Russian President Vladimir Putin has hosted new Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett for the pair’s first in-person meeting, with talks focused on Iran and the situation in Syria.
Welcoming Bennett at the start of their meeting on Friday in Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi, Putin hailed Russian-Israeli ties as “unique” and praised the “very deep connection between our peoples”.
Russia and Israel have developed close political, economic and cultural bonds. They have cooperated over the war in Syria, during which Moscow teamed up with Tehran to shore up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.
“We will … talk about the situation in Syria, and the efforts to halt the Iranian military nuclear programme,” Bennett said in Sochi.
Putin said that Russia, which launched its military campaign in Syria in 2015, has been “making efforts” to restore the country’s statehood and strengthen it.
There was “common ground and opportunities for cooperation” with Israel concerning the situation there, he said, especially “in terms of the fight against terrorism”.
Bennett was named Israel’s new premier on June 13, replacing former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Bennett has said his politics are further to the right than his predecessor’s.
Israel views Iranian entrenchment on its northern frontier as a red line and has repeatedly struck what it says are Iran-linked facilities and weapons convoys destined for Lebanese Hezbollah.
The Iran-backed group has fought alongside Syrian government forces in the country’s civil war.
Russia and Israel established a military hotline to coordinate air force operations over Syria to avoid clashes, but in 2018, their ties were tested by the downing of a Russian warplane by Syrian forces following an Israeli air raid.
The forces mistook a Russian reconnaissance plane for Israeli jets. All 15 members of the Russian crew died.
Meanwhile, Moscow has attempted to maintain friendly ties with Iran, Israel’s regional rival.
Russia is one of the international parties that negotiated a 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran. The deal fell apart after then-President Donald Trump withdrew in 2018.
US President Joe Biden is now trying to revive the deal with other international powers – a step that Israel opposes.
Putin kept close a personal relationship with Netanyahu, who repeatedly visited Russia during his 12 years in power.
On Friday, he pointed to Moscow’s “business-like and trusting relationship” with Netanyahu’s government and expressed hope that Bennett’s administration would pursue a “policy of continuity” in Russian-Israeli relations.
Bennett told Putin that Israel viewed him as “a true friend of the Jewish people” and emphasised the “deep connection” between their two countries.
He extolled the contribution made by his country’s one million Russian speakers and praised Putin for bringing Israel and Russia closer during his 20-year rule.
Bennett also hailed the Soviet role in defeating the Nazis in World War II and talked about a new museum in Israel that honours Jewish soldiers who fought in allied armies, primarily the Red Army. Putin cherishes his country’s decisive contribution to victory in that war.