Israel's Netanyahu in Russia to meet Putin ahead of polls

Moscow (AFP) –


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Russia on Thursday to meet President Vladimir Putin, as he looks to convey the image of a statesman ahead of an election on September 17.

Netanyahu is on a campaign to maintain his status as the country's longest-serving prime minister and the talks in Russia's Sochi come days after his controversial vow to annex the West Bank's Jordan Valley if re-elected.

Netanyahu has sought to highlight his relations with world leaders, including Putin and US President Donald Trump, and is on his third visit to Russia this year.

"This is a very important trip," he told journalists before his departure.

Meetings in Russia are meant to prevent clashes in Syria and "to ensure Israel's security, in the face of attempts by Iran and its proxies to attack us," he said.

Prior to meeting Putin, Netanyahu, who also serves as defence minister, met with Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.

"Every meeting with you is very important," Netanyahu said.

Moscow on Wednesday condemned Netanyahu's threat to annex the Jordan Valley, with the foreign ministry saying it could lead to a "sharp escalation of tensions" and undermine peace efforts between Israel and the Palestinians.

Netanyahu previously said he and Putin would discuss Iran's activity in Syria, where Israel had carried out strikes against what it says are Iranian and Hezbollah targets.

Russia, Iran and its Lebanese Shiite ally Hezbollah back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the civil war, and Russia and Israel have established a hotline to avoid clashes.

That did not prevent an incident last year when Syrian air defence accidentally downed a Russian plane during an Israeli raid, with the Kremlin blaming Israel.

Speaking to Russian news website RBK, Netanyahu said the only thing that had prevented Israel and Russia from clashing in Syria was "direct contact with President Putin, a connection which is of great value to me."

"Relations between Israel and Russia today are better than ever," he said in the interview published in Russian.

Netanyahu is looking to pull votes away from his rival Avigdor Lieberman of the nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party who relies on support from Israelis with roots in the former Soviet Union.

The election was called after Netanyahu failed to form a coalition government after polls in April. He met Putin prior to that election as well.