Israel has become embroiled in a serious crisis in its ties with Russia following last week’s downing of a Russian intelligence aircraft by Syrian anti-aircraft fire, killing its 15 crew members, after the Israel Air Force bombed the Syrian port city of Latakia. Moscow blamed Israel and rejected Israel’s position, which blamed the incident entirely on what it called Syria’s negligent, unrestrained use of air-defense systems.
Russia’s statement on Monday that it would supply S-300 missiles to the Assad regime’s army clearly conveys the Russian defense minister’s message that “the situation has changed, and it’s not our fault.” He added that his country would disrupt signals from aircraft attacking in Syria, which would impact Israel’s aerial action in Syria.
The investigations by the Israel Air Force and the Russian Defense Ministry have turned up conflicting findings. According to the Israelis, the Russians received a timely warning of the coming assault, and the Russian plane was hit after the Israeli planes had already landed. The Russians say that Israel used the Russian plane as a shield. They revealed information about operational coordination with Israel, and claimed they had protected Israel’s security and been paid back with Israeli ingratitude.
Behind the tactical dispute over the bombing and the warning is a strategic power struggle. Israel insists it is its right to attack targets in Syria to thwart the deployment of Iranian forces there, and to prevent Hezbollah from gaining strength militarily, particularly with regard to the improved accuracy of its missiles. Russia, which managed to restore the Assad regime to power through most of Syria, conveyed messages to Israel even before the bombing in Latakia that attacks on Syrian targets contravene its interests.
Over the past two weeks, Israel has broken its characteristic ambiguity, making clear that it will continue bombing Iranian targets in Syria. Now this policy is being severely put to the test. Israel must not become enmeshed in a clash with Russia, a superpower whose forces are deployed across the border and can restrict Israel’s freedom of aerial maneuver.
The public clash casts doubt on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bragging about his close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and overshadows the boasts of senior IDF officers who have presented Syria as a free target range for the IAF.
Clearly, the Israeli public has no idea about the management of the “battle between the wars” in the north, and censorship prevents discussion of the army’s methods. The unfolding of events and the danger they reflect require a thorough investigation by Israel.
Such an investigation can only be done by an external panel, which would scrutinize the conduct of the campaign in the north and the downing of the Ilyushin aircraft. It would also assist Israel in handling demands Russia is expected to make, and to compensate families of the crew members killed.
The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.
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