Looking at Putin and Seeing Lieberman

In the changing regional reality, the United States is displaying weakness, while Russia is striving for assertive involvement.

The babushka doll manufacturers in Russia must be very busy these days. The "as if" era is over. Their last assembly line is no longer relevant. They must restore the dolls to their natural size. Little Putin will grow again. Big Medvedev will have to nest inside him.

The frenzy in view of the expected leadership rotation has obviously gripped the Liberals too. They hastened to print posters of Vladimir Putin - the old-soon-to-be-new-again president - in the image of Leonid Brezhnev. Wearing a military uniform and adorned with Soviet medals, he even boasted Brezhnev's eyebrows.

"Welcome back to the USSR," warn the commentators. "Putin 2.0" - as some call his renewed presidency - will boost the nationalist spirits, emphasize the anti-Western reflexes and abandon the reset policy, which had brought Medvedev's Russia and Obama's United States closer.

Purportedly, Putin wishes to restore the superpower status his country lost after the Soviet Union's collapse; it will be impossible not to feel it in the Middle East as well.

"The Arab spring" gives Putin a rash; NATO's campaign in Libya makes him sick; he vehemently objects to military intervention in Syria and has even thwarted a European initiative at the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on Assad's murderous regime. He determinedly oppresses any Chechneyan, Dagestani, Ingushetian or other attempt at self-determination in the Russian federation's territories. He was then also fighting against the recognition of Kosovo's independence.

In contrast, when it comes to the Palestinians, the "spring" is in full bloom. The Russian vote in the Security Council is Mahmoud Abbas' sure bet. It is the same vote that prevented mentioning "the Jewish state" in the Quartet's last gesture.

All these constitute a hub of controversies in the Mossad, defense establishment and Foreign Ministry. According to one school, "the Russians keep spitting in Israel's face." Advocates of this opinion cite, among other things, the advanced-weapons supply to Syria and Russia's contacts with Hamas, contrary to the Quartet's position. The other school says the relations have been constantly improving over the past decade. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who set upgrading the relations with Russia as a central goal, argues "they are better today than ever." According to Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of Moscow's Institute of Middle East Studies, Putin is a philo-semite, and if Israel had stopped behaving like the 51st state of the United States, it would have enjoyed preferential Russian treatment.

Some observers look at Putin and see Lieberman; listen to Avigdor and hear Vladimir. This distinction is only partially correct, of course, because the Kremlin's rhetoric goes something like this:

"Our concern for security and stability dictate our policy on the Arab spring. Assad might be a son of a bitch and Gadhafi might be mad, but we've seen what can happen when a secular-totalitarian regime is replaced by Islamic rulers and Iranian influence in Iraq. The instability in the Middle East could have repercussions in Caucasus and beyond. Russia must look after itself and Israel should be the first to be worried because Libyan weapons have already found their way back to Gaza.

"We inherited recognition of the Palestinian state from the Soviet Union already in 1988, just as we inherited recognition of the Jewish state in 1947," the Russians continue. "The direct reference to freezing the settlements was removed from the Quartet's outline, with our consent, as part of a deal in which the demand to recognize Israel as a Jewish state - a definition that is self evident - was removed also.

"In his Zionist speech at the UN, Obama proved that the United States is incapable of being an honest broker," the Russians conclude. "We, on the other hand, have close relations with both sides, including Hamas, which is an Israeli creation anyway, and which regrettably can no longer be ignored."

In the changing regional reality, the United States is displaying weakness, while Russia is striving for assertive involvement. The larger Vladimir's babushka doll swells, the stronger Avidgdor's Russian challenge will grow.