Analysis

Despite Tensions Over Syria Attack, Israel’s Line to the Kremlin Remains Open

Individuals familiar with Israel-Russia ties characterized recent relations as 'sensitive' and 'tense', but by no means is this a diplomatic crisis

Russian President Vladimir Putin with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow, Russia, March 9, 2017
\ POOL/ REUTERS

"Chicks are counted in autumn," goes the more cautious, Russian version of "don't count your chickens before they're hatched." It's a proverb apt for just about any long-running event, and particularly appropriate when considering the future of Israel's relations with old-new regional power Russia in the face of Iranian efforts to entrench itself at Israel's northern border. On the surface of such ties, Russia has broadcasted a message of crisis since strikes on the Syrian T4 air base near Homs last week were attributed to Israel. Moscow issued public denunciations of the strike and called in Israel's ambassador to Russia for a "conversation."

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These are symbolic, relatively "soft" use of tools in the diplomatic toolbox meant to telegraph Moscow's displeasure with Israeli activities in its sphere of influence. But below the surface, a number of figures who are familiar with Israeli-Russian ties say the diplomatic and military communications have continued — consistent, stable and practical — even after the attack.

They do, however, describe the situation as more "sensitive" or "tense" than in the past. Israel is working hard to maintain a low public profile on the issue, including via explicit directives to cabinet members and officials not to talk and maintaining strict control of messages — but there is no real diplomatic crisis.

Israeli figures attribute the harsher Russian response this time around to the Kremlin's anxious anticipation of U.S.-led strikes in response to the most recent chemical weapons attack in Syria. Though occupied in the business of solidifying its regional position vis-a-vis world powers, Russia could not afford to verbally attack the West and go easy on Israel at the same time. These considerations for optics set the tone, and the decision to settle for verbal declarations against the United States as well also suggests a preservation of the status quo in the short term.

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The Israeli command center of relations with Russia in recent years has been the Prime Minister's Office. After all, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also the foreign minister. He has often said that his close personal relationship with President Vladimir Putin plays an important role in the two countries' good relations. The two men have met and spoken on the phone many times over the past few years — including last week, after the strike on the T4 air base. Netanyahu once said that one of his goals was to improve these ties by creating a sincere channel for clarifying Israel positions and coordinating expectations in order to protect Israel's interests and freedom of movement in the region.

That doesn't mean Israeli and Russian interests align — they do not. The emphasis is on maximum coordination and on pushing the borders of possibility. What would happen without these ties, officials familiar with them often ask people who question their characterization as "warm" when Russians censure Israel publicly or allow Iran to gain a foothold at the border.

The second circle in the command center includes National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and his team, who are responsible for maintaining bilateral relations. Ben-Shabbat was in charge of communicating with the United States, Britain and France before the weekend strike. At the level of the cabinet, Jerusalem Minister Zeev Elkin accompanies on many occasions the direct ties with Putin and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has his own line to the Kremlin. Who's left outside the picture? The Foreign Ministry. Its director general, Yuval Rotem, is considered a Netanyahu confidant who is usually involved in diplomatic discussions. So is the ambassador to Moscow, but the involvement and influence of Foreign Ministry professionals has declined greatly in recent years.

Even if most of the individuals who are involved in maintaining Jerusalem-Moscow relations are not sending up alarms, it's clear to all that when the metaphoric Russian autumn arrives — that is, the eventual withdrawal of the United States from the region and the stabilization of the Syrian government with a significant Iranian presence — Israel's situation will suffer and the possibility of preventing or even limiting negative developments will disappear. The current window of opportunity will determine the rules of the game for many years, and while it's open Israel will do everything it can to stretch the boundaries vis-a-vis Russia.