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Russia’s Putin hosts Israeli PM Bennett

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MOSCOW (AP) xe2x80x94 Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed hope on Friday that new Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett would continue in the footsteps of his predecessor in maintaining close and xe2x80x9ctrustingxe2x80x9d relations with his country.

Welcoming Bennett at the start of their first meeting in Russiaxe2x80x99s Black Sea resort of Sochi, Putin hailed Russian-Israeli ties as xe2x80x9cunique,xe2x80x9d saying that xe2x80x9cour dialogue, our relations rely on a very deep connection between our peoples.xe2x80x9d

Putin kept close personal ties with former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has repeatedly visited Russia. On Friday, Putin pointed to Russiaxe2x80x99s xe2x80x9cbusiness-like and trusting relationshipxe2x80x9d with Netanyahuxe2x80x99s government and expressed hope that Bennettxe2x80x99s government would pursue a xe2x80x9cpolicy of continuityxe2x80x9d in Russian-Israeli ties.

Bennett extolled the contribution made by his countryxe2x80x99s 1 million Russian speakers and emphasized xe2x80x9cthe deep connection between the two countries,xe2x80x9d praising Putin for bringing them closer during his 20-year rule.

xe2x80x9cI can tell you on behalf of the citizens of Israel that we consider you a true friend of the Jewish people,xe2x80x9d Bennett said.

Bennett hailed the Soviet role in defeating the Nazis in World War II and talked about a new museum in Israel that honors Jewish soldiers who fought in allied armies, primarily the Red Army. The remark likely resonated with Putin who cherishes his countryxe2x80x99s decisive contribution to victory in that war.

Russia and Israel have developed close political, economic and cultural ties that have helped the two countries tackle delicate and divisive issues, such as the situation in Syria where Moscow has teamed up with Tehran to shore up Syrian President Bashar Assadxe2x80x99s rule.

xe2x80x9cWe will also talk about the situation in Syria, and the efforts to halt the Iranian military nuclear program,xe2x80x9d Bennett said at the start of his talks with Putin.

Putin said that Russia has been xe2x80x9cmaking efforts to help restore Syriaxe2x80x99s statehood and to strengthen it.xe2x80x9d He noted that despite some problems regarding the situation in Syria, xe2x80x9cthere is also common ground and opportunities for cooperation, especially in terms of the fight against terrorism.xe2x80x9d

Israel views Iranian entrenchment on its northern frontier as a red line, and it has repeatedly struck what it says are Iran-linked facilities and weapons convoys destined for Lebanese Hezbollah. The Iran-backed militant group has fought alongside Syrian government forces in the countryxe2x80x99s civil war.

Russia has waged a military campaign in Syria since 2015, helping Assadxe2x80x99s government reclaim control over most of the country. Moscow also has helped modernize Syriaxe2x80x99s military, including providing Assad with air defense systems, and trained its personnel.

Russia and Israel established a military hotline to coordinate air force operations over Syria to avoid clashes. Israel often attacks Iranian-linked targets in Syria, while Russia has provided support to the Syrian government.

In 2018, Russia-Israeli ties were severely tested by the downing of a Russian warplane by Syrian forces that responded to an Israeli air raid and mistook a Russian reconnaissance plane for Israeli jets. All 15 members of the Russian crew died.

Moscow also has played a delicate diplomatic game of maintaining friendly ties with both Israel and Iran. In 2018, Moscow struck a deal with Tehran to keep its fighters away from the Golan Heights to accommodate Israeli concerns about the Iranian presence in Syria.

Russia is one of the international parties that negotiated a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. The deal fell apart after then-President Donald Trump withdrew in 2018. But the new U.S. administration is now trying to revive the deal with other international powers xe2x80x94 a step that Israel opposes.

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Jack Jeffery contributed to this report from Jerusalem.

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