The Putinization of Israel: Netanyahu Cozying Up to Russia May Cost Israel Dearly

Mistrustful of the U.S. and feeling alienated from Europe, Bibi hasn't defected, but he recognizes the region’s new top dog.

Exchanging sweet nothing-muches? Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu, left, with Russian leader Vladiir Putin, at the Bocharov Ruchei state residence in Sochi, May 2013.
Reuters

A couple of years ago, farmers in the Jordan Valley began to sing the praises of the Russian market. As more and more retailers in Western Europe boycotted their peppers and dates, the Israeli farmers thought they had found a sensible alternative to the Western Europeans who had been, until that point, their biggest clients.

Some sneered that Europeans boycott West Bank produce for "humanitarian reasons" - but only until their stock runs out. “I boycott them back. My base is Putin, not some European idiot,” one farmer told this reporter last year. 

This week Israel seemed to have embraced the pepper-farmers' bitterness as official foreign policy, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu retaliated against the EU for its decision to label settlement products and cozied up to Vladimir Putin for the second time in two months.

Meeting on the sidelines of the COP21 Paris climate summit, Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin talked for 45 minutes, about Syria. Both boasted of Russian-Israeli military cooperation and promised to expand them. Putin even got to display his Jewish chops by talking about the meaning of Hanukkah.

Putin, being Putin, looked relaxed, lounging back as Netanyahu spoke. Netanyahu, on the other hand, looked wound-up. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that a Russian jet recently breached Israel’s airspace (and was not shot down), a poignant example of Russia’s “we can do whatever we want and you can’t do anything about it” attitude.

Earlier this week, in response to the European Union decision this month to label settlement products, Netanyahu ordered Israel’s Foreign Ministry to suspend ties with EU bodies working on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. This is largely a symbolic move with very little real-world ramifications (for starters, what “peace process?”), but even so, it serves as a stark message regarding Israel’s future intentions. It is yet another example of the growing distance between Israel and the European values it still (half-heartedly) espouses.

There you have it, Israel’s foreign policy circa 2015: Israel turning its back on Europe and apparently doing everything in its power to antagonize the U.S.), while kowtowing to Putin.

It could simply be realpolitik: Netanyahu, ever the savvy politician, quickly recognizing the region’s new top dog.

Or it could be something deeper in play here. As Israel warms up (albeit cautiously) to Putin, it is also beginning to look more and more like Putin’s Russia, with a prime minister who seems invincible, who has much of the media under his thumb, and willing to use his immense political power in order to steamroll practically every democratic principle on his way to fast-track a dubious deal involving local tycoons and a natural resource (in this case, Israel’s natural gas).

Wild cards

Let’s be clear: Despite their seemingly growing affinity, there is no great love between Putin and Netanyahu. In the new Russian-American Chilly War, Netanyahu didn’t “defect” to the Russians. He’s too American in spirit, and Putin is too much of a wild card. Israel and Russia have deep disagreements about the future of Syria, about Bashar al-Assad and about Iran. And unlike the U.S., Netanyahu has no Jewish lobby that can help him put pressure on the Kremlin.

Most likely, Netanyahu’s budding relationship with Putin stems from his deep mistrust of the Obama administration’s ability (or will) to protect Israel’s security interests. The fascination he and other Israeli right-wingers’ have with Putin stems from the same reason that American conservatives often seem enamored  with Putin: he’s “tough on terror.”

Russian markets are fussy, Israeli farmers have learned: They won't take and buy just any pepper.
Eyal Toueg

While Obama seems reluctant to use the full force of the United States against ISIS, Putin is more than willing to reshape the Middle East in his image.

Also, It’s not that Israel can afford to lose Europe as an ally. Despite the right wing’s demagogy, there is no “European boycott” of Israel. Europe remains Israel’s biggest trading partner and its biggest economic supporter, through numerous trade agreements and partnerships that are vital to Israeli academia, science, culture and exports. That is not going to change.

For all the right-wing protestations that the EU is “de-legitimizing” Israel, the reality is drastically different: The Israeli right-wing has relied for years on the unwavering support for Israel among European nations to essentially do whatever it wanted in the West Bank.

Netanyahu’s symbolic threats to “cut ties” with the EU, and the even-more ludicrous threats made by ministers Ayelet Shaked and Gilad Erdan to sue the EU through the World Trade Organization, are designed largely to appease the “boycott Europe” nonsense that has inexplicably gained traction in Israel in recent months, thanks to poorly-conceived publicity stunts like MK Michael Oren “labeling” EU products. Israel’s reliance on Europe is so large, in fact, that it’s hard not to see the “boycott the boycotters” sentiments as anything but comical.

Nevertheless, while still dependent on European money, Israel is increasingly turning its back on Europe. Ever since the current wave of violence began, more and more Israeli politicians and citizens advocate Putin-like policies involving brutal use of force. Politicians and ordinary citizens have taken to openly mocking European values like humanism as a burdensome folly in the fight against terrorism.

In an article about the dangerous flirtation between parts of Israel’s leadership and public and the political legacy of Putin, former MK Nitzan Horowitz wrote: “Who admires Putinism? Those whose democratic backbone is bent, who view freedom of expression and creativity as signs of laxity and atrophy.” Sadly, among Israel’s population, this group is currently experiencing rapid growth.

Thus while growing increasingly alienated from its two biggest allies - the U.S. and the EU, Israel finds itself growing closer to Russia.

This is a perilous path. Just ask the pepper farmers in the Jordan Valley, who found out for themselves that the Russians are not benevolent, but have their own interests in mind: Knowing they are their only buyers, they used this knowledge to bargain for drastically lower prices. And because Russians only like very specific kinds of vegetables, much of their best produce were left unwanted, thrown away or simply left on the side of the road.