Russia-Israel relations: It’s complicated

Por • 11 sep, 2022 • Sección: Crítica

 David P.Goldman

August 31, 2022. Being the president of Russia means never having to say you’re sorry, except – remarkably – after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claimed casually that Adolf Hitler was of partly Jewish descent. Vladimir Putin offered a personal apology to then-Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett.

Reflexive Russian anti-Semitism is a dog-bites-man story; a Russian leader’s apology for it is a man-bites-dog story. One struggles to recall a precedent.

I cannot find another instance of Putin having apologized for anything. The fact of his apology suggests that Russian-Israeli relations are fluid and flexible, and – like everything else in the region – subject to negotiation.

The Ukraine war puts Israel in a dilemma: Although it refused to join the sanctions regime against Russia, Prime Minister Yair Lapid has taken a public stand in sympathy for Ukraine, incurring Moscow’s wrath.

In April, Lapid – whose political point of orientation is America’s Democratic Party – denounced alleged Russian war crimes in the Ukrainian town of Bucha. Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a Moldovan-born politician with a broad Russian constituency, refused to do so.

In retaliation for Lapid’s verbal support for Ukraine, Russia threatened to  close the Moscow office of the Jewish Agency, the organization that supports Jewish immigration to Israel. At the same time, Russia’s rapprochement with Iran – Israel’s most dangerous adversary in the region – further complicates Israel’s position.

Russia has allowed Israel to suppress Iranian-allied forces in Syria. That is subject to negotiation – as it has been from the outset.

After Russia’s intervention in the Syrian Civil War in 2015, Israel – an American ally – worked out a modus vivendi with Moscow that allowed Israel to conduct thousands of raids against Iranian assets on the ground in Syria while Russian forces looked the other way.

This was neither an easy nor a pleasant negotiation. An Israeli Air Force officer present at the first meeting of the Russian and Israeli militaries recounted the following conversation:

“A Russian officer said, ‘We notice that your planes turn west over Beirut after bombing runs in Syria. Please change your flight plan, because we don’t want to shoot down civilian aircraft from the Beirut airport by accident when we fire missiles at your planes.’

“An Israeli replied: ‘Please tell your people in surface-to-air missile batteries that they will have exactly seven seconds to evacuate after firing a missile at an Israeli plane before we destroy them.’”

Russia did not want a fight with Israel, and it looked askance at Iranian expansionism in the region. Putin moreover developed a rapport with Israel’s former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

 Russia’s present rapprochement with Iran is an opportunistic response to the West’s attempt to isolate Russia after its invasion of Ukraine. 

Israel is often thought of as an adjunct of the United States, but almost 10 times as many Jews emigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union (1,326,666) than from the US and Canada (161,755) since the country’s founding. Some 150,000 of the Soviet emigrants were scientists or engineers, and they made Israel into a pocket superpower in technology.

Family and business ties between Israel and Russia have continued. More than 20 flights from Israel to the Russian Federation are scheduled during the coming seven days. 

Israeli security demands a modus vivendi with Russia over Syria, but Israel remains an American ally, dependent on the US for most of its military hardware. That is a difficult position for a small state, and Lapid has been less than adept at managing it.

Israelis will vote in the fourth national election in two years this November 1, after its political parties failed once again to form a majority government. Netanyahu, now fighting criminal charges that his supporters claim are politically motivated, wants to return to office. 

In the meantime, Washington’s boast that it would destroy Russia’s capacity to make war and reduce its economy by half have turned out to be hollow, and Russia is more than holding its own on the ground in Ukraine. NATO solidarity is strained by a crippling energy shortage and soaring energy prices in Europe.

Russia will not disappear as a factor in the Middle East, and Israel as a matter of national security will continue to deal with Russia. Too many variables are at play to permit facile conclusions as to the outcome of what remains a continuing negotiation.

David P Goldman is Asia Times deputy editor. He discussed the ramifications of the Ukraine war for Israel in a recent interview with Israeli journalist Caroline Glick.

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