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Netanyahu mystery trip sets off flap in Israel

Friday, September 11, 2009

(Photo)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a speech during a Likud Party meeting to celebrate the Jewish new year in Tel Aviv, Israel, Thursday, Sept. 10, 2009. Netanyahu disappeared for nearly a day this week, and the mysterious absence has Israelis feverishly speculating that he flew to Russia for secret talks about Iran.
(AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
JERUSALEM -- Benjamin Netanyahu dropped out of sight for most of a day this week, a mysterious absence that has set off feverish speculation about what the Israeli leader was up to -- and accusations he lied to cover up a clandestine trip to Moscow.

After initially issuing a vague statement about visiting a top-secret Mossad installation inside Israel, Netanyahu kept silent Thursday as reports emerged that he flew to Moscow aboard a private jet for urgent talks on Iran.

According to various accounts, the Israeli prime minister was either pushing the Russians to halt arms sales to Iran, warning of an impending strike against Iranian nuclear facilities or discussing the recent disappearance of a Russian-crewed freighter.

A shifting story line from Netanyahu's office and then silence have enraged the local media, which branded the prime minister a liar and painted his office as a chaotic scene of rivalries and disarray.

"Anarchy, turf wars and lies," screamed a headline Thursday in the Haaretz daily.

"Look what happened to the prime minister on his way to Russia: His credibility, which was never sky high, took a hard blow," wrote the Maariv daily in a front-page column.

In security-obsessed Israel, keeping sensitive matters under wraps on the grounds of national security has long been accepted by the media, which abide by military censorship rules that force them to sit on security-related news.

But a false cover story? Israeli columnists were outraged.

The affair erupted Monday when reporters began inquiring about Netanyahu's whereabouts. His schedule had been cleared, there were no public appearances for the latter part of the day and even the prime minister's media adviser, Nir Hefetz, had to admit he did not know where Netanyahu was.

Late in the evening, Netanyahu's office issued a terse statement from his military secretary saying he was visiting "a security facility in the country."

Then rumors began to trickle out that Netanyahu was on a top-secret overseas mission.

First to emerge were reports of a visit to an undisclosed Arab country that does not have diplomatic ties with Israel, carried in the Palestinian daily Al-Manar and on Web sites throughout the Arab world.

But by Wednesday, Israel's largest daily, Yediot Ahronot, was reporting that Netanyahu had flown secretly to Moscow to voice concern over the possible sale of Russian anti-aircraft missiles to Iran. Other Israeli newspapers published similar accounts, saying Netanyahu had made the 15-hour trip on a private plane leased from a local business mogul.

People familiar with Netanyahu's movements said the plane belonged to Yossi Meiman, head of the Merhav Group, an Israeli conglomerate with energy and media interests. Netanyahu leased the plane -- instead of using a government aircraft -- to help ensure secrecy, they said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. Merhav had no comment.

Israel considers Iran its greatest threat, citing Tehran's support for Arab militants, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's threatening language about the Jewish state and Iran's nuclear program. Israel, like the U.S. and much of the international community, believes Iran's program is aimed at developing a nuclear bomb. Iran denies this.

Russia, which wields veto power in the U.N. Security Council and has close ties with Iran, could play a crucial role in the debate later this month over imposing additional sanctions on Iran.

The Haaretz daily said Netanyahu discussed Russian arms deals with Iran and Syria, and that Israel presented evidence that Russian arms were making their way to Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon. In another report, the paper said the talks were also focused on sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles that Russia has agreed to sell to Iran. The delivery of the S-300 missiles would make it much more difficult for Israel to carry out an attack on Iran.

The reported visit follows the hijacking last month of a freighter that was later intercepted by Russia off Cape Verde, thousands of miles from the Algerian port where it was supposed to have docked. A Russian maritime expert and the European Union's top anti-piracy official have suggested the Arctic Sea may have been carrying missiles bound for Iran. Israeli media have speculated the Mossad tipped off the Russians to the elicit cargo.

As the rumors swirled of clandestine talks, Russian officials remained silent. "We have seen these reports in various media, and you know that not all the details add up, but there is nothing more I can tell you," Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko was quoted as saying Thursday.

The Russian daily Kommersant, citing a "highly placed source in the Kremlin," confirmed the visit and speculated the talks had been on an extremely urgent matter, "like Israel updating Russia on its intention to attack Iran."

The Israeli reports said Netanyahu was joined by his military secretary, Maj. Gen. Meir Kalifi, and national security adviser Uzi Arad.

Arad, a former Mossad spymaster, favors a tough line against Tehran and would almost certainly be involved in any preparations to attack Iran. Israel has strongly hinted it is prepared to attack the country's nuclear sites if international sanctions fail to persuade Tehran to curb its atomic program.

According to the Israeli reports, the rest of Netanyahu's inner circle was not told of the trip, and the leaks appeared to have been from disgruntled aides angry they were left out of the loop.

Arad, widely considered the prime minister's closest adviser, is a controversial figure in Netanyahu's office. He has clashed with other top officials and is reportedly so obsessed with security that he has demanded that other top advisers be subjected to lie detector tests.

Late Wednesday, Netanyahu's office began to back away from its original story, issuing a statement saying the report about visiting a secret military installation came from Kalifi and was a well-intentioned "independent initiative."

In an odd twist, it noted that Arad "had no part in this."

The statement made no mention of Russia and gave no details on where Netanyahu had gone. Officials in Netanyahu's office declined comment Thursday, and Netanyahu did not mention the controversy in an address before party activists in Tel Aviv.

But the strong signs that Netanyahu's office misled reporters in its initial statement enraged the media, which quoted Kalifi as saying that "for state security, one may sometimes not tell the whole truth."


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