As Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets once again with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, it is remarkable that his government’s policy towards Moscow continues to go unchallenged in Israel.
Netanyahu has visited Russia on numerous occasions to secure understandings with Putin over Israel’s red lines in Syria, amid the growing Iranian presence in the country and to minimize the risk of misunderstandings and miscalculations.
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Until recently, the Netanyahu government has viewed Russia as a strategic ally in the Middle East, but there is an oversized element of wishful thinking here.
Netanyahu is right to seek understandings with Russia. The growing Iranian presence in Syria poses a grave threat to Israel. In recent weeks, several audacious attacks attributed to Israel have been carried out against Iranian personnel and their weaponry in Syria, the last allegedly as recently as Tuesday evening.
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Yet Israel seems to be in denial when it comes to Moscow's cooperation with Iran in Syria. Iran’s presence serves Moscow’s interests in entrenching the regime of Bashar Assad, its key ally in the region, so will Russia really give Israel an indefinite carte blanche to strike out against the Iranians?
As Andrey Kortunov of the Russian International Affairs Council pointed out to me, Putin will not simply drop his partnership with the Iranians. The Russian leader has taken pride in his trilateral cooperation with Turkey’s President Erdogan and Iran’s President Rohani. It would be a major diplomatic defeat for the Russians to drop Iran.
Part of the problem is that Israel has not publicly admitted carrying out its air strikes, so there is little or no public debate within Israel on the potential fallout from its actions.
How far should Israel go in confronting the Iranian threat? Where should it draw the line? Israel has made it clear that it is "prepared to pay any price" to prevent Iran from expanding its presence in Syria. Would the Israeli public support strikes against the Iranians anywhere in Syria, if the price is a war involving both Russia and Iran? The former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy warned of this very possibility in April.
Netanyahu has staked his personal prestige on his ability to develop a strong relationship with Putin, but the gains from the partnership are diminishing.
Israel has taken great pains in recent years to stay on the right side of the Kremlin, even at the expense of its relationship with its Western allies.
Israel’s diplomats controversially stayed away from a key UN General Assembly vote in March 2014 condemning Russia’s annexation of Crimea, in spite of U.S requests for Israel to vote for the motion. Embarrassingly, the Netanyahu government has refused to cooperate with its Western allies (especially Britain) in imposing sanctions on Russia in the wake of the nerve agent attack in the U.K. in March.
This is the same Israeli government that lectures Europeans on their readiness to appease Iran by strengthening commercial links with the country.
So why has Israel acted in this way?
There is widespread admiration for Putin within Israel, arguably because of his refusal to bow to world opinion in the wake of the annexation of Crimea, and because he knows his mind on the Middle East stage. Israel’s defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has played a key role in Israel’s attitude towards Russia. While the Russians acted with steely determination in the region, President Obama was dithering.
Israeli policy is also influenced by the fact that there are well over one million Israeli citizens from the former Soviet Union. There are also fears Russia’s remaining 200,000 Jews could be held, effectively, as hostages if a hostile climate develops between Israel and Russia.
For a while, Israel’s policy seemed to be reaping dividends. Russia pulled out of a deal in 2010 to sell the S-300 air defence systems to Iran. Russia was restrained in its response to Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza in 2014, even expressing some understanding for its actions. Russia seemed to be giving Israel a free hand to strike at Iran’s arms deliveries to Hizbollah, at least as long as this didn’t interfere with Moscow’s presence in Syria.
Israel still claims that its strategic dialogue with Russia is bearing fruit. Each party understands the constraints of the other. Israel and Russia’s interests may diverge, we are told, but there is more understanding about what each side can tolerate. But Russia appears to see things differently.
Is this still a credible claim?
Russia consistently votes against Israel at the UN. Netanyahu attacked the Obama administration relentlessly over the nuclear deal with Iran, but is silent amid Russia’s determination to keep the deal alive.
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In recent weeks, Russia has condemned Israel over its "indiscriminate use of force" against Palestinian protestors on the Gaza border, in spite of Moscow’s complicity in the atrocities carried out by the Assad regime against civilians in Syria.
There is no serious discussion in Israel over its Russia policy, but it is time to ask whether thepolicy of kowtowing to Moscow is actually working. Is it possible that its Russia policy is symptomatic of Israel’s refusal to face up to regional realities?
Israelis cannot conceive of the possibility that Moscow would act against Israel, butan Israeli overreaction against Iran could potentially trigger Russian intervention and its disastrous consequences won’t be moderated by a mistaken, even deluded belief in Israel’s ‘allyship’ with the Kremlin.
Dr. Azriel Bermant is a lecturer in International Relations at Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University. His latest book is Margaret Thatcher and the Middle East (Cambridge University Press, 2016). Twitter: @azrielb