Did Israeli PM Netanyahu Make Secret Trip to Moscow?

For 10 hours this Monday Prime Minister Netanyahu disappeared.

His office refused to answer reporters' questions about his whereabouts until late Monday it was finally revealed he had spent the day at a secret Mossad installation inside Israel.

Mossad is the Jewish state's famous foreign spying agency. That news was revealed by the prime minister's own military secretary.

But in Wednesday morning's papers that version of events was challenged by Israeli journalists. With the help of the usual "unnamed political sources" it was claimed that the prime minister had in fact been on a secret overseas trip. Some said in an Arab country, perhaps Saudi Arabia, others said Moscow.

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By Thursday the consensus view was that it was Moscow, for secret talks with Prime Minister Putin. If the speculation is correct, extraordinary steps were taken to keep the trip under wraps. Even the Israeli embassy in Moscow did not know. The prime minister is said to have flown in a private jet lent specially by an Israeli businessman.

The prime minister's office still refuses to confirm Netanyahu's secret trip but did issue a statement Wednesday night saying the prime minister "was busy with confidential and classified activities" and that his military secretary "who was not in touch with the prime minister at that time, acted on his independent initiative in order to defend that activity....with the best of intentions."

Official Russian sources in Moscow at first rejected the story of the secret visit. But on Thursday foreign ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko seemed to encourage ambiguity: "I am not saying yes or no, I am just saying I don't have any information."

The Israeli press, meanwhile, turned their frustration into anger with the actions of the Israeli prime minister's office, accusing it of misleading the media with a false story.

"On the way to Moscow the prime minister's credibility was dealt a sharp blow," one the country's leading columnists wrote in the daily Maariv.

Netanyahu in Moscow to Prevent Russian Missile Sales to Iran?

But the more serious question of what the Israeli prime minister might have been doing in Moscow remains unanswered. Some speculate he was there to discuss possible Russian arms sales to Iran.

Russia has signed an agreement with the Islamic republic for the sale of S-300 anti aircraft missiles which could threaten Israeli aircraft intent on attacking Iran's nuclear program. So far the Russians have not delivered the weapons.

Last month a Russian cargo ship The Arctic Sea was mysteriously hijacked and then intercepted by Russia's navy. Moscow has clamped a veil of secrecy over the incident, leading to a torrent of speculation that the ship was carrying missiles to Iran or Syria. One story alleges Israeli intelligence uncovered the smuggling plot and then informed Moscow, which decided to intercept the ship to avoid embarrassment.

If Netanyahu did indeed travel to Moscow, he would have been the second senior Israeli official to do so in less than three weeks. Israel's president, Shimon Peres, paid a visit to the Russian capital Aug. 19, the day after the Russian navy commandeered the Arctic Sea, fueling speculation that Israel was somehow involved with the cargo ship.

Peres met with Russian president Dmitry Medvedev behind closed doors and though officials say the meeting had been on the books for some time, Peres later acknowledged that it had indeed been about the sale of Russian weapons to countries hostile to Israel. He added that Medvedev had promised to reconsider the sale of the S-300 anti-aircraft missile system to Iran.

Russia has close ties to Iran and its engineers have been actively involved in the Iranian nuclear program. Russia and China have both been reluctant to approve harsher sanctions against Tehran. Those sanctions are widely seen as the next step in the West's attempt to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions.