Netanyahu meets Putin as Russia eyes Middle East peacemaker role
Moscow - Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday for Syria-focused talks, which were also expected to cover peace efforts between Israelis and Palestinians.
The visit comes as Israel is eyeing the civil war in Syria with increasing concern over fears that the Syrian military will enter a decades-old buffer zone between the two countries and over Iran's military presence in Syria.
"It is clear that our focus is on Syria and on Iran. Our opinion is well-known that Iran should leave Syria, that is not something new for you," Netanyahu told Putin, according to a transcript released by the prime minister's office.
"We will continue to act firmly against any leakage and infiltration into Israel's airspace or territory," he said, referring to a Syrian drone that was shot down over Israeli airspace on Wednesday, according to the Israeli army.
Russian and Israeli military collaboration is functioning on a "very good level," Putin said during the meeting, according to comments carried by Russian state media.
Russia has managed to maintain close relations with Israel and that country's rivals, Syria and Iran, despite heightened regional tensions in recent years.
Israel has demanded that Iran not establish a permanent military presence in Syria as the Bashar al-Assad government retakes land lost to rebels in the seven-year civil war
A senior Iranian official, Ali Akbar Velayati, was also expected to meet with Putin on Wednesday to hand over messages from Iran's leadership, Iran's semi-official ISNA news agency reported.
Russia has promoted itself as a peacemaker in Syria and has supported talks between Israeli and Palestinian officials.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas was expected to meet with Putin on Saturday, the Russia-focused Interfax news agency reported.
Netanyahu told reporters ahead of his trip that relations with Russia are "very important for the national security of the state of Israel."
Syrian military operations are drawing increasing concern in Israel as they come closer to the countries' de-facto border in the Golan Heights.
Israel occupied the Golan Heights in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and annexed the territory in a move that was never internationally recognized.
"I very much appreciate the direct connection, unmediated excellent connection I have with the Russian president," Netanyahu said.
In a break from politics, the Israeli leader said he would watch the World Cup semi-final match between England and Croatia at Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium.
"Of course they ask me: 'Prime minister, who will win?'" Netanyahu told reporters at the airport. "The better ones [will win], and besides, it will be a fascinating game."
Netanyahu has played football since his youth and is considered a fan. He was injured while playing in 2012 and had to wear a cast for several weeks.
He said he would attend the match with two Israeli teenagers who are struggling with cancer. The family of one of the teenagers has Russian roots, he said.
Netanyahu has visited Russia several times during the past year. He attended a military parade in Moscow on May 9 as Russia celebrated the anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany.