Are Russia-Israel Ties Really 'Better Than Ever' Under Lieberman?

The foreign minister has devoted much of his energy to improving bilateral ties, which he says are 'better than ever,' but many senior officials aren't buying it.

Last Monday night a few hundred people filled the banquet hall of the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, for the highlight of a two-day conference marking 20 years of diplomatic relations between Israel and Russia. The project was Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's "baby," and to market it to media outlets in both countries the ministry hired a private PR firm.

Lieberman Putin - Alexander Bibi- Nov. 14, 2010
Alexander Bibi

Lieberman did his best to make the large Russian delegation, headed by the Speaker of the Russian Federation Council Sergey Mironov, feel at home. In his address, the foreign minister lavished compliments on Russia and on the quality of bilateral relations.

"The relationship is better than ever before," Lieberman said. "The time has come to move to the next level and upgrade relations even further."

Upgrading Israel-Russia relations has been a major goal of Lieberman's since his appointment as foreign minister in March 2009, and is even noted in the government coalition agreements. Lieberman has consolidated under his control all powers connected to relations with Russia, even receiving responsibility for Nativ - the Israeli agency that operates among Russian Jewish communities - from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in advance.

The sensitive nature of the Israeli-Russian relationship makes it a focus of disputes within the Mossad, the Foreign Ministry and the defense establishment. One camp views the bilateral relationship, despite its limitations, as an opportunity, and points at its steady improvement over the past decade. The other camp remains suspicious of the Russians and believes they cannot be trusted because they are insufficiently attentive to Israel's concerns.

Lieberman, for his part, advocates looking at glass as "two-thirds full, not one-third empty" when it comes to ties between the two nations. While acknowledging that Russia may be taking steps that may hurt Israel, he also points out the mutual visa waiver agreement, which increased the number of Russian tourists coming to Israel from around 100,000 a year to an estimated 500,000 by the end of 2010.

Military ties are also improving. Last month the first cooperation agreement between the Israeli and Russian defense ministries was signed, during Defense Minister Ehud Barak's historic visit to Moscow. Israel Aerospace Industries inked a $400 million deal with Russia for the sale of unmanned aerial vehicles, while the Russian president canceled the planned sale to Iran of S-300 missiles, which if carried out would make a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities much more difficult.

Bilateral economic cooperation has also been revived over the past two years. For four years - most of them during Eli Yishai's term as minister of industry, trade and labor - the countries' joint economic committee did not convene. Since Lieberman was appointed foreign minister, the forum has met three times, with Vladimir Putin's First Deputy Prime Minister, Viktor Zubkov, tapped as chairman.

Senior Foreign Ministry officials in the pro-Russia camp see economic ties as the key to strengthing military and diplomatic relations between the two states. "The Russians don't only want to talk with us about Syrian missiles or Iran's nuclear program," one official said. "They want to strengthen their economy. They tell us, 'Increase your trade from $3 billion to $10 billion a year, and see how considerate we'll be on all other issues.'"

'A slap in the face'

That said, in the past two years Russia did several things that caused great frustration in Israel. While former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert returned Jerusalem's Sergei Courtyard to Moscow's control, and Netanyahu is erecting a monument to soldiers from the Red Army, according to some in the Foreign Ministry's doubters' camp the Russian response in certain cases resembled "a slap in the face."

One example can be seen with regard to Israel's near-total freeze of its military cooperation with Georgia in the past two years, in response to Moscow's request. Lieberman told Russian officials in private meetings, and recently in interviews as well, that Israel was suspending arms sales to Tbilisi indefinitely.

In Jerusalem, the expectation was that Russia would reciprocate by halting its own weapons deliveries to Syria. But just a few weeks ago Damascus received its first shipment of advanced Russian P-800 Yakhont (SS-N-26 ) anti-ship cruise missiles, despite harsh protests from Netanyahu and Barak. The Russians are supplying Syria with advanced anti-aircraft missiles as well, a combination of weapons that will hinder the operations of the Israeli Navy and the Israel Air Force, respectively.

Asleep at the switch

According to high-ranking Israeli diplomats and defense officials, Israel "fell asleep at the switch" when it came to the Yakhont deal, by only shifting into high gear to head off the deal after it had already passed the point of no return. An even greater problem is that, even when it comes to arms sales, Russian economic interests trump all other considerations.

"Israel must understand that the only way to prevent the sale of advanced Russian weapons to Syria or Iran is simply to find another buyer," said one senior official involved in military relations with Moscow. "Diplomatic arguments won't work here."

In late September, Russia joined China and Arab states to support international monitoring of the Dimona nuclear reactor in Israel. Russia's decision to side against Israel in such a critical International Atomic Energy Agency vote further inflamed Jerusalem officials.

According to one senior Israeli official, "That vote showed exactly where the Russians stand when it comes to Israel's security." Lieberman, deeply disappointed by the move, called his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, for a talking-to.

To all this must be added Russia's position toward Hamas. Immediately after the organization's victory in the Palestinian Authority elections, Russia announced its intention to engage with the group, in violation of the position held by the Quartet on the Middle East. In May, Israel was shocked to discover that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had met with Khaled Meshal, head of the Hamas political bureau, during a visit to Damascus. High-ranking officials in Jerusalem were furious, and today even the Russians admit that the meeting was a major misstep.

"There is no symmetry in the relationship," a senior Foreign Ministry figure admits. "Is anyone surprised that we have a greater interest in the partnership than the Russians?"

In private conversations, Lieberman claims that he has no illusions and is not burying his head in the sand. "There are things I'm not happy about, but they were known in advance and the Russians never deceived me," he said.

One astonishing discovery, though, is the amount of energy Lieberman has expended to keep the lid on disagreements with Russia. The foreign minister, who over the past 18 months has employed what could be called "megaphone diplomacy" vis-a-vis Turkey, Sweden, Norway and even the United States, has carefully avoided any public, or publicized, confrontation with the Russians. When he finally did denounce Moscow, he did so with uncharacteristic softness.

But a little over a week ago, as he was playing host in his Jerusalem offices to a visiting group of senior Russian journalists, Lieberman's Teflon coating when it comes to Russia was scratched slightly. "What can Russia and the Quartet do to promote peace?" they asked. His answer shocked them to the core: "I expect the Quartet to leave us alone and to forget that we exist. They would be better off dealing with Iraq or the Caucasus."

His remarks were published in the Russian media, and Lavrov was asked to issue a response the following day. "I don't think that is a productive or realistic proposal," Lavrov told a news conference in Moscow. "We are arranging for a meeting of the Quartet leaders, and that is more important than all sorts of calls to leave the Israeli and the Palestinians alone."

The high-profile dispute was barely covered in Israel. After all, when compared to a confrontation between Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama, Israel's relations with Russia do not look like the biggest problem on the foreign-policy agenda.