

Israel says Jerusalem is its indivisible capital. It captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it in a move never recognized internationally. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state they seek in territory Israel captured a half century ago.

Arab News quoted Ambassador Riyad Mansour as saying that the Palestinians and Egyptians have worked closely with Security Council members while drafting the resolution to ensure that it gets overwhelming support.

“The Europeans in particular asked us to avoid terms like ‘denounce’ and ‘condemn,’ and not to mention the U.S. by name,” it quoted Mansour as saying. “We acceded to their request but kept the active clauses rejecting all changes to Jerusalem and the reaffirmation of previous decisions.”

Israel has long accused the United Nations of bias against it in its conflict with the Palestinians and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised Trump’s move again on Sunday.

The Palestinians have the option of invoking a rarely-used article of the U.N. Charter that calls for parties to a dispute not to cast a veto, Arab News said. But, it said, they are more likely to take the issue to the General Assembly under Resolution 377A, known as the “Uniting for Peace” resolution.

Resolution 377A was passed in 1950 and used to authorize the deployment of U.S. troops to fight in the Korean war.

Mansour said Palestinians resorted to the “Uniting for Peace” resolution in the 1990s after Israel began building a settlement on Jabal Abut Ghnaim, a hilltop on occupied West Bank land south of Jerusalem, but left that session in suspension. However, they could seek a resumption of the session, he said.

“If the resolution is vetoed, the Palestinian delegation can send a letter to the U.N. Secretary General and ask him to resume the emergency session,” he said, according to Arab News.

(Reporting by Sami Aboudi; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Israel signals free hand in Syria as U.S., Russia expand truce

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem November 12, 2017.

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel signaled on Sunday that it would keep up military strikes across its frontier with Syria to prevent any encroachment by Iranian-allied forces, even as the United States and Russia try to build up a ceasefire in the area.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday affirmed joint efforts to stabilize Syria as its civil war wanes, including with the expansion of a July 7 truce in the southwestern triangle bordering Israel and Jordan.

A U.S. State Department official said Russia had agreed “to work with the Syrian regime to remove Iranian-backed forces a defined distance” from the Golan Heights frontier with Israel, which captured the plateau in the 1967 Middle East war.

The move, according to one Israeli official briefed on the arrangement, is meant to keep rival factions inside Syria away from each other, but it would effectively keep Iranian-linked forces at various distances from the Israel-held Golan as well.

Those distances would range from as little as 5-7 kms and up to around 30 kms, depending on current rebel positions on the Syrian Golan, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

Moscow did not immediately provide details on the deal.

Israel has been lobbying both big powers to deny Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and other Shi’ite militias any permanent bases in Syria, and to keep them away from the Golan, as they gain ground while helping Damascus beat back Sunni-led rebels.

In televised remarks opening Israel’s weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not speak about the new U.S.-Russian arrangement for Syria.

His regional cooperation minister, Tzachi Hanegbi, sounded circumspect about the deal, telling reporters that it “does not meet Israel’s unequivocal demand the there will not be developments that bring the forces of Hezbollah or Iran to the Israel-Syria border in the north”.

 

“RED LINES”

“There’s reflection here of the understanding that Israel has set red lines, and will stand firm on this,” Hanegbi said.

That was an allusion to Israeli military strikes in Syria, carried out against suspected Hezbollah or Iranian arms depots or in retaliation for attacks from the Syrian-held Golan.

In the latest incident, the Israeli military said it shot down a spy drone on Saturday as it overflew the Golan. Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman blamed the drone on the Syrian government. Damascus did not immediately respond.

Repeating Israel’s warnings to Iran and Hezbollah, Lieberman said: “We will not allow the Shi’ite axis to establish Syria as its forefront base”.

Russia, which has a long-term military garrison in Syria, has said it wants foreign forces to quit the country eventually.

The U.S. State Department official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity on Saturday, said that goal could be served by Russia’s pledge to remove Iranian-linked fighters from the truce zone in southwestern Syria.

“If this works, this is an auspicious signal, would be an auspicious signal, that our policy objective – the objective that I think so many of us share, of getting these guys out of Syria ultimately – that there’s a path in that direction,” the official said.

