TEL AVIV, Israel — With Israel's head of military intelligence at his side, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Thursday with Russian President Vladimir Putin to present "detailed" information attesting to Iranian attempts to establish a permanent military presence in Syria — something the Israeli leader said his country will never accept along its northern border.
"The things I talked about weren't just in general terms, but in great detail. … I came with very precise information. This is not philosophical and it's not theoretical. These are concrete things that we've seen in recent weeks and recent days about Iran posturing to establish itself militarily, in practical terms, with a permanent base in Syria," Netanyahu told reporters after his meeting with the Russian president.
According to a transcript released by Netanyahu's office, the Israeli premier warned Putin that the ongoing, Russian-led framework talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, toward a diplomatic solution in Syria would be very difficult to implement if Iran or its Shiite proxy groups were allowed to take root at Israel's northern border.
In preparation for the so-called day after the civil war now entering its seventh year — and in attempts to influence the ongoing Astana talks – Netanyahu insisted Israel could never allow Iran or Lebanon-based Hezbollah or any other pro-Iran fighting groups to open up another direct front against the Jewish state.
According to the transcript, Netanyahu said it was unclear if diplomatic talks would lead to a cessation of fighting or a permanent arrangement in the area. Nevertheless, he said it was imperative to speak directly with Putin about Israel's expectations regarding a prospective settlement.
"Even if this process takes time, I wanted to make Israel's position clear. I clarified to President Putin our vehement opposition to the establishment of Iran and its tentacles in Syria. We see Iran is trying to build a military force, with military infrastructure, in order to establish a base in Syria, including attempts by Iran to set up a sea port," Netanyahu said.
"All this has severe implications for Israel's national security."
In his fifth meeting with Putin since Russia actively entered the Syrian civil war in September 2015, Netanyahu said he also expressed Israel's intentions of not relinquishing the Golan Heights, a territory it seized from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War and annexed in 1981.
"First of all, I said from our perspective: 'We are staying there.' And certainly, we want the whole world to recognize this," he said.
When asked if he discussed U.S.-Russia relations with Putin, Netanyahu said he did not. However, he told Putin that in his recent discussions with U.S. President Donald Trump and his team, the new administration and members of Congress expressed "concerns" about Iran's intentions to remain in Syria after the war.
Netanyahu repeatedly declined to say how Putin responded to his missives, insisting that he wouldn't be the one to publicize the outcome of his discussions. Nevertheless, he insisted that his message "was expressed in unequivocal terms" and that he believed it was "fully internalized" by Putin.
"We're no longer ... just talking about the question of coordination between the Israel Defense Forces and the Russian military in Syria. Now it's a question of attempts by another power — another country committed to Israel's destruction — that is trying to insert itself into the fabric of Syria," Netanyahu said.
He added that he presented Putin with Israel's analysis of the strategic implications of Iran's presence in the area. "I said this will be destabilizing and will harm the possibilities for the diplomatic arrangement that he intends to achieve. It's contrary to our interests and to the ability to implement a [diplomatic] arrangement. And in my opinion, it doesn't match the long-term interests of anyone except Iran."
In a Kremlin readout of Putin's "brief working visit" with Netanyahu, it noted that the two leaders discussed the situation in the Middle East, "in particular Syria, in the context of joint efforts to combat international terrorism."
In his welcoming statement to Netanyahu, Putin said he was "pleased to see we have such close and trusting contact. We meet regularly in person and regularly are in contact by telephone and work together at the ministry and agency level."
The readout made no reference to Iran.
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.