Netanyahu ups racism as Russia warns against 'escalation'

Moscow warns Israeli PM's plans to annex West Bank's Jordan Valley could lead to 'sharp escalation of tensions' in region.

MOSCOW - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday threatened war in Gaza and then flew to Russia to discuss Israeli freedom of action in Syria with President Vladimir Putin as a frenetic election race neared its end.

Netanyahu plans to travel to the Russian resort of Sochi for talks with Putin as he fights to continue his reign as the country's longest-serving prime minister.

"The leaders will discuss regional issues including the situation in Syria, with an emphasis on tightening the military coordination mechanisms," Netanyahu's office said on Wednesday. He is also expected to meet with Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.

Netanyahu also met with Putin in Moscow days ahead of Israel's April 9 elections. Netanyahu's election posters have featured him shaking hands with both Putin and US President Donald Trump, a close ally. 

Netanyahu has for years argued for aggressively countering Iran's nuclear program and its regional belligerency and often takes pride in having a strong working relationship with both Putin and Trump.

However, Netanyahu's clout in Washington appeared to take a hit this week with the firing of one of his like-minded allies in the administration, National Security Adviser John Bolton, and amid reports that Trump was considering meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and easing sanctions against Iran.

In an interview with Israel's Kan public radio, Netanyahu defended his record.

"Where did this strong sanctions policy against Iran come from if not from the struggle that I led? Indeed, I have had influence on Trump," he said. "You can't tell the president of the United States with whom he should meet, but there is not one person who has influenced more, and continues to influence, the aggressive stance against Iran than me, and everyone knows that."

He also praised Israel's coordination with Russian military forces in Syria.

"I think Israeli citizens know that if it weren't for my connections, and meetings every three months (with Putin), we would have clashed a lot," Netanyahu said, referring to the Russian military in Syria and Israeli forces that have been attacking Iranian-linked targets there.

"The Russian army and the Israeli military and our air force are within touching distance...the big issue is how to succeed in maintaining our freedom of action in such a crowded area," he said on the radio.

With opinion surveys showing his right-wing Likud neck and neck with the centrist Blue and White party, Netanyahu's Russia visit could also help him burnish a statesman's image that he has promoted throughout the campaign.

But before Netanyahu embarked on the visit to Sochi to see Putin, Russia condemned his announced plan to annex the Jordan Valley in the occupied, Palestinian West Bank after next Tuesday's election.

The Russian foreign ministry said it was concerned over the Israeli leadership's plan, saying its implementation could lead to a "sharp escalation of tensions in the region (and) undermine hopes for the establishment of long-awaited peace between Israel and its Arab neighbours".

Moscow pointed out that Netanyahu's pre-election pledge drew a "sharp negative reaction" in the Arab world and reiterated its call for direct talks between Israel and Palestinians.

Battling to win re-election in September 17 polls, Netanyahu issued the deeply controversial pledge on Tuesday night, drawing firm condemnation from the Palestinians, Arab states, the United Nations and the European Union.

'Friends in Arab countries'

Netanyahu's controversial commentary concerning Palestinians and the annexation of Palestinian territory, decried by many as racist, is seen as a repeat of his previous electoral tactics to shore up right-wing nationalist votes.

Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party was found Thursday to have violated Facebook's hate-speech policy after a post from his account claimed Arabs "want to destroy us all".

Israeli media reported that the post which said Israeli Arabs "want to destroy us all -- women, children and men" appeared on Netanyahu's official Facebook page and was subsequently removed by Likud.

"After careful review of the Likud campaign's bot activities, we found a violation of our hate speech policy," a Facebook statement said, referring to an automated chat function.

"We also found that the bot was misusing the platform in the time period allowed to contact people. As a result, we temporarily suspended the bot for 24 hours. Should there be any additional violations, we will continue to take appropriate action."

A Likud spokesman said that the freeze went into effect Thursday morning and would not affect the party's online election campaign. Netanyahu meanwhile insisted the message had nothing to do with him.

"It wasn't me. It was one of the workers at our election headquarters," he told Israeli public radio. "That mistake was fixed quickly."

"Think logically: Do you think I would really write such a thing?"

"I have friends in Arab countries and I have respect for human beings regardless of whether they are Jewish or Arab, Muslim or Christian."

Netanyahu has long faced accusations from critics that he has demonised Israel's 1.4 million Arab citizens - Palestinians who are largely Muslim and Christian - with his political rhetoric.

With the September 17 vote looming, he and Likud drew outrage from opposition parties with a push for last-minute legislation that would allow party officials to bring cameras to polling stations.

His critics labelled it a naked attempt to depress turnout among Israel's Arab population, as it could intimidate many into staying away.

Netanyahu has used similar tactics in the past, including warning on election day in 2015 that Palestinian citizens of Israel (called "Israeli Arabs" by politicians) were voting in "droves", a comment for which he later apologised.

Netanyahu is also attempting to shore up his reputation as Israel's "Mr. Security" after an embarrasing video showing him being rushed off stage during a campaign rally in southern Israel, as sirens blared warning of rockets being fired from the blockaded Gaza Strip.

In an interview with Israel's Kan public radio just two days after that incident, Netanyahu was questioned about persistent rocket attacks by Palestinian militants in Gaza. His opponents in what opinion polls show to be a close race have accused him of failing to do enough to end the strikes on southern Israel.

"We will probably be forced - there'll be no choice - to enter into a campaign, a war, in Gaza," Netanyahu said.

He insisted, however, that he does not risk soldiers' and civilians' lives "just to get applause", and he was vague about when any such offensive war might start.

Israel has responded to rocket attacks by launching air strikes against facilities belonging to Hamas, the armed Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip.