MOSCOW, Russia - Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Russia Thursday, hoping to burnish his image as an international statesman, despite Moscow's condemnation of the Israeli Prime Minister's pre-election pledge to annex part of the occupied West Bank.
Netanyahu is campaigning to maintain his status as Israel's longest-serving prime minister at next Tuesday's general election.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin stopped short of a full endorsement of his visitor's political ambition, saying only that Russia is "not indifferent as to which people come into the Israeli parliament" because it regards Soviet-born Israelis as "compatriots".
"We hope that these will be responsible politicians who in any case will keep everything that was achieved in bilateral relations in recent times, and will keep developing relations with us," Putin told Netanyahu during their meeting at the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi
"Thanks largely to your efforts our relations have reached a new level in terms of security and military cooperation. We know how important this is given the continuing threat of international terrorism," added Putin, who announced he had accepted an invitation to visit Israel in January to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz Nazi death camp.
Netanyahu is looking to pull votes away from his rival Avigdor Lieberman of the nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party who relies heavily on support from Israelis with roots in the former Soviet Union.
Moscow on Wednesday condemned Netanyahu's vow to annex the Jordan Valley in the West Bank, with the foreign ministry saying it could lead to a "sharp escalation of tensions" and undermine peace efforts between Israel and the Palestinians.
RELATIONS 'BETTER THAN EVER'
The legislative elections were called after Netanyahu failed to form a coalition government following polls in April. The Israeli leader met Putin prior to that election as well.
Netanyahu has sought to highlight his relations with world leaders, including Putin and US President Donald Trump, and is on his third visit to Russia this year.
"Personal connection between us helped prevent frictions between Russian and Israeli militaries," Netanyahu said. "This is a very important element of stability for the entire region."
Meetings in Russia are meant to prevent clashes in Syria and ensure Israel's security, he had said before the trip.
Prior to meeting Putin, Netanyahu, who also serves as defense minister, met with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
"We see in the last month the increasing attempts by Iran to use Syrian territory to attack us," Netanyahu told Putin.
"We are not ready to accept this threat," he added.
Russia, Iran and its Lebanese Shiite ally Hezbollah back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the civil war, and Russia and Israel have established a hotline to avoid clashes.
That did not prevent an incident last year when Syrian air defence accidentally downed a Russian plane during an Israeli raid, with the Kremlin blaming Israel.
Speaking to Russian news website RBK, Netanyahu said the only thing that had prevented Israel and Russia from clashing in Syria was "direct contact with President Putin, a connection which is of great value to me."
"Relations between Israel and Russia today are better than ever," he said in the interview published in Russian.