JERUSALEM — Israel's prime minister urged Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday to further strengthen preventive safety measures between their respective military forces operating in Syria.
"I have come here with the sole concrete objective of strengthening the coordination between our countries in the security area, so as to avoid mistakes, misunderstandings or incidents," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in in joint remarks published by the offices of both leaders at a meeting in the Kremlin.
It was their third meeting since Moscow began military operations in Syria last September. In Thursday's meeting, Netanyahu was accompanied by Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, commander of the Israel Air Force.
According to published statements, Netanyahu reiterated what he said were Israel's "clear and understandable" red lines obliging Israel to act to prevent advanced weapons coming in from Syria and Iraq from reaching the Lebanese-based group Hezbollah, which is fighting on behalf of Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime.
Netanyahu insisted, as he has in previous meetings with Putin, that Israel must act to prevent Iranian-backed Hezbollah and al-Qaida-linked organizations from acting against Israel from territory in the Syrian Golan Heights formally controlled by regime forces.
Moreover, he reiterated Israel's intention to retain the part of the Golan Heights that it conquered from Syria in 1967 and annexed as part of Israel in 1981, regardless of the outcome of now-faltering talks toward a diplomatic agreement on Syria.
"We are doing all we can to prevent the emergence of a new terror front against us on the Golan Heights. This is the 'red line' we have set and we will continue to insist on this," he said. "We cannot go back to the days when our villages and our children came under fire from there. Therefore, with or without an agreement, the Golan Heights will remain part of Israel's sovereign territory."
Netanyahu first declared Israel's permanent claims to the Golan Heights at a special Cabinet meeting earlier this week. Since then, his position has been roundly disputed in Washington and most NATO capitals.
The Kremlin's statement on the joint meeting declined to relate one way or another to Netanyahu's claim on part of the Golan Heights.
Similarly, Netanyahu declined to comment publicly on Putin's interest in "furthering prospects for a Palestinian-Israeli settlement." Putin's statement noted that he met earlier in the week with Mahmoud Abbas, "the President of the State of Palestine."
Israel officially rejects the notion that there is a state of Palestine and refers to Abbas as president of the Palestinian Authority.
On the matter of preventive safety measures in Syria, Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, deputy chief of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), told reporters Wednesday that ongoing coordination with Russia has proven fruitful.
The IDF No. 2 officer charged with so-called deconfliction talks said that he has led four rounds of talks with his Russian counterparts.
"I've had a lot of discussions with the Russians," Golan said. "I got the feeling they really see us, Israel, as a friendly entity; someone to work with."
Each round of military-to-military talks lowers the prospects for what Golan called "unfortunate engagements in the air, at sea or on land."
According to Golan, both sides are taking "effective measures" to preserve respective interests of both sides. He added that Russia has similar safety measures in place with the US.
"Russia and the US attack together in the same arena. They do so without much love, but with mutual interests and a good mechanism," the officer said.
Opall-Rome is Israel bureau chief for Defense News. She has been covering U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation, Mideast security and missile defense since May 1988. She lives north of Tel Aviv. Visit her website at www.opall-rome.com.