Why Israel Shouldn't Burn Bridges With Putin Just Yet

Despite American attempts to pressure Israel on Ukraine, there is no reason why we should jeopardize our links with Putin for the token theatrical gestures that are U.S. policy.

Amiel Ungar
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Russian President Vladimir Putin.Credit: AFP
Amiel Ungar

The U.S. and the EU have revealed themselves as the coalition of the unwilling in the Ukrainian showdown with the smart power of Russian President Vladimir Putin. There is little appetite either in the EU or within the United States to ramp up the response to Russia's destabilization and partial annexation of its neighbor. This in turn has fueled the need to find a scapegoat for their show of impotence.

We are therefore regaled with the condemnations of Euroskeptic leaders who have declared their respect - or even admiration - for Vladimir Putin. On the basis of the attention devoted to the issue one could gather that if UKIP leader Nigel Farage had not given Putin's diplomatic skills high marks (an opinion shared by many pundits with no stake in next month's European parliamentary elections) Ukrainian sovereignty would be unassailable and Russia's neighbors in the "near abroad" could rest easy.

Israel has also been criticized. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki declared her surprise about Israel's no show at the March 24 UN non-binding General Assembly vote, that reaffirmed Ukraine's territorial integrity and denied legitimacy to the Crimea referendum supporting the region's annexation to Russia. From Psaki's surprise – one that was not directed towards the abstention of Russia's fellow BRICS (Brazil, India, China and South Africa) - one could gather that Israel is a major General Assembly player whose vote could have been a difference maker.

Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders have not been in charge of their countries' or the EU's foreign policy. They did not sign a deal to supply Russia with helicopter carriers. While Berlin has now put some 6 million euros worth of arms deals with Russia on hold, it was complacent when German firms like Rheinmetall upgraded the Russian army from the awkward behemoth that we saw in the 2008 Georgia War into a nimble modern fighting force.

Speaking of Georgia, there was a greater tendency in Europe back then to blame Georgia than Russia. French President Nicolas Sarkozy "mediated" between Russia and Georgia and his "peace plan" was endorsed by the EU foreign ministers. The result was a self-contradictory formula under which the EU supported Georgia's territorial integrity but attached no blame to Russia. The then and current German Foreign Minister Walter Steinmeier explained such double talk: "We have to decide on either a strong statement with a unilateral accusation or, if we look to the future, [we should] take a real role in order to further the stabilization."

'Stabilization' has definitely occurred - Abkhazia and Ossetia are firmly out of Georgia's grasp and in Putin's. In a sense, very little has changed since the Polish dictator Jaruzelski's coup against Solidarity in December 1981, when European stalwarts Valery Giscard D'Estaing and Helmut Schmidt prioritized trade with the Soviet Union, and of course stability, over Polish nuisance makers.

As for analyzing Israel's predicament, there is much to like in the recent Haaretz pieces by David Landau ("Russia or Ukraine? For some Israelis, Holocaust memories are key") and Eyal Megged ("Putin has been disingenuous, but I’m rooting for him in Ukraine"). They referred respectively to the troubled relationship between Jews and Ukrainians, and demonstrated why a full and final divorce between Ukraine and Russia is preposterous given their historical and cultural ties.

I think that Israel's response was dictated by a more prosaic consideration, one that highlights the interconnection between Syria and Ukraine. Israel will be on the right side of a struggle providing the struggle is genuine and - as opposed to the two Iraq wars - its participation is solicited. Back in the days of crossed red lines the Obama administration requested Israel's supporters in the U.S. to help mobilize support in Congress for a punitive missile strike against Assad. Political capital was expended in what was clearly an uphill struggle only to have the administration abruptly abandon the effort, leaving Israel politically exposed.

Anybody monitoring American public opinion and reading columnists criticizing Western provocation of Russia knows that a major push is not in the offing. At most, the U.S. will aid the Ukrainian army with ready-to-eat meals and will attempt to establish a tripwire with a token military contingent to the Baltic states (although Putin is too clever to trip over it).

In any case Obama's media supporters assure us that the Russian president has signed his own death warrant thanks to his latest maneuvers; so tangible action such as the approval of the Keystone pipeline to lessen dependence on Russian oil is superfluous. Israel and its American supporters should not burn their bridges with Vladimir Putin over theatrical gestures. Call us when you are serious.

A final point: The "realists" down at The National Interest correctly remind us that we must choose the most dangerous enemy rather than attempt fighting all of them at once. NI's most assiduous Israel-basher, Paul Pillar, after displaying a curious nostalgia for the Soviet Union, believes that a tougher policy towards Russia requires further rapprochement with Iran. Lifting the sanctions on Tehran, thus making Iranian energy available to Europe, would be an effective counter to Putin, he suggests. Israel, however, shares the opinion voiced this week by Tony Blair in his Bloomberg speech: The threat posed by Ayatollah Khamenei is far greater than the threat posed by Vladimir Putin.

Dr. Amiel Ungar is a political scientist. 

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