Bibi and Vlad: “it’s complicated”

Today Israel’s PM Binyamin Netanyahu is concluding a two-day visit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. This is the fourth time within a year that Netanyahu and Putin have met. Russian-Israeli relations now are probably the best they have been since the period immediately after the War of Independence.

Some of the topics that they admit to discussing have been economic, trade, technological and agricultural cooperation and the funding of pensions to Russians who have immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union. Military aides discussed communications to prevent accidental clashes between Russian and Israeli forces operating in Syria. Russia and Israel have many interests in common, and both Netanyahu and Putin are happy to talk about some of them publicly.

There are other things that they keep private. The situation is remarkably complicated.

Israel is not happy about Russian sales of sophisticated arms to Iran, such as the S-300 air defense system. Israel wants to break the chain of supplies from Iran, through the Syrian Assad regime, to Hezbollah in Lebanon. It is also worried about the Hezbollah and Iranian forces in the Syrian Golan Heights.

But Hezbollah is fighting alongside Assad, and Putin is supporting Assad. He wants Assad to keep control of at least part of the country in order to protect Russian naval and air bases. Putin also hopes to make Syria a client and embarrass the West, who are supporting some of the anti-Assad rebels.

Meanwhile, Israel is trying to improve relations with Russia’s historic rival, Turkey, while Turkey has been assisting some of Assad’s enemies, and even shot down a Russian plane last November.

Complicated enough? Don’t forget the Islamic State, which more or less everyone opposes, except maybe Saudi Arabia and Turkey (but they don’t admit it). The Saudis are also supporting some of Assad’s other enemies, which puts them in conflict with Russian aims.

Where is the US in all this? Almost nowhere, since it made it clear that it would not intervene against Assad when he used chemical weapons in Syria, probably because it didn’t want to upset Assad’s patron, Iran. It is operating against the IS to a limited extent, and supporting Iranian forces fighting IS guerrillas.

Israel has tried to stay out of the conflict in Syria, but it is the strongest power in the region and is right next door. The rational thing would be for Russia and Israel to jointly decide Syria’s fate in a way that would serve both their interests. Not even the US or Iran would be able to prevent the two from dictating such an arrangement.

Russia has a great deal of influence over Iran, certainly more than the US has obtained from Obama’s sycophantic courtship of the contemptuous regime. It seems to me that there is plenty of room here for cooperation, and for Israel to drive at least a small wedge between Russia and Iran. Suppose Israel agreed to help Russia guarantee Assad’s survival in at least part of Syria in return for Russia pressuring Iran to withdraw Hezbollah forces from the area close to Israel’s border?

Russia’s help would also be valuable in staving off an international agreement on Syria that includes the Golan Heights.

The Russian S-300 system was initially considered a game-changer. Its delivery to Iran was delayed for years, perhaps a result of Netanyahu’s approaches to Putin. But we haven’t heard many complaints from Jerusalem since the first units were delivered. Could it be that Israel has developed countermeasures to render it less dangerous? It is even imaginable that Israel received information from Russia about how to neutralize the version sold to Iran.

The US has protected Iran’s nuclear program from Israel, because the Obama Administration (stupidly) does not consider Iran a threat against the American homeland. Iran recently tested a missile with a range of about 2000 km (Tel Aviv is 1500 km from Tehran). It won’t be long before Moscow, only 2500 km away, will also be in range. It’s hard to believe that the Russians will be comfortable with this. Will they help Israel delay Iran’s nuclear arming?

Finally, there is the Palestinian issue. There have been hints that the US would not veto a UN Security Council resolution declaring settlements illegal or setting a time limit for Israel to withdraw from Judea and Samaria, especially if it is proposed after the American elections in November, when the administration will not have to fear political fallout. Russia is one of the five Security Council members that has the power to veto such a resolution. Even if it didn’t go that far, it could apply pressure to weaken the resolution before the vote.

Russian diplomacy has in the past leaned toward the Palestinians, although there have been several recent statements by Russian diplomats opposing imposed solutions and calling for direct negotiations between the parties. Everything considered, a turnabout in American and Russian votes in the Security Council would be surprising – but it could happen.

Russia wants to increase her influence in the Middle East and reduce that of the US. Putin understands that the Obama Administration has pushed Israel away, and sees an opportunity to step into the gap.

Russia wants to be more involved in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. It seems to me that at this point it would be more flexible and understanding of our position than Obama has been or Clinton is likely to be (I won’t try to predict the behavior of a Trump Administration), so I welcome this development.

Some have said that Putin himself has a “positive attitude toward Jews.” If this is true, it makes him one of a select few among national leaders. But in any event, it is irrelevant. Nobody in Putin’s shoes, and especially not a chess-playing, Machiavellian ex-KGB officer like Putin, makes decisions based on feelings. Israel has been very careful not to step on Russia’s toes – it did not join in Western criticism of Russia for its actions in Ukraine, for example – and Netanyahu seems to have put together a solid package of inducements for a better relationship.

Israel started off life as a state with the support of the Soviet bloc, which it lost in the 1950s, when the Russians felt that it would be a more effective Cold War strategy to support our enemies, and in the 1967 and 1973 wars they armed and supplied them. In 1975, the notorious “Zionism is racism” resolution at the UN was orchestrated by the Soviet Union. During the 1970s and 80s, the Soviets trained and supported the PLO and other terror groups. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, diplomatic relations with Russia were resumed, and more than a million Russian Jews were able to come to Israel (where I live, I hear Russian on the street as much as Hebrew).

Today Russia is one of Israel’s biggest trading partners. Israel buys oil from Russia, sells military equipment to it, and hosts Russian tourists. Visas are not required for travel between the countries – as opposed to the US, which has refused to waive visa requirements for Israelis – and there is a plan to establish a free-trade agreement.

With the American withdrawal from the Middle East and the increasingly anti-Israel tone of the administration, Israel is finding new partners. The Israel-Russia relationship “is complicated,” as Facebook would say, but it could be critical to our survival.

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