Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address on Sunday at the state ceremony on Ammunition Hill to mark Jerusalem Day didn’t yield any special headlines. Most of the speech was a combination of Netanyahu’s usual talking points and worn-out slogans about how Jerusalem will never again be a wounded and divided city, which raised some questions about how familiar Netanyahu is with the daily reality in Israel’s capital.
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But there was one paragraph in the speech that was somewhat interesting, and it referred to relations with Russia.
“On the eve of the Six Day War, the armies around us were armed, trained, supplied and supported by the Soviet Union,” Netanyahu said. “Look at the difference, the enormous difference, over the years. Russia is a world power and the relationship between us is getting closer all the time. I’m working to tighten this connection; it serves us and our national security at this time, and has also prevented superfluous and dangerous confrontations on our northern border.”
Netanyahu, who arrived in Moscow Monday to mark 25 years of bilateral relations, vividly portrayed what many in Israel and Russia who are dealing with these tightening relationships have described as a romance. It wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that the ties between Israel and Russia have never been better. It’s a fact. The volume of trade and tourism, as well as security and diplomatic cooperation, are at their peak.
The meeting between Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin Tuesday will be their fourth within a year. Just to compare, during this same period Netanyahu has met with U.S. President Barack Obama only once. That fact well represents the spirit of the times. Relations with Russia have been improving steadily since 2009 and some of the credit goes to former foreign minister and current Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
But over the past year, on the background of the active Russian involvement in the Syrian civil war and the deploying of troops there, the ties between the two countries have turned from a pastime to essential for both sides. “We and the Russians have become neighbors, with all that implies,” said a senior Israeli official who deals with these bilateral ties.
If there is one diplomatic-security issue for which Netanyahu deserves a lot of credit for his handling and decision making, it is his calculated and prudent policy toward the crisis in Syria. His conduct toward Russia in recent months, ever since Putin sent troops to Syria, has served Israel’s security interests well and kept the northern front relatively quiet.
There is still the empty half of the glass, however. Despite the much improved ties with Russia, the latter is still blatantly operating against Israel in both the diplomatic and security spheres. Putin has bestowed many honors on Netanyahu, rolled out the red carpet and is giving back an Israeli tank from a Moscow museum and Paula Ben-Gurion’s candlesticks, but on major issues he has taken measures that seriously undermine vital Israeli interests.
Thus, for example, the Russians have supplied advanced S300 missile batteries to Iran and plan to sell a lot more weapons to the Islamic republic. The Russians are also fighting in Syria on the same side as Hezbollah, and aren’t being careful enough (at best) or are turning a blind eye (at worst) to the Syrian army’s transfer of weapons it gets from Russia to the Shi’ite terror group.
During the last nine months alone the Russians voted against Israel on a series of crucial votes in the United Nations. In September they voted for the Egyptian resolution in the International Atomic Energy Agency that called for inspection of Israel’s nuclear facilities. In March the Russians voted against Israel in the UN Human Rights Council, supporting a Palestinian resolution for the compiling of a blacklist of companies that do business with the settlements, and in April Russia was one of the countries that supported the Palestinian resolution in UNESCO that erased all trace of the Jewish people’s connection to the Temple Mount.
Israel hasn’t dared to publicly criticize Russia about any of these things. Netanyahu, who enjoys slapping around the French over their support for the UNESCO resolution on the Temple Mount, and publicly slamming the American administration over the Iran issue, seems to have swallowed his tongue when it comes to Russia. He wouldn’t dare deliver a critical speech in the Duma, Russia’s parliament, or send the leaders of the Moscow Jewish community to place anti-Kremlin ads in the papers.
OK, it’s true that Russia is not the United States or France. Firstly because it’s not a democracy, and second because Israel has unique interests in regard to it. But Israel’s alliances with the United States and France are no less deeply rooted and loaded with interests. The United States gives Israel $3 billion annually in military aid and diplomatic backing in the United Nations. Because of France we have Dimona, and Paris also worked to toughen the nuclear agreement with Iran. Yet Netanyahu still has no problem causing high-profile confrontations with the Elysee Palace or the White House over any critical word regarding the settlements. He can lord it over Obama in Washington, but won’t demonstrate an iota of the same courage toward Putin.
Israeli officials argue that they raise all these issues in quiet diplomatic discussions and that behind closed doors Netanyahu does conduct a critical dialogue with Putin. That could be true. But as Netanyahu himself has said, sometimes it’s important to tell the truth publicly. And when it comes to Russia, this truth is not heard from the prime minister at all. It’s hard not to wonder whether in diplomacy it’s the same as in politics – that Netanyahu humiliates and belittles his allies and benefactors, yet honors and appeases those who pose a threat to him.