Amidst all the fuss over the current crisis in relations between Israel and the United States, there has been one issue which has received little scrutiny: Israel’s burgeoning ties with Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the difficulties it has created in Washington.
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As relations between the Netanyahu government and the Obama administration go from bad to worse, the relationship between Jerusalem and Moscow appears to be blossoming. On returning to the Foreign Ministry in November last year, Avigdor Lieberman suggested that Israel was too reliant on the United States and needed to cultivate alliances with new powers.
Lieberman expanded on this theme in April 2014 in an interview with Israel’s Russian-language TV Channel 9, claiming that Israel had “good and trusting relations with the Americans and the Russians and [its] experience has been very positive with both sides.” It was later reported that U.S. officials were angry with the very suggestion that Israel’s ties with Russia could be bracketed together with the special relationship between Jerusalem and Washington.
However, with the present crisis in relations with the United States and the growing possibility of European Union sanctions against Israel, the Netanyahu government views Russia as a strategic partner of increasing importance, even though Israel’s Prime Minister fully understands that Moscow cannot take the place of Washington.
Israel has been working assiduously in recent years to cultivate a solid strategic relationship with Russia. In March this year, Israel’s diplomats pointedly stayed away from the UN General Assembly vote which condemned Russia’s annexation of Crimea, despite American entreaties to vote for the motion. Israel claims that its diplomats stayed away because of a Foreign Ministry strike, but this cuts little ice. This was effectively a slap in the face for the United States which has always supported Israel at the UN.
Certainly, Israel needs to have Russia on its side: Advocates for a pro-Moscow line will point to the fact that Russia pulled out of a deal in 2010 to sell S-300 air defense systems to Iran. Israel will want to ensure that Russia does not change its mind. Moreover, Israel may need to explore the possibility of cooperation with Russia to help ensure that any deal reached with Iran over its nuclear program is a satisfactory one.
Russia was restrained in its response to Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza, and has even expressed some understanding for its actions. Putin has personally provided support for Jewish religious and cultural institutions in Russia, and has spoken out against anti-Semitism. The fact that there are well over one million Israeli citizens originating from the former Soviet Union is also a factor in its policy towards Moscow. The economic ties between the two countries are also prospering, illustrated by the Russian gas giant Gazprom’s agreement to fund an offshore liquefied natural gas facility in Israel. Thanks to a reciprocal agreement, Russian and Israeli tourists don’t need visas to enter each other’s country – indeed, some 603,000 Russian tourists visited Israel in 2013.
However, Russia’s interests in the Middle East are complex. It continues to sell arms to Syria and Iran, and some of these weapons may also have reached Hizbullah. In August, Russia signed a memorandum of understanding with Iran, allowing Tehran to sell it oil in return for the sale of energy equipment, machinery and food. Russia has also announced plans to build two additional nuclear reactors in Iran. If the oil for equipment deal goes ahead, it will enable Iran to evade sanctions and strengthen its leverage during negotiations with the P5+1.
In early October, it emerged that Russia has been gathering intelligence on Israel’s armed forces from a Syrian base near the border with Israel, in coordination with its ally, the Assad regime. Footage from the base captured by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) revealed that Russia had overseen electronic surveillance of both Israel’s forces and Syrian rebels. This sensitive information could be shared with both Iran and Hizbullah. U.S. Senator John McCain, the former Republican presidential candidate, tweeted that the "shocking revelation of (the) secret Russian base in Syria shows how much Putin is helping Assad's war machine."
As Ephraim Halevy, the former head of the Mossad has pointed out, Israel has hauled the Obama administration over the coals for its policy on Iran and the Palestinians, yet kowtows to Russia in spite of Putin’s support for Tehran and Hamas.
Unlike Washington, Moscow does not provide $3 billion in military assistance to Jerusalem and consistently votes against Israel at the UN. While it is understandable that Israel should want to “keep its friends close and its enemies closer”, one cannot help drawing the conclusion that Israel is taking Washington for granted.
Israel needs close ties with Russia, but this cannot come at the expense of its overall relationship with Washington. Whatever the faults of the Obama administration, its commitment to Israel’s security is not in doubt, as reflected in the ongoing aid and the substantial military and intelligence cooperation. The same cannot be said of Putin’s Russia.
Dr. Azriel Bermant is a Research Associate at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter: @azrielb