Russia and Israel: The Unexpected Alliance

Russia's basic Middle East policies won't change, nor will Israel exchange its alliance with the United States for one with Russia.

He has completed two terms as president and a third as prime minister. Theoretically, he could be leading his country until 2024, which would make him the longest-serving Russian or Soviet leader since Stalin. Vladimir Putin's return to the Kremlin last week generated a wave of commentary, which generally concluded that what was, is, and will be.

Putin 4.0, like the previous versions, believes that Russia still hasn't recovered from its crash in the 1990s, so it's not yet ripe for pluralistic democracy. Putin 4.0 believes the world is dangerous, chaotic and hostile. He will therefore roll back the political reforms his predecessor initiated, strengthen the nationalist spirit, stress his anti-Western reflexes and abandon the "reset" policy that enhanced the relationship between Dmitry Medvedev's Russia and Barack Obama's America.

"Russia has no allies but its army and navy," Czar Alexander III used to say. The Kremlin has adopted this slogan, according to analyst Dr. Ariel Cohen, a senior research fellow at Washington's Heritage Foundation. But other fascinating analyses indicate that Russia may actually be seeking a new and rather unexpected ally.

Prof. Mark Katz of Virginia's George Mason University recently wrote a piece entitled "What would a democratic Russian foreign policy look like?" in the New Zealand International Review. He concludes that Russia's foreign policy wouldn't change substantially, with two exceptions: China and the Middle East.

Katz expects a significant warming of relations between Moscow and Jerusalem, for several reasons: Israel has become an important source of military technology for Russia, both countries are concerned about radical Islam, and extensive cultural, trade and tourism links have been forged.

Fyodor Lukyanov, a veteran Russian commentator, wrote a piece in response to Katz entitled, "Is Israel on the way to becoming a Russian ally?" In the article for Russia Today, Lukyanov sees no reason to wait for a democratic Russia to support Katz's assumption.

First, the Arab world's deep antagonism toward Russia during the Arab Spring puts it in a new position. Second, both Russia and Israel oppose democratization in the Middle East because both believe it will lead to Islamization in the region and beyond. Third, Israel, as a high-tech powerhouse, can help Russia with the modernization it so badly needs.

And here are the two most interesting points in Lukyanov's analysis: Paradoxically, he says, if Israel attacks Iran (in a clear contradiction of Russia's declared policy ) it may remove the main dispute between Moscow and Jerusalem from the agenda. Finally, the rising calls in the United States claiming that its "Israel first" policy limits America's strategic maneuvering may lead the United States to change its diplomatic priorities - in which case Israel might seek to diversify its stable of allies as well.

Reports that Putin has decided to make Israel one of his first foreign destinations after being sworn in has of course contributed to the debate. Former Israeli ambassador to Russia Zvi Magen has written that the Middle East has once again become an arena of competition between Russia and Western powers, and that Moscow seeks to enhance its relationship with Israel - in part to blunt the growing assertiveness of Turkey, which sees the Caucasus as its backyard.

The Turkish threat, he says, and the gas fields recently discovered in the eastern Mediterranean are behind a Russian initiative to establish a bloc with Israel, Cyprus and Greece. An alliance between Moscow and Jerusalem could become "a new factor of influence in this unstable region during a time of great uncertainty," Magen concludes.

Still, it doesn't seem that a Putin visit, even if it happens soon, will lead to a diplomatic earthquake like the one Richard Nixon's visit to China caused in 1972. Nor will it reverse Russia's historic betrayal of Israel in 1952.

Russia's basic Middle East policies won't change, nor will Israel exchange its alliance with the United States for one with Russia - certainly not if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's friend Mitt Romney, who has called Russia "America's top geopolitical adversary," wins the November presidential election.

All this speculation is linked to the Putin era, but as long as the Russian street continues to agitate against him, it's likely he's not looking toward 2024, but trying to survive tomorrow.

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