Analysis

Netanyahu Hosting Russian Victory Lap While Emasculated Bolton Looks On

Israeli prime minister is leveraging his unique position on the world stage by hosting U.S. and Russian national security advisers, but secretly wishing the Americans held the upper hand in the Mideast

U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton shaking hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, June 23, 2019.
Emil Salman

It has to be acknowledged that the trilateral summit taking place between the national security advisers of Israel, the United States and Russia in Jerusalem on Monday is a coup for Benjamin Netanyahu. Once more, he has shown unparalleled skill as the leader of a small nation to leverage his advantages — in this case, his strong personal relations with the leaders of the two powers.

He exhibited this skill twice last May: First, when President Donald Trump announced that the United States was withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, using identical talking points to Netanyahu in his speech. Second, less than 48 hours later, he was in Moscow as President Vladimir Putin’s guest of honor at the Victory Day parade in Red Square. That night, Israel attacked Iranian and Syrian positions in Syria, also destroying Russian-supplied anti-aircraft batteries. To the world, it seemed that Putin had given Netanyahu carte blanche to act.

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Convening the two national security advisers to discuss Syria and Iran is further testament that, despite their differences and some lingering Russian resentment at the shooting down of the Ilyushin spy plane off the Syrian coast last September, Netanyahu is still holding this relationship together. Israel is still carrying out airstrikes in Syria, against Iranian targets, with U.S. backing and with Russia’s acquiescence.

The Russian leadership has also made leverage an artform. Despite a shrinking economy, hobbled by Western sanctions and a military that is still going through an agonizingly slow process of modernization, Russia under Putin has grabbed opportunities to reassert a global role in locations as far apart as Syria and Venezuela. It has also reestablished its domination over countries that were once part of the Soviet Union.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's previous meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump.
Pavel Golovkin, AFP / Carlos Barria, Reuters

From 2008, when he launched a war on Georgia in the twilight months of President George W. Bush’s administration, Putin has taken advantage of the disinclination of U.S. presidents — bruised by the costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — to assert America’s unparalleled military supremacy. Both President Barack Obama and Trump had opportunities to step in and try to stop the carnage in Syria being carried out by Russia’s client regime, together with the Iranians, and opted not to do so.

Whatever the justification behind those decisions, the result is that Russia is now the more influential power in the Middle East. And as last week’s events above the Persian Gulf proved, Russia isn’t the only player to have learned how to take advantage of America’s haphazard foreign policy.

As the three national security advisers sit down in Jerusalem, Israel’s Meir Ben-Shabbat and Russia’s Nikolai Patrushev know they are there with the full backing of their leaders (as far as the eternally suspicious Putin and Netanyahu can trust anyone, that is). But John Bolton arrived in Israel on Saturday just as Trump was telling U.S. reporters that Bolton was “a hawk” and that he was basically disregarding his advice on Iran. He is Trump’s third national security adviser in two and a half years, and could well be out of a job very soon.

Bolton is here at a low point both for himself personally and for U.S. foreign policy. While this is not being mentioned, he will certainly be aware throughout Monday’s meeting that his Russian counterpart is under personal sanctions — both from the United States and the European Union — due to his alleged role in Russia’s unofficial war against Ukraine. But Patrushev is in Israel as an honored guest, and an emasculated Bolton has little choice but to do business with him.

Russia's national security adviser, Nikolai Patrushev, attending the annual Moscow Conference on International Security in Russia, April 24, 2019.
\ MAXIM SHEMETOV/ REUTERS

For Netanyahu, who will be meeting the advisers on Tuesday, this is not an ideal situation. He is an Atlanticist, a believer in the necessity of the United States acting as the guarantor of global peace. But despite his close relations with Trump, even his influence is limited. His pivot to Moscow during the Obama administration must continue now and for the foreseeable future.

At the moment, hosting Russia’s victory lap around the region is the best he can hope for.