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Can Netanyahu Drive a Wedge Between Russia and Iran?

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Russian President Vladimir Putin meets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow on March 9, 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow on March 9, 2017.Credit: Pavel Golovkin/AP

Most meetings between Israeli leaders and Russian President Vladimir Putin since he came to power in 1999 have tended to be of an almost clandestine nature.

Usually the Israeli prime minister flies without a large delegation or much fanfare to Moscow in a small business jet with a handful of advisors, without the media receiving prior notification.

The meetings take place with a small forum in Putin’s office without any press conference or joint public events, save for a terse press release once it's over and the prime minister is back on his plane to Israel. There are usually no public engagements or speeches.

Thursday's visit followed a similar pattern of schedule and scale, but was different in one interesting aspect. For the first time the prime minister’s office not only notified the press in advance, but also issued detailed statements before and after the meeting. about what was on the agenda in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's talks with Putin.

A line in the first paragraph of the prime minister’s statement summed it up: “We firmly oppose the possibility that in an arrangement in Syria, Iran and its proxies will retain a military presence in Syria”.

In other words, Netanyahu believes that despite Russia and Iran fighting side by side for nearly a year and a half on behalf of the Assad regime, he can still prevail on Putin to end this military alliance.

What he didn’t say but was almost certainly discussed in Moscow was Israel’s concern that Iranian forces and the various Shia militias it controls in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, will create a corridor leading straight from Iran’s borders to the Mediterranean. Israel wants Russian assurances that Iran be prevented from laying the crucial missing link of this “Shia Crescent”, in northern Syria, where Moscow now has the most influence.

Within Israel’s intelligence community there is no consensus on Russia’s next step in the region. While analysts believe that now that the Kremlin has achieved its main goals in Syria – safeguarding the survival of its client Assad as president of at least part of the country and the presence of Russia’s air and naval bases on Syria’s Mediterranean coast - it could be persuaded to downgrade ties with the Iranians who were its main partners in Syria, in favor of a broader alliance with Israel, Sunni states and the West.

Other Russia-watchers are much more skeptical and of the opinion that the alliance the Russian military and intelligence branches have forged with Iran’s Quds Force and Hezbollah over the last eighteen months on the Syrian battlefield, will be too useful to Moscow to give up. They envisage Putin trying to maintain simultaneous “flexible relationships” with both Israel and Iran.

Those who nevertheless believe that Israel can drive a wedge between Russia and Iran are adamant that it is not only a question of military relationships. “Israel can make a grand bargain with Russia which will include economic and technological inducements, things that Russia badly needs for its own economy,” says one Israeli official who has been working with Russia and other former Soviet countries for over two decades.

“This will have a much greater influence than many Israelis realize. Putin sees Israel as a regional power and respects us much more than we give ourselves credit for”. One Kremlinologist calls it “Israel’s big pack of cards that it can win with on the Russian table. It includes a wide range of inducements, many of which may not be obvious to us at the moment”.

Zvi Magen, a former Israeli ambassador to Russia and Ukraine and deputy head the “Nativ” organization which maintained contacts between Israel and the Jews in the former Soviet Union, is guardedly optimistic regarding Netanyahu’s prospects with Putin.

“Russia won’t give up on Iran as an ally but the Russians know that Israel has its key interests and red-lines in the region and it's very important for Putin to keep Israel neutral in Syria. He understands he has to make sure Israel’s interests are served, as well.

Also, it’s clear that Israel is not acting alone now; it is bringing along with it a Sunni coalition and has the Americans’ backing. All this will be on the table between Netanyahu and Putin.

Putin is waiting for an American move in the region and doesn’t think he can achieve a regional balance without the Americans, so it seems that Netanyahu is going to Moscow as Trump’s proxy”.

When the Russian deployment to Syria began in late 2015, Netanyahu rushed to Moscow, to receive Putin’s assurances that Israel could continue to operate in Syria when it felt the “red-lines” were being crossed.

The continuing strikes on Hezbollah convoys transporting weapons from Syria to Lebanon are proof that those assurances were given. Now that the civil war in Syria seems to be nearing its endgame, Israel is in need of further assurances.

Thursday's meeting was only the first stage of a carving out of areas of influence in post-civil war Syria. The fact that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was also in Moscow on Thursday was no coincidence. He is also after assurances of his own, that his country’s rivals not be allowed to cross Turkey’s borders with Syria. There is no love lost between Netanyahu and Erdogan, but both have a similar objective here. Assad can stay, but Iran must go.

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