With Moscow Visit, Netanyahu Signals Era of post-American Middle East

The Israeli prime minister and the Russian president share a disdain for what they see as the weakness of the current U.S. leadership.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence, outside Moscow, on September 21, 2015.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence, outside Moscow, on September 21, 2015. Credit: AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The United States was fully informed on the Netanyahu-Putin summit that took place in Moscow on Monday. At least that’s what Benjamin Netanyahu said afterwards. “Our ties with the U.S. are of foremost importance, strong, steadfast and stable. We are entirely coordinated on this matter,” he said. And yet, one of the most significant geopolitical moments in recent years, Israel’s acknowledgement of Russia’s return as a major player in the region, took place without American participation.

Netanyahu is what they call in European politics, an Atlanticist. He believes in the never-ending centrality of a strategic alliance with the United States as his foreign policy. It couldn’t be otherwise for a man who spent his adolescence and then his early career as a diplomat in America and whose political idol is Winston Churchill, the man who practically invented the Atlantic alliance. But what is such a man to do when he feels that his beloved America is itself giving up on that alliance?

Not that long ago, it would have been nearly unthinkable that an Israeli prime minister could ask for, and receive, an invitation to an emergency summit with the president of Russia, in much less time than it would take him to obtain a similar invitation to meet the president of the United States. Netanyahu is still the most American of all Israeli leaders, but one thing he shares with Vladimir Putin is the disdain for what they both see as the weakness and prevarication of the current American leadership. It was that perceived weakness which allowed Putin to continually challenge the West over his invasions of Ukraine and it allowed him this month to steal a march on the United States and become the first world power (and second country after Iran) to put its soldiers boots on the ground in Syria. It is that frustration with the hesitancy of America to act in response to Russia which prompted Netanyahu to rush to Moscow and promise Putin that “Israel is neither for, or against Assad.”

Putin and Netanyahu are not alone in this club of leaders who feel that under Barack Obama, the U.S. has left a vacuum in world affairs. Two other prime ministers in Asia whose politics would normally put them in the pro-America camp, India’s Narendra Modi and Japan’s Shinzo Abe, feel the same, and not surprisingly, Netanyahu gets along very well with them. That's also true of President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, the only Arab leader who has no problem saying in an interview that he speaks with Netanyahu on the phone every week. Sissi and Modi have also been courting Putin. Even Abe has been making overtures to the Kremlin despite the ongoing territorial dispute with Russia over the Kuril Islands. They and other like-minded leaders don’t like or trust Putin very much, but they recognize they may be operating in what is becoming a post-American world order.

This of course could all prove to be very premature. The United States is still the world’s only superpower with unparalleled military and economic might, but for the last six and a half years ago, that power has rarely been wielded by President Obama and few feel that in his last 18 months in office, anything is about to change. “Obama’s reluctance to use his power around the world hasn’t only weakened America’s position,” says one senior European diplomat. “It has weakened the main European countries as well, because we have been so used to operating together with the U.S. over the last 70 years, we can’t go it alone today.” Obama could still change tack in the last furlong of his presidency — and certainly the next occupant of the Oval Office may be much more of an interventionist, but it will be too late for Syria. The bloody civil war with over a quarter of a million dead and growing millions of refugees, which is rapidly becoming known as “Obama’s Rwanda,” will be the monument to his inaction and lack of coherent policy on most foreign affairs, with the exception of engagement with Iran.

Netanyahu, who is so often and usually justifiably lambasted for his heavy-handed style of diplomacy, can be hardly blamed in this case for his prompt and pragmatic response. In 2012 he bet that Mitt Romney would be elected and was badly mistaken. Three years later, he’s not about to wait around for another U.S. president more to his liking. Putin is the president who has fighter jets and special forces deployed in Syria, while for the first time in eight years, the United States will for the next two months have no aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean or Persian Gulf. Washington still has 10 (soon 11) ocean-going carriers while Russia, despite its efforts, has none; but the test in the Middle East is not having the power, rather being prepared to use it.

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