 

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

 

Israel willing to resort to military action to stop Iran acquiring nuclear weapons: minister

Israel willing to resort to military action to stop Iran acquiring nuclear weapons: minister

By Tim Kelly and Nobuhiro Kubo

TOKYO (Reuters) – Israel is willing to resort to military action to ensure Iran never acquires nuclear weapons, the intelligence minister said on Thursday in Japan where he is seeking backing for U.S. President Donald Trump’s tougher line on Tehran.

Trump said on Oct. 13 he would not certify Iran is complying with an agreement on curtailing its nuclear program, signed by his predecessor, Barack Obama, opening a 60-day window for Congress to act to reimpose sanctions.

“If international efforts led these days by U.S. President Trump don’t help stop Iran attaining nuclear capabilities, Israel will act militarily by itself,” Intelligence Minister Israel Katz said in an interview in Tokyo. “There are changes that can be made (to the agreement) to ensure that they will never have the ability to have a nuclear weapon.”

Israel has taken unilateral action in the past without the consent of its major ally, the United States, including air strikes on a suspected nuclear reactor in Syria in 2007 and in Iraq in 1981. A strike against Iran, however, would be a risky venture with the potential to provoke a counter strike and roil financial markets.

An Israeli threat of military strikes could, nonetheless, galvanize support in the United States for toughening up the nuclear agreement but it could also backfire by encouraging hardliners in Iran and widening a rift between Washington and European allies.

So far, none of the other signatories to the deal – Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China, Iran and the European Union – has cited serious concerns, leaving the United States isolated.

Japan relies on the U.S. military to help defend it against threats from North Korea and elsewhere. Tokyo’s diplomatic strategy in the Middle East, where it buys almost all its oil, is to maintain friendly relations with all countries, including Iran.

“I asked the Japanese government to support steps led by President Trump to change the nuclear agreement,” said Katz, who is a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party. “The question of whether Japanese companies will begin to work in Iran or not is a very important question.”

Katz’s visit to Tokyo comes ahead of a planned trip by Trump from Nov. 5 for a summit with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Officials at Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs were not immediately available to comment.

Israel, Katz said, wants the nuclear agreement to be revised to remove an expiration date, and to impose tighter conditions to stop Tehran from developing new centrifuges used to make weapons-grade nuclear material.

He also urged sanctions to stop Iran from establishing Syria as a military base to launch attacks on Israel and action to put a halt to Tehran’s development of ballistic missiles.

“We will not allow Iran to transform Syria into forward base sea harbors, air bases and Shia militias,” he said. “We will act together with the United States and other countries in the world until they stop the ballistic missiles that threaten Israel.”

The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday backed new sanctions on Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah militia.

(Reporting by Tim Kelly; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Netanyahu lobbies world powers to stem Iraqi Kurd setbacks

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem October 15, 2017. REUTERS/Abir Sultan/Pool

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is lobbying world powers to prevent further setbacks to Iraqi Kurds as they lose ground to Baghdad’s army, Israeli officials say.

Israel has been the only major power to endorse statehood for the Kurds, partly, say analysts, because it sees the ethnic group – whose population is split among Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran – as a buffer against shared adversaries.

Iraqi armed forces retook the oil-rich Kirkuk region this week, following a Sept. 25 referendum on Kurdish independence that was rejected by Baghdad, delivering a blow to the Kurds’ statehood quest.

Israeli officials said Netanyahu raised the Iraqi Kurds’ plight in phone calls with German Chancellor Angela Merkel last week and with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday.

It has also come up in his contacts with France and the Israeli national security adviser, Meir Ben-Shabbat, has been discussing the matter with Trump administration officials in Washington this week, the officials said.

A Netanyahu government official, who declined to be named, given the sensitivity of Israel-Kurdish ties, suggested Israel had security interests in Kurdistan, given its proximity to Israel’s enemies in Tehran and Damascus.

“This (territory) is a foothold. It’s a strategic place,” the official said without providing further detail. He said Israel wanted to see Iraqi Kurds provided with the means to protect themselves, adding:

“It would be best if someone gave them weaponry, and whatever else, which we cannot give, obviously.”

