By Camilla Abdullina - Israeli ambassador to Russia Alexander Ben-Zvi in an exclusive interview told NEWS.ru about his vision of Russia-Israel relations, shared details of the upcoming meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, and discussed the Iranian nuclear deal. In addition, the Israeli Chief of the diplomatic mission explained Israel’s tourism approach amid the ongoing pandemic.
— Mr. Ambassador, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is expected to pay a visit to Russia in the coming weeks. Would you tell us about the agenda of the meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin?
— We have a stable permanent agenda including international issues such as the situation in the Middle East including Syria, Iran, and all issues regarding Palestine. Of course, we will also discuss our bilateral relations — let us not forget that we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the reestablishment of our diplomatic ties this year. The visit is quite close to that date, which is October 18, so in some ways it is associated with the anniversary.
— You have mentioned Iran. The whole world has closely followed the resumption of the Iranian nuclear deal in recent months. Israel has repeatedly warned that the international community took the situation easy. Given that Russia participates in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and Vienna negotiations, does Israel expect any steps from Russia to reduce tension in that matter?
— First of all, yes, we always do, because Russia is an extremely important player in this regard. But the most important part which explains why we have always been against the JCPOA is because we believe that the deal missed several aspects, including, for example, the Iranian long-range missile program, terrorist organizations financing, and so on. Furthermore, the deal does not answer the question of what will happen when the agreement comes to an end. It is sometimes called “sunset”. So we believe that the deal was incorrect from the very beginning, therefore we were against it. We have some disagreements with the countries who signed it, including Russia. We do our best to persuade each other - sometimes we succeed, sometimes we don’t. However, we continue to negotiate with our Russian counterparts on this issue.
— What does the nuclear deal have to look like to satisfy Israel? What kind of guarantees, in your opinion, should have been given by Teheran?
— The simplest one - so that Iran never gets a nuclear weapon. It is not only a question of Iran, since it will affect the whole region in case they get it. Saudi Arabia would want to have it right away, just like Egypt and Turkey. A nuclear arms race would be provoked. This is something no one would like to see in the region so it is not only Israel’s issue as you can see. Naturally, Israel regards Iran as its main strategic threat, because every other day someone from Teheran leadership says that Israel must be wiped out from the face of the earth. When you hear such things and realize that this government might possess a nuclear weapon, it goes without saying that we have to stay vigilant. That is why the only solution is an absolute assurance that Iran doesn’t develop any nuclear weapon.
— By an absolute assurance you mean a permanent presence of international experts in Iran?
— It’s a technical issue. There might be experts, there might be the IAEA, this might be the presence of international observers. There are many options.
— Are you satisfied with the US strategy of negotiating with Iran they have adopted this year?
— It has not brought anything so far. Firstly, the negotiations have been halted due to elections in Iran. The new government decided to pause the talks probably because they intended to toughen their stance. So we have not noticed any major changes for the moment.
— Going on with the US, there has recently been a huge scandal in the US Congress when one of the Democrats’ factions strongly opposed allocating additional funding to Israel’s air defense system Iron Dome. Does Israel consider it to be a bad sign for the relations?
— I don’t think that the strength of the partnership depends on that. Moreover, the second day of the vote was coming right after the first one. As far as I remember, the result of the second day was like 492 — 8. Thus the majority of votes shows tight cooperation and a strong relationship between Israel and the United States. Sure, there are some disagreements from time to time - this is how democracy works. Of course, we would like to avoid them but they also give us a clear view at what kind of a situation we have.
— Moving forward to Syria. Israel continues to carry out air missions against pro-Iranian groups while Russia has been repeatedly condemning those actions. According to Arab media, Russia has recently intensified its criticism. How do the countries manage to smooth the discords caused by Israeli combat flights to Syria? Were there any changes in the Russian-Israel coordination after the new government headed by Naftali Bennet had taken office?
— Nothing has changed. The quality of our relationship is completely the same. We are about to see that when Prime Minister Bennet comes to Russia. Both our recent Foreign Ministers have visited Russia. Gabi Ashkenazi and the current FM Yair Lapid have had meetings with their Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov before. We have different channels of coordination so nothing has changed.
—Southern regions of Syria bordering Israel became the epicenter of tension between Syrian government forces and opposition this summer. What kind of concerns does Israel have in this regard? Have you spotted any Iranian troops there?
