The March meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin was praised by experts as something of a turning point in relations between the two countries, and even as representing the emerging possibility of a resolution of the Syrian conflict.
After the meeting, one Russian analyst wrote that “Moscow is trading its ‘Astana format’ for a ‘Russian-Israeli’ one”. The principal reason for this view was the emergence of information about the possible formation, with the participation of Israel, Russia, and several unnamed countries, of a “working group”, with the intention of discussing the issue of foreign force withdrawals from Syria.
The interests of Moscow and Tehran coincide in the need to preserve Bashar al-Assad’s position in power
This goal seems uncertain, since a broad collection of countries, including Turkey, the US, and Russia itself, have sent forces to Syria. However, everyone following the Syrian situation understands that the group’s main concern will be the withdrawal from Syria of Iranian forces – units of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – and Iran’s ally, Lebanese Hezbollah.
If that is the case, Russia and Israel have come to a mutual understanding on the undesirable presence of Iran on Syrian territory. However, while Iran poses a major threat to Israel, for Russia it is still a partner in the matter of settling the Syrian crisis.
The interests of Moscow and Tehran coincide in the need to preserve Bashar al-Assad’s position in power. On the other hand, however, Russia and Iran are de facto competitors for influence over the situation in the country, and most of all, over its leadership. In addition, the Kremlin has been irritated by anti-Israeli invective from Iranian politicians and the Tehran-directed actions of Hezbollah.
The so-called ‘Ankara-Moscow-Tehran Triangle’ is fragile
Although Russia and Iran need one another, they are not allies, but partners, and their partnership in Syria is forced, and even mutually irritating. Neither side particularly hides that fact, least of all the Iranians.
Difficulties in Russian relations with Turkey are also developing. Although in this case, notwithstanding the contradiction, it is possible to speak not merely of partnership, but even of cooperation, which is taking place. This is not merely in connection with the Syrian crisis, but also, and especially importantly, in the sphere of economics. It seems that, despite many nuances, personal relationships have been established between the Russian and Turkish presidents, reflecting consistency between their psychologies and political attitudes.
This so-called ‘Ankara-Moscow-Tehran Triangle’ is fragile, and, clearly, such fragility is inescapable. Russia’s drawing closer to Israel has made that triangle even more unstable. It seems that Russia is deliberately risking a weakening of its cooperation with Iran and Turkey. Israel, for Russia, is becoming more and more important.
What are the common interests between Moscow and Tel Aviv (the Kremlin does not recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, but that is not especially important)?
Firstly, it is in the protection of the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Russia’s interest in this is obvious: without Assad, its presence in Syria would diminish, weakening its position in the Middle East as a whole, and as a consequence, making it much more difficult for Russia to position itself as a great power. This would be taken as a defeat for Putin, which he cannot allow.
In a post-Assad situation, tension on the Israel-Syria border would grow
For Israel, regime change in Syria is fraught with the possibility of the rise of forces whose relationship to Israel is unpredictable, and largely negative. What is more, a hypothetical post-Assad coalition would inevitably include groups, especially radical Islamists, who are a priori hostile to Israel.
In a post-Assad situation, tension on the Israel-Syria border would grow, reinforced by the activities of Palestinian Hamas. Here it is appropriate to remember the visits of Hamas leadership to Moscow, which likely included discussions about the softening of Palestinian positions towards Israel. Russia-Hamas contacts should not be exaggerated, but they also cannot be ignored.
Secondly, for Moscow, cooperation with Israel could, in a paradoxical way, serve as a trump card in its ‘game’ with Iran. It is a sign that Russia is able to resolve the situation in Syria on its own, without Iran.
Furthermore, Russia’s partnership with Iran impedes its relations with Arab countries, where, time after time, there are conversations about a proverbial ‘Russian-Shiite alliance’, complicating Russia’s relations with the Sunni-majority Islamic Ummah, especially its Arab members.
Russia’s partnership with Iran impedes its relations with Arab countries
Today, the Arab world, including the Saudi monarchy, treats Israel with understanding and even with sympathy, insofar as both sides consider Iran to be a common threat. From that point of view, an Israeli-Russian rapprochement can be taken as natural and even advantageous for the Sunni world.
Thirdly, Russia’s warming of relations with Israel is taking place against a background of ongoing anti-Russian sanctions, so for Moscow, contact with Tel Aviv serves as a kind of window, perhaps even a ‘vent’, but a fundamentally important one.
Meanwhile, difficulties have arisen for Israel in its relations with some keen opponents of Moscow: Poland and Ukraine. The reason was Poland’s 2018 adoption of amendments to the law on the Holocaust, which introduced criminal penalties for accusing Poles of collaboration with the Nazis. Netanyahu has spoken only of individual cases of Polish participation in the Holocaust. However, previous Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir once said that “Poles suckled anti-Semitism with their mother’s milk”. Last month. Polish President Andrzej Duda decided Israel was unsuitable as a location for a Visegrad Group summit.
Tension with Ukraine arose after its delegation to the UN voted for a resolution calling on Israel to stop the construction of settlements in Palestinian territories. Then several episodes of conflict followed, including the postponement of a number of official visits, and also a banning of several hundred Ukrainian citizens entry to Israel.
For Israel, sustained relations with Russia, among other things, demonstrate the multi-vectored nature of its politics, showing that Israel is not completely dependent on the United States and thereby serving as testimony to its sovereignty in foreign policy.
To all of that, I would add that, for Netanyahu and Putin, foreign policy successes serve as compensation for difficulties in internal politics. But whereas for Putin these difficulties are no more than a fall in approval ratings, for Netanyahu and his party Likud, there is talk of defeat in the upcoming parliamentary elections in April. Sociologists have also noted that Likud has recently been losing the ‘Russian vote’ – roughly one-fifth of the electorate.
The situation should not be overestimated, but Moscow’s support could give Likud a few important percentage gains.
The future of Russia-Israeli relations
What lies ahead? Are Israel and Russia temporary partners, or do contemporary relations point to a strategic shift , about the formation of towards fully-fledged allied relations?
For Israel, sustained relations with Russia, among other things, demonstrate the multi-vectored nature of its politics, showing that Israel is not completely dependent on the United States and thereby serving as testimony to its sovereignty in foreign policy
The promising character of the relationship can be seen in the fact that Moscow quickly forgot about the downing of a Russian Il-20 airplane by Syrian Air Defense Forces in 2018. In the initial weeks following the incident, Russian propaganda stubbornly insisted that it had been a provocation on the part of Israel, but these claims quickly fell silent. The deaths of Russian servicemen in the incident did not spoil Israeli-Russian cooperation.
Political prediction is no more than divination, especially where the Middle East is concerned. At the same time, it seems that the conditions for the growth of Russian-Israeli cooperation do indeed exist. For Israel, it is an additional guarantee of security, and, for Russia, another means of preserving its influence in the region.
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