The mysterious visit Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid to Moscow early last week was another hopeless bid by Israel to try to influence Russian foreign policy. Netanyahu did just what his predecessors did, with one possible difference: In the past, meetings with the Russians have been not been kept secret. Netanyahu, because of his personal style and his way of doing things, preferred to create superfluous drama and to give his trip an air of secrecy.
There is nothing that is or has to be clandestine about an Israeli prime minister visiting Russia and meeting with its leaders. Every prime minister since the 1990s - Yitzhak Rabin, Netanyahu (during his first premiership), Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert - has gone there.
The pattern is always the same: The premier travels to Moscow armed with "secret" information emanating from Israel's intelligence community about some intention on Russia's part to sell arms or nuclear equipment to Iran or Syria. The Russians listen in silence to the Israeli complaints. In cases where Israel fears that Russian weaponry has trickled to Hezbollah via Iran, or that smuggled Russian technology has reached Iran's nuclear program, the Russians mostly deny it or ask for more information or promise they will look into it. And there, more or less, the matter rests.
What Israel's leaders fail to appreciate is that Russia has its own Middle Eastern interests and policies, which usually do not correspond with Israeli interests, aspirations and desires. Again and again, they fall into the trap of hoping that perhaps this time they will manage to persuade the Russians. And then, of course, they are humiliated.
Judging from its statements at least, Russia, unlike Israel and the United States, believes that Iran will not make nuclear weapons. But even if it does fear such an eventuality, it is less worried than either Israel or the United States, and is therefore not prepared to join them and the European Union in demanding harsher sanctions on Iran. Russia's interest is to bolster its economic and political influence in the Middle East and to challenge the United States. It is therefore ready to sell arms to Iran and Syria and to conduct a dialogue with Hamas.
There is perhaps only one thing Russia and Israel have in common, although Israelis will probably not rejoice at the comparison: Russia is ready to sell arms to almost any country in the world, exactly as Israel is. And, like Israel, Russia maintains its defense industry in order to advance its foreign policies, provide jobs and earn foreign currency.
Incidentally, Israel's arms sales and defense exports last year surpassed Russia's. Israel is the third largest arms exporter in the world, after the United States and France. Moreover, the claim that Russia sells weapons to Israel's enemies, while Israel does not sell weapons to those whom Russia perceives as enemies, is not accurate: Israel sold arms to Georgia for years and ignored all of Russia's protests over this. Only at the last moment before the war between Russia and Georgia broke out did the Defense Ministry reconsider and bar a large tank deal, one of whose initiators was the ministry's former director general, Amos Yaron.
The Russians say they will not sell offensive arms to Israel's enemies, only defensive ones, if at all. Therefore, they see Israel's demand that Russia refrain from selling weapons to Iran and Syria as presumptuous - especially when it comes to the deal involving the sale of S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Iran. Why does Israel want to stop this deal? Because these weapons will make it difficult to attack Iran's nuclear facilities. And that is exactly what Russia's foreign policy aims to achieve.
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