Ashkenazi thanks Russia for work to recover Israelis’ remains in Syria

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Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi thanked Russia for its efforts to recover the remains of Israelis in Syria, during a meeting in Moscow with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday.

“Thank you for your assistance concerning our humanitarian issues with soldiers and others,” Ashkenazi said. “It’s well known in Israel that if there is a sensitive issue in our society, it’s this issue.”

Ashkenazi called the meeting “a great opportunity to thank Russia and your leadership on assisting in this issue.”

Russian soldiers are reportedly searching for legendary Israeli spy Eli Cohen’s remains. Russia Today recently released a previously unseen video of Cohen walking in Damascus. Cohen was hanged in the Syrian capital in 1965 after having his cover blown.

In 2019, the Russian army found the remains of IDF soldier Zachary Baumel, who had been missing since 1982, and returned them to Israel. The remains of two other soldiers declared missing in the Battle of Sultan Yacoub, during the 1982 Lebanon War, have yet to be recovered.

Ashkenazi and Lavrov also answered a question about the pending investigation against Israel in the International Criminal Court, in which prosecutor Fatou Bensouda claims Israel committed war crimes against the Palestinians.

Lavrov said Russia is “rather negative” about the ICC.

“The situation you mentioned is just one example. The court was established with a hope that it would be a professional, independent body, which would someday become universal. In practice, it proved otherwise. The ICC hasn’t lived up to the expectations. More than once, it has proved politically motivated in its actions,” Lavrov said.

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The Russian foreign minister accused the ICC of “trying to extend its authority and encroaching on areas that are not fit for it.”

Ashkenazi expressed hope that the Israel investigation would drop off of the ICC’s agenda.

The decision to investigate Israel “twists international law and hurts the chance to renew negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians,” he said.

Ashkenazi also praised Russia as “a central player in the Middle East… that is important for regional stability.” He thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for supporting Israel.

“In recent years, Israel and Russia have a fruitful dialogue based on shared interests and on cooperation in areas of national security. I see great importance in this dialogue between us,” Ashkenazi said.

Russia and Israel are marking 30 years of diplomatic relations this year, and Ashkenazi cited events planned in both countries to mark the anniversary.

Ashkenazi, whose father is a Holocaust survivor, thanked Russia for its role in World War II more than once.

Earlier Wednesday, Ashkenazi laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow, commemorating Red Army soldiers whose place of burial is unknown.

“We remember the central role of the Russian army in World War II and their liberation of extermination camps throughout Europe, and we will remain eternally grateful for this,” Ashkenazi said.

Russia and other Eastern European countries, especially Poland, have been involved in diplomatic spats in recent years about their respective roles in World War II and the Holocaust. Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have taken part in ceremonies with Putin glorifying the Red Army’s defeat of the Nazis, in both Moscow and Jerusalem.

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Ashkenazi will also take part in an unveiling ceremony for a Holocaust Memorial at the Israeli Embassy in Russia.

He plans to return to Israel on Wednesday evening.

Earlier this week, Lavrov met with Mohammad Raad, the head of Hezbollah’s bloc in the Lebanese parliament, Russian state media TASS reported this week.

Ashkenazi has tried to convince countries around the world to designate all of Hezbollah – including its political activities – as a terrorist organization. Russian officials have said in recent years that they view Hezbollah as legitimate, and not a terrorist group.

An Israeli diplomatic source said on Tuesday that the Foreign Ministry views the timing of Lavrov and Raad’s meeting as coincidental, and not an intentional slight. He said Ashkenazi planned to ask Lavrov what was discussed in the meeting.

In addition, Ashkenazi sought to reach an agreement by which Russia would recognize Israeli “Green Passports,” as the certificates for people who have been vaccinated against, or recovered from, COVID-19 are known.

However, the Israeli Health Ministry does not accept the Russian COVID-19 vaccine. The diplomatic source said Israel has proposed that Russians seeking to visit the country undergo a PCR or serological test to show they have antibodies against coronavirus before visiting, but they will not have to go into quarantine upon arrival.

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