Israel admits Binyamin Netanyahu's secret trip to Moscow
Sheera Frenkel in Jerusalem, Richard Beeston and Tony Halpin in Moscow
From The Times September 11, 2009
Evidence of a secret dash to Russia by Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, intensified speculation yesterday that a hijacked cargo ship was smuggling arms to Iran.
The Kremlin defended its right to sell S300 air-defence missiles to Iran as Mr Netanyahu was forced on to the defensive over his movements.
Officials refused to say where he was after admitting that an announcement of a visit on Monday to a security facility run by Israel’s Mossad security service was untrue.
Mr Netanyahu’s office said only that he was “busy with a classified activity”. It did not deny an Israeli newspaper report that he had travelled to Moscow to urge the Kremlin not to sell weapons to Israel’s Middle Eastern enemies amid claims that the Arctic Sea cargo vessel was carrying S300s destined for Iran when it was intercepted by the Russian Navy.
Mr Netanyahu apparently went to great lengths to cover up his visit, which was kept secret even from members of his staff. Senior officials confirmed to The Times that he flew to Moscow on a private jet hired for $20,000 from a company owned by the Israeli mogul Yossi Maiman.
“He made great efforts to conceal the trip from the public, as both he and the Russians agreed that it should be kept quiet,” said one official.
The Kremlin refused to comment, although it denied that President Medvedev or Vladimir Putin, the Prime Minister, had met Mr Netanyahu. Kommersant newspaper reported, however, that a Kremlin official had confirmed the visit to Moscow.
Officials in Mr Netanyahu’s office admitted that they misled the public over his schedule. One told The Times: “There were many considerations, many reasons that the Prime Minister’s schedule on Monday was not made public. It was in the interest of national security, which has now been damaged by these leaks.”
Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, failed to dampen suspicions, telling reporters in Moscow: “To verify rumours you should go to the source of the rumours.” Israeli security officials have said that they tipped off the Kremlin about an illegal cargo of weapons on board the Arctic Sea to allow the Russians to intercept the vessel. Mr Lavrov has denied that Arctic Sea was carrying smuggled S300 missiles.
But yesterday he defended Russia’s right to sell them to Iran after warning of disastrous consequences if military action was launched to prevent the Islamic republic developing a nuclear bomb.
“The S300 has nothing to do with it. Our co-operation with Iran, including military technology, is legitimate and quite transparent. It is not against international law,” Mr Lavrov said.
“I think someone wants Iran not to be able to protect itself from airstrikes. If a war starts we will have a flow of refugees across our territory.”
Mr Lavrov made it clear that Russia would not support further international sanctions against Iran at the United Nations Security Council, saying that they would be tantamount to a full-scale blockade.
The mystery surrounding the Arctic Sea has been accompanied by a flurry of diplomatic activity between Moscow and Jerusalem. President Peres flew to Russia for talks with Mr Medvedev on August 18, the day after the Russian Navy took command of the Arctic Sea.
Mr Peres said afterwards that Mr Medvedev had promised to review Russia’s decision to sell the S300 system to Iran. Israel and the US are worried that Iran will site the anti-aircraft missiles around its nuclear facilities, making it much harder to carry out a successful military strike if it is seen as the only option to stop Tehran developing an atomic bomb.
In a similar incident almost two years ago, Ehud Olmert, then the Israeli Prime Minister, paid an impromptu visit to Moscow to meet Mr Putin, then the Russian President, after he had returned from Iran.
Russia has arrested eight men alleged to have hijacked the Arctic Sea in Swedish waters in late July. The ship was declared missing soon after it left Finland with a consignment of timber worth $1.7 million for Algeria.
Moscow insists that no secret cargo has been found on board, but nobody has offered a plausible explanation of why the ship was targeted for the first act of piracy in Northern European waters for hundreds of years.
Mr Medvedev ordered warships and submarines from the Black Sea Fleet to “take all necessary measures to find and free” the Arctic Sea.
The Foreign Ministry said later that the ship had never been missing and that Russian and international agencies had tracked its movements throughout its voyage.
The arms deals
• Between 1989 and 1991 the Soviet Union signed a series of deals supplying Iran with MiG29 and Su24 fighter aircraft, aircraft missiles, S200 air defence complexes, three diesel submarines, as well as tanks and armoured vehicles
• In 1995 Russia agreed with the US to phase out military support to Iran but Vladimir Putin annulled this agreement in 2000
• Military contacts between Russia and Iran were revived in 2001 and a $700m contract to supply TorM1 air defence systems was announced in 2005. The TorM1 is an advanced anti-aircraft system that can identify up to 48 targets and fire at two simultaneously
• There are rumours that the hijacked cargo ship Arctic Sea was carrying a secret cargo of even longer range S300 missiles, Russia’s most advanced anti-aircraft weapon
• Russia has been heavily involved in the construction of Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant