JERUSALEM — It’s no secret that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a thorny personal relationship with the leader of his country’s closest ally, President Obama. There is a long litany of faux pas and numerous public comments showing that there is no love lost between these two.
That’s why it’s no big surprise that Netanyahu this week is on yet another trip — his third since September — to Moscow, to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The trip was meant to mark 25 years of bilateral relations between Israel and Russia but, as many in both countries pointed out, it also indicated a blooming “bromance” between the Russian president and the Israeli prime minister.
Writing in Israeli daily Haaretz on the first day of Netanyahu’s trip to Moscow, journalist Barak Ravid noted: “It wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that the ties between Israel and Russia have never been better. It’s a fact. The volume of trade and tourism, as well as security and diplomatic cooperation, are at their peak.”
“Just to compare,” wrote Ravid: “During this same period Netanyahu has met with U.S. President Barack Obama only once.”
"Russia is a global power and our relations are getting closer,” Netanyahu said in a statement Sunday ahead of his visit.
Upon arrival in Moscow, Netanyahu was greeted with a red carpet and marching band. Pink flowers were handed to his wife, Sara.
On Tuesday, after a lengthy meeting at the Kremlin, Netanyahu said that while his visit marked 25 years of relations, “we are focused mainly on looking forward to the next 25 years.”
Statements from the bureaus of both leaders said the two men discussed regional Middle East issues, including the worsening situation in Syria, as well as coordination between their respective militaries, trade and cultural ties.
Netanyahu also thanked Putin for agreeing to return an Israeli tank that was lost during the 1982 battle of Sultan Yacoub in Lebanon. Eight Israeli tanks were lost and more than 20 soldiers killed in the June 10-11 battle with Syrian forces.
Three Israeli soldiers were captured during the fight and were later seen alive in Damascus. Although Israel was not able to obtain further information about their fate, it still considers the three missing in action.
“This is a humanitarian gesture of the highest order for the families of the MIAs from this battle who for decades have had no grave to visit,” Netanyahu told Putin. “We are not abandoning our MIAs and we will continue to look for what happened to them and bring them back home, but at this time I would like to thank you on behalf of myself, the people of Israel and the families for this important gesture. It touches our hearts.”
Later in the evening, as the Netanyahus were treated to a performance of Russia’s famed Bolshoi ballet, the Israeli prime minister again thanked Putin for the “major role you have taken upon yourself in strengthening ties between our two countries. I am certain that in another 25 years when they look back, they will remember this evening as a milestone between Russia and Israel."
In his official speech, Putin also noted the close “humanitarian ties” between the two countries, especially because 1.5 million former Russian and Soviet citizens live in Israel.
He also said that Israel is one of the most popular tourist destinations for Russians and the number of visitors would probably increase.
On the diplomatic front, Putin indicated at a news conference Tuesday that he supported reconciliation attempts between Israel and Turkey, which have faltered since 2010, when 10 Turkish citizens were killed when Israeli commandos stormed a Turkish ship that was part of a flotilla attempting to break Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza strip.
This is seen as a key change in direction for the Russian leadership.
“We have a solid foundation of trust and understanding to rely on as we make plans for the future,” Putin said.