The crisis between Russia and Israel over the downing of the Russian air force plane by a Syrian anti-aircraft battery is far from over. Jerusalem is hoping that American intervention will help reduce the tension.
In the days following the incident, the Russians rejected Israeli attempts to send senior political officials to Moscow. That’s why in the end, a military delegation led by Israel Air Force Commander Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin was sent. The Russian investigation into the incident and announcements by the Russian Defense Ministry focused on the Israel Defense Forces’ performance, blaming the IAF’s “lack of professionalism,” and even suggesting that the military misleads the Israeli government and does not obey its instructions.
Israel had initially wanted to send a delegation headed by National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat to Moscow that would have included representatives of the IAF and military General Staff. Russia rejected this suggestion. According to several sources, the possibility was raised that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman would go to Moscow to try to calm things down. Russia, however, preferred that the contacts remain at the professional level, between Norkin and the commander of the Russian air force.
Earlier this week Russia rejected the conclusions of the IAF investigation into the incident. On Monday night, after the holiday, Netanyahu spoke on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Russian media reported that Netanyahu had requested the conversation.
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The security cabinet convened Tuesday in Jerusalem to discuss the crisis. At the end of the meeting an unusual communiqué was issued, in which the ministers offered their condolences to the Russian people on the loss of the 15 officers and soldiers who were killed when the plane went down. Nevertheless, the security cabinet said that an “irresponsible action” by the Syrian army was responsible for the incident, and that it had ordered the IDF to continue working to prevent Iran’s military consolidation in Syria, “while continuing security coordination with Russia.” People who attended the meeting said that the tension with Russia should not be taken lightly.
Netanyahu said before he left for the UN General Assembly in New York that he and Putin had agreed to have IDF and Russian army teams meet soon for further coordination. The strain with Russia and the situation in Syria are expected to take up considerable time during Netanyahu’s meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, which is scheduled for Wednesday on the sidelines of the General Assembly.
The United States has not taken any position, publicly or otherwise, on the tensions between Israel and Russia. The Trump administration rarely interferes in what is going on in Syria. Israel is convinced of the credibility of the IAF’s investigation and of its ability to persuade the Americans that the IDF’s version of what downed the plane on September 17 is reliable.
The Russian investigation stated that after IAF jets attacked an Iranian weapons production plant in the city of Latakia, they returned and flew over the Syrian coast. The Russians claim that 19 minutes after the bombing, one of the Israeli planes came too close to their Ilyushin aircraft, causing the Syrian air defenses to mistakenly identify the Russian aircraft as hostile.
Independent Israeli experts who have read the findings of the Russian investigation suggest that these include a forgery of the radar images, to create the impression that Israeli planes were present west of the Syrian coast later than they really were. Officially, however, Israel has refrained from making such assertions so as not to intensify the crisis.
The Russian version of events raises additional questions: If 12 minutes elapsed between the Israeli warning to the Russians and the start of the Syrian anti-aircraft fire, why didn’t Russian ground control get the plane out of the area before it was hit? And why didn’t the Russians and the Syrians have an effective “friend or foe” identification system to help avoid such an error?
As when Russia categorically denied the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Syria, it seems that Moscow isn’t even trying to invest much in the professionalism of its investigation. What is more important is the message it is conveying. Russia is fed up with Israel acting as if it owned Syrian airspace and plans to restrain the IAF’s freedom of movement. In this context, Putin’s Kremlin seems to be faithfully following the Soviet tradition: Russian propaganda isn’t meant to persuade us to believe something, but to confuse us so we can’t believe anything and the truth will remain out of reach.
The Russian announcement that it would supply S-300 land-to-air missiles to the Syrians worries Israel because of the diplomatic implications more than the military aspects. It is clear that it will take time for these systems to be deployed effectively in Syria and it is known that the IAF is capable of finding ways to circumvent them, in a way that could expose the systems’ weaknesses and embarrass the Russians.
Senior reserve officers who were asked about the security cabinet’s statement regarding the continuation of operations in Syria believed that if there was an urgent need to act against the smuggling of Iranian weapons into Lebanon, Israel would take the risk and act. Russia, they said, does not want a flare-up with Israel that would endanger the survival of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime and therefore is unlikely to allow the Iranians total freedom of action in the near future.
Senior Trump administration officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, condemned the Russian decision to supply the systems. If the administration chooses to intervene, it may push for a broader deal, to include a delay in the delivery of the S-300s in return for broader understandings between the two powers and Israel. Putin is well aware of the close relationship between Trump and Netanyahu and has already tried to leverage it in his favor. Progress in contacts between the three countries, however, depends on the U.S. president’s attention level in view of his administration’s frenetic agenda, as well as America’s demonstrated limited ability to act in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, back in the territories
As happened in May, Israel must now deal with two security crises at once. The escalation in the Gaza Strip continues. The Palestinian factions there, headed by Hamas, are now considering daily demonstrations along the border fence, in light of the deadlocked negotiations with the Palestinian Authority over rebuilding the Gaza Strip. Activists in Gaza openly speak of having masses break through the fence and harm Israeli settlements in the Gaza vicinity. At the same time, the Hamas-organized nightly “raids,” aimed at harassing the IDF forces and sabotaging construction on the anti-tunnel barrier, are expanding.
The atmosphere in the territories is also strained due to the crisis between Hamas and the PA, and the departure of PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to address the UN General Assembly. Israel’s priorities are clear: The north is more dangerous and urgent than what is happening in the territories, but sometimes these fronts have a way of heating up at the same time.