Netanyahu to make pre-election trip to Russia

Jerusalem (AFP) –


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to travel to Russia later this week, his office said Tuesday, as he seeks to burnish his leadership credentials days before September 17 polls.

Netanyahu will travel to Sochi on Thursday and is expected to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Israeli premier is in a last-minute push for votes ahead of the election as he fights to continue his reign as the country's longest-serving prime minister.

Part of his strategy has involved trying to pull votes away from his rival Avigdor Lieberman, the head of the nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party who relies on support from Israelis with roots in the former Soviet Union.

Netanyahu has also sought to highlight his relations with world leaders, including Putin and US President Donald Trump, in a bid to present himself as Israel's indispensable leader.

The prime minister said earlier this week that he would likely travel to Russia to meet with Putin to discuss Iran's activity in neighbouring Syria.

Israel has carried out hundreds of strikes in Syria against what it says are Iranian and Hezbollah targets.

Like Russia, Iran and its Lebanese Shiite ally Hezbollah have backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his country's civil war.

Israel and Russia have established a hotline to avoid accidental clashes in Syria, but the system did not prevent a friendly fire incident in September 2018.

In that incident, Syrian air defences accidentally downed a Russian plane during an Israeli raid, angering the Kremlin, which blamed Israel.

Netanyahu also met with Putin in Moscow days ahead of Israel's April 9 elections.

The Israeli prime minister failed to form a coalition government after those polls and opted for a new election.

He again faces a strong challenge from ex-military chief Benny Gantz and his centrist Blue and White alliance.