Israel has maintained discreet military, intelligence and business ties with Kurds since the 1960s, in the absence of open ties between their autonomous region in northern Iraq and Israel.

Netanyahu’s recent lobbying has focused on Kurdish ambitions in Iraq, where the central Baghdad government has grown closer to Israel’s foe Iran.

“The issue at present is … to prevent an attack on the Kurds, extermination of the Kurds and any harm to them, their autonomy and region, something that Turkey and Iran and internal Shi’ite and other powers in Iraq and part of the Iraqi government want,” Netanyahu’s intelligence minister, Israel Katz, told Tel Aviv radio station 102 FM on Friday.

It was not clear to what extent Netanyahu’s outreach may have been solicited by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, which shies away from public engagement with Israel, worried about further alienating Arab neighbours.

The United Nations has voiced concern at reports that civilians, mainly Kurds, were being driven out of parts of northern Iraq retaken by Iraqi forces and their houses and businesses looted and destroyed.

“The prime minister is certainly engaging the United States, Russia, Germany and France to stop the Kurds from being harmed,” Katz said.

Another Israeli official, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, framed Netanyahu’s efforts as a moral imperative.

“They (Kurds) are a deeply pro-Western people who deserve support,” he said.

(Editing by Maayan Lubell and Andrew Heavens)

Israel approves building plans for 31 settler homes in West Bank’s Hebron

Israeli soldiers stand at a military camp in the West Bank city of Hebron October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel on Monday approved building plans for 31 settler homes in Hebron in the West Bank, a spokeswoman said, a first such move in the Israeli-occupied area for some 15 years.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has felt increased pressure for settlement expansion from the rightist flank of his coalition, though construction is not imminent as a bureaucratic process must still run its course.

His government has made numerous announcements of settlement building recently, angering Palestinians seeking a state on land Israel captured in a 1967 war but no longer eliciting serious U.S. criticism with President Donald Trump in the White House.

Still, settlement advocates say that despite a string of announcements for construction of thousands of settler homes in the West Bank, only a fraction might be built eventually.

Hebron is the largest Palestinian city in the occupied West Bank with a population of some 216,000. About 1,000 Israeli settlers live in the heart of the city, which for decades has been a focus of religious friction between Muslims and Jews.

Israeli anti-settlement watchdog Peace Now detailed the project’s plans in an area of Hebron where the settlers live and its web site showed a graphic of what the prospective four-storey, stone-clad apartment block would look like.

It said that the last time settler homes were built in this area was in 2002.

Hadar Horen, a spokeswoman for the Israeli body that runs civilian affairs in the West Bank, could not confirm the details issued by Peace Now and said the planning committee decision would be published later.

(Writing by Ori Lewis; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Interpol approves membership for State of Palestine over Israeli objections

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas addresses the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Interpol voted on Wednesday to admit the State of Palestine as a member over Israeli objections at the international police organization’s general assembly in Beijing.

The decision came despite Israeli efforts to delay a vote and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement that the Palestinians’ joining the global police agency contravened signed agreements with Israel.

Israel had argued that Palestine is not a state and that it is ineligible to join. Under interim Israeli-Palestinian peace deals, a Palestinian Authority was granted limited self-rule in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Shortly before the vote in the Chinese capital, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said Israel’s efforts to delay the ballot until next year had failed.

“This victory was made possible because of the principled position of the majority of Interpol members,” Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki said in a statement.

Interpol said membership applications by the State of Palestine and the Solomon Islands were approved at its annual general assembly by more than the required two-thirds majority of votes. The organization now has 192 members.

A Palestinian bid to join last year, at an Interpol conference in Indonesia, was foiled by what Israel said was its diplomatic campaign against it.

In 2012, the U.N. General Assembly upgraded the Palestinian Authority’s observer status at the United Nations to “non-member state” from “entity”, like the Vatican.

The step fell short of full U.N. membership, but it had important legal implications in enabling the Palestinians to join the International Criminal Court and other world bodies.

Netanyahu’s statement said Palestinian membership of Interpol was one of the issues discussed during a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East envoy, Jason Greenblatt, who is visiting the region.

