Russian President Vladimir Putin offered Israel a deal which would see Iranian-backed forces removed from Syria in return for relief from recently re-imposed US sanctions on Iran.
The deal was revealed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a closed hearing of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee on Monday and exposed by Axios yesterday.
It is thought that Putin made the offer during a brief meeting with Netanyahu in Paris on the sidelines of a First World War commemoration on 11 November. At the time, Netanyahu described the meeting as "good and practical," adding: "I would even describe it as very important". Neither party revealed details of the discussion.
Yet according to members of the Israeli Knesset that attended Monday's meeting, "Netanyahu said Russia and the US were discussing ways to limit Iranian influence in Syria — including the Russian proposal on sanctions relief," Axios explained. When asked if Israel had expressed a position on this proposal, Netanyahu noted that Israel hadn't yet formulated a response.
The Russian embassy in Tel Aviv declined Axios' request to comment on the revelation. Yet a senior US State Department official didn't deny the allegations, instead of saying: "We remain engaged with the UN and other parties, including Russia, to encourage all possible efforts to advance the political track as called for in UNSCR 2254 [which calls for a ceasefire and political settlement in Syria]. We do not, however, discuss the substance of these diplomatic discussions."
The proposed deal will be seen as significant in light of Israel and Russia's strained relations after the downing of a Russian military plane over Syrian airspace in September. Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad's forces allegedly mistook the Russian jet for an Israeli aircraft, having been simultaneously responding to Israeli attacks on targets in Syria's coastal region of Latakia.
The incident sparked a diplomatic row after Russia's Defence Ministry claimed that the Israeli jets carrying out the strikes in Latakia used the Russian plane as cover to allow them to approach their targets without being hit by Syrian anti-aircraft fire. Russia placed the blame for the incident – in which 15 Russian personnel died – squarely with Israel, calling its actions "irresponsible" and accusing it of not giving Moscow sufficient notice of the attack.
The Israeli army was forced to open an investigation into the incident, dispatching the Air Force Chief to present its findings in the Russian capital. Only ten days after the incident, Russia decided to act on its long-postponed decision to deliver S-300 missiles to Syria to act as a sophisticated anti-aircraft system.
The US has sided squarely with Israel in the spat, with the US envoy to Syria James Jeffrey saying earlier this month that Russia should maintain a "permissive approach" towards Israeli air strikes in Syria. Jeffrey explained that Israel has "[an] existential interest in blocking Iran from deploying long-range power projection systems such as surface-to-surface missiles [in Syria]," adding: "We [the USA] understand this existential interest and we support Israel."
Since the country descended into civil war following the Arab Spring of 2011, Syria has become a battleground for regional rivalries. Russia has vehemently supported the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad – its long-term ally in the Middle East – and defended the participation of Iranian and Iranian-affiliated forces in the conflict. Israel has repeatedly carried out air strikes against these Iranian forces, with some strikes allegedly at the behest of the US. Israel is also known to have armed and funded rebel groups with the aim of keeping Iranian-backed forces away from the Golan Heights, which it has occupied since the Six Day War of 1967.
On 5 November, the USA re-imposed sanctions on Iran which had previously been lifted under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal. The latest round of sanctions targeted Iran's energy, shipbuilding, shipping, and financial sectors, with the US adding an additional 700 organisations and individuals to its list of entities facing embargo. Israel's Netanyahu praised the re-imposition of sanctions, claiming they would "contribute to stability, security and peace".