— The answer to the last question — yes, we have. There are various pro-Iranian Shiite forces in the region. They are our biggest concern. Different armed and militant groups threatening our security appear regularly at our border, this is alarming. We hope that with Russia’s involvement we will find a solution to eliminate the threat — that is the main issue.
— The region and the international community have been actively discussing a gas supply project from Egypt to Lebanon. Syria and Jordan are supposed to be important actors in the initiative. How do you evaluate this project? Do you think it will help ease tension in the region?
— I think that Lebanon is facing an extremely difficult economic and political situation. It’s obviously linked. I would say that the potential improvement of the economic situation in the country always has a beneficial effect on the region in general. If people are happy, they have no interest in fooling around, for instance joining some terror movements and so on. In any case, it is fine if it helps stabilize the situation in Lebanon...There is another problem though – the pro-Iranian Hezbollah group located there which has a certain influence in the country. If all foreign supplies will benefit the population — that is great. However, if such movements will misappropriate all these supplies and make business out of that, it will only worsen the situation, unfortunately. So we need to make sure that foreign help is provided exactly to the country’s citizens.
— There is a growing concern that the essence of the conflicts of the Middle East had “flowed” to the other regions. Iran accuses Israel of its military presence in the South Caucasus, for instance. What do you think triggered these allegations? What does Israel think about the Iranian statement?
—Firstly, as I have said before, these are some wild Iranian fantasies. Especially when they claimed that Israel had a military presence in Karabakh. There are Russian monitoring units and Turkish forces in the region. I am convinced that if they had any information about another force there, that would be noticed already and the media worldwide would report that immediately. So, it’s Iranian fantasies. Why does it happen? It is a conflict between Iran and Azerbaijan. It is tied to the war and different supplies from Iran to Armenia which are controlled by Azerbaijan in some form. It’s all connected with the deterioration of the Iran-Azerbaijani relationship and it’s easier to play an “Israel card”, which, frankly speaking, doesn’t even exist.
— The other trend in the region is reestablishing relations between countries considered to be irreconcilable foes. Could we expect new deals of that kind between Israel and other Middle East actors? Given Russia’s mediator role, could it help Israel in this issue?
— It has to be said that what we call the Abraham Accords, or Israel’s accords with the Gulf States including Bahrein, the UAE, and others, will be in power. It’s a long process; the American side took part in it but Russia might take part as well, why not? There’s still a lot of work to do. We signed accords with Morocco, Sudan, and some other countries, but several states remain. If somebody can influence that in a positive way, why not?
— Israel has recently changed the procedure of the issuance of green passports to tackle the COVID issue. The revaccination is gradually becoming mandatory. Should we expect that Israel will apply the same booster policy to the tourists?
— In a way, yes, but our system works slightly differently. Any citizen or a tourist arriving in Israel must undergo a PCR test right in the airport and go for a 24-hour quarantine until they get the result. Concerning Israeli citizens, they have to show a Green Pass. As for tourists - it depends. Somebody has been vaccinated, somebody has just recovered from COVID. The virus hit me in Moscow and when I later went to Israel, I was not obliged to undergo vaccination. The only thing I was required to do is to undergo a test for antibodies. Concerning vaccination, I guess that will be the way we will adopt, so there would be no discussions about vaccine approval. Everyone is checked and also that is why there is a third inoculation now – to boost antibodies. We are in search of a system to check for antibodies quicker because the test itself takes time, but we have already launched testing in the airports. I believe that if we find a quick way to prove that someone has antibodies, it would be like the current PCR system in the airports. We are actively working on that matter, especially our Tourism Minister and the Health Ministry. We are also in negotiations with Russia; I can say that we have plans. We are getting closer to allow tourists from both countries to circulate without problems. That is very important not only in terms of money but also in terms of establishing and maintaining ties with relatives and business partners. We have hopes that it will become a reality very soon. We used to have nine flights per day connecting Russia and Israel before the pandemic.
-Charter or permanent?
-Permanent. To Moscow, to Saint Petersburg, to Sochi, and some other cities. From Russia to Tel Aviv and Eilat. Russian airlines have already made requests to launch flights from Russia to Israel and I hope that will happen soon.
-Did I get it right that the antibodies test will be an ordinary blood test? I mean, am I correct that the system will imply several check-points in airports that will conduct express tests?
-Yes, that is true. I don’t know how it is done technically, I am not a doctor. But we apply a lot of effort in this direction.