Netanyahu also raised the Palestinian refusal to condemn an attack on Tuesday in which a Palestinian laborer shot dead three Israeli guards in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

“The actions of the Palestinian leadership in the past few days directly harm the prospects of achieving peace and the Palestinian diplomatic offensive will not go unanswered,” the statement said.

Some Israeli media commentators have voiced concern that as an Interpol member, Palestine could ask the organization to issue a “Red Notice”, an alert to police worldwide to locate and provisionally arrest an individual, pending extradition.

But the procedure does not appear to pose serious legal problems for Israelis such as government officials and military officers whom pro-Palestinian groups have sought to have arrested by local authorities as suspected war criminals during overseas visits.

A red notice is not an international arrest warrant, and on its website Interpol notes that it cannot compel any member country to detain an individual named in one.

(Editing by Maayan Lubell and Mark Heinrich)

Israel endorses independent Kurdish state

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a ceremony at the Casa Rosada Presidential Palace in Buenos Aires, Argentina September 12, 2017. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel supports the establishment of a Kurdish state, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday, as Kurds in Iraq gear up for a referendum on independence that lawmakers in Baghdad oppose.

Israel has maintained discreet military, intelligence and business ties with the Kurds since the 1960s, viewing the minority ethnic group — whose indigenous population is split between Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran — as a buffer against shared Arab adversaries.

On Tuesday, Iraq’s Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani said he would press ahead with the Sept. 25 referendum despite a vote by Iraq’s parliament rejecting it.

“(Israel) supports the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to achieve their own state,” Netanyahu said, in remarks sent to foreign correspondents by his office.

Western powers are concerned a plebiscite in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region – including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk – could divert attention from the war against Islamic State militants.

Netanyahu said Israel does however consider the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) a terrorist group, taking the same position as Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

An Israeli general told a conference in Washington last week that he personally did not regard the PKK, whose militants have been fighting Turkey for more than three decades, as a terrorist group.

Netanyahu, who is due to address the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 19, voiced support for “the Kurds’ aspirations for independence” in a speech in 2014, saying they deserve “political independence”.

His latest remarks appeared to be a more direct endorsement of the creation of a Kurdish state.

But they will cut little ice in Baghdad, which has no diplomatic relations with Israel and has strong ties with Israel’s arch-foe Iran.

Iraq’s neighbors — Turkey, Iran and Syria — oppose the referendum, fearing it could fan separatism among their own ethnic Kurdish populations.

Kurds have sought an independent state since at least the end of World War One, when colonial powers divided up the Middle East after the collapse of the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire.

(editing by John Stonestreet)

Netanyahu to Putin: Iran’s growing Syria role threatens Israel

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) welcomes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Sochi, Russia August 23, 2017. Sputnik/Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin via REUTERS

By Denis Pinchuk

SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) – Iran’s growing role in Syria poses a threat to Israel, the Middle East and the world, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday.

“Mr. President, with joint efforts we are defeating Islamic State, and this is a very important thing. But the bad thing is that where the defeated Islamic State group vanishes, Iran is stepping in,” Netanyahu told Putin during talks at Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi.

“We cannot forget for a single minute that Iran threatens every day to annihilate Israel,” Netanyahu said. “It (Iran) arms terrorist organizations, it sponsors and initiates terror.”

Netanyahu also said that “Iran is already well on its way to controlling Iraq, Yemen and to a large extent is already in practice in control of Lebanon”.

Iran denies sponsoring terrorism.

Putin, in the part of the meeting to which reporters had access, did not address Netanyahu’s remarks about Iran’s role in Syria.

Russia intervened in Syria on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2015, its forces fighting what it deems Islamist terrorists. Russia is acting in partnership with Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah group, Israel’s arch-foes.

In the past few months, Russia has been the main broker of de-escalation zones set up in Syria. Israel worries those zones will allow Iranian troops and Hezbollah forces to deploy in greater strength.

Moscow argues its big-power clout deters Iran or Hezbollah from opening a new front with Israel.

In comments published last week, the chief of Israel’s air force said Israel had struck suspected Hezbollah arms shipments in Syria around 100 times during the Syrian civil war, apparently without Russian interference and rarely drawing retaliation.

(Reporting by Denis Pinchuk; Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Christian Lowe)