Talking to official Israeli representatives in Georgia can be confusing. One moment they're bragging about their close ties with senior members of the local government "He's our man, he's been working with us for years," they say of a government minister and the next they're emphasizing that Israel does not support either side, and is trying to keep its head above the murky waters of the Caucasian swamp.
It can be said almost with certainty that Israel bet on the wrong horse here, and is trying to limit its damage which may turn out to be particularly serious as swiftly as possible.
Israel wanted to play a central role in Georgia. Ostensibly, this was a perfect opportunity. A pro-Western government that controls a central oil transport junction, with senior officials who are Jewish and were even educated in Israel, and an army thirsty for Israeli weapons and knowledge. On top of all that, our American ally was also a senior partner in the Georgian project.
Many diplomatic and business opportunities opened there, and battalions of former generals, diligent entrepreneurs and middlemen quickly swooped down on them. Now, as the Russian media, guided by the Putin government, is emphasizing Israel's contribution to "the Georgian aggression," the Israeli Foreign Ministry is suddenly quick to mention that it always has warned against the wholesale weapons export permits issued by the Defense Ministry. Our friend Mikheil Saakashvili, who was supposed to bring the two nations' partnership to new heights of cooperation, has now become a "crazy provocateur," who can blame only himself for playing into Vladimir Putin's hands. The West's impotence in the face of the Russian attack and the segmentation of a sovereign country, and the total lack of diplomatic sanctions, are even more prominent in the face of Israel's reaction.
Moscow does not recognize nuances. It is giving Israel a clear choice: Stand with Georgia, like the Bush administration, which condemned Russia and even flew Georgian soldiers home from Iraq, thus entering an open confrontation with the Kremlin or preserve far more important interests.
As far as Israel is concerned, the choice is simple. Washington may be able to permit itself to back Georgia, but Jerusalem knows one shouldn't mess with Putin, who is determined to show the world his unquestioned domination in the Caucasus. It's not only a matter of the geopolitical power of the Russian giant, which is returning to its evil ways, and its key role in the diplomatic game with Iran; there is also the Jewish question. Hundreds of thousands of Jews are at his mercy, and all it would take is a small hint from the Kremlin in order to arouse chilly winds and make their situation deteriorate.
To date, Putin and his ostensible successor Dmitry Medvedev were considered sympathetic to the Jews; they maintain warm ties with the leaders of the Moscow Jewish community, and with Russian-Jewish oligarchs Roman Abramovich, Lev Leviev and their associates. But make no mistake: It's a marriage of convenience. Putin has played the Israeli-Jewish card in the past; about four years ago, during one of the crises with Ukraine, Putin spoke of the influence of "Zionist advisers." If the situation in Georgia worsens, anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli notes will begin slipping into Russian propaganda. Overly blatant Israeli involvement and a strong Jewish presence in the Georgian government would probably lead to that.
Official Israel has understood the message, although belatedly, and it is beginning to lower its profile. For now the 12,000 Jews living in Georgia have chosen to tie their fate with that country, and there seems to be no panicked flight. If this changes, the Israeli government has contingency plans to rescue them. These plans are dependent on Putin's goodwill.
Israel has a long, unfortunate history of supporting failing, problematic regimes, from Idi Amin in Uganda to Augusto Pinochet in Chile, including the generals in Argentina and the Phalanges in Lebanon. The establishment repeatedly has been enticed to believe Israel can be a regional power, and has paid a painful price every time. Now, we may be able to thank Putin for quickly showing Israel the limits of its power and influence, and letting it escape with minimal damages.
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