When Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu meets US President Barack Obama in the White House on Monday, he will be meeting a president preoccupied with the Ukrainian crisis, a crisis that some have called the most dangerous situation in Europe since the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Israel has no dog in this fight, and will try as best it can to stay out of it.
Obviously it does not want to do or say anything that would antagonize the US, its greatest ally. But, likewise, it has no interest in doing or saying anything that would rile or alienate Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Israel has a good and cordial relationship with Moscow, and – with Iran and Syria, two areas where Moscow has significant influence – does not want to unnecessarily irritate Putin.
Putin can, if he would want, make things much more difficult for Israel. That explains Jerusalem’s total radio silence regarding the crisis. Just as Brazil and Singapore are not issuing statements about the situation in the Crimean Peninsula, neither does Israel feel the need to get involved.
Not only does Israel not have any vested interest in the fight – though obviously there is a concern for the Jews there, but those Jews have the opportunity to leave – but anything Israel would say on the matter has no real relevance. Obama, for instance, is unlikely to turn to Netanyahu and ask for some unequivocal statement on the matter, knowing that such a statement, even if it was forthcoming, would not really mean anything to anybody.
And this is one area where, as far as Israel is concerned, the Ukrainian crisis is somewhat different from the Georgian crisis in 2008. Then the Georgian government did look for diplomatic support from Jerusalem, which had hitherto sold weapons to Georgia, and wanted it to exert some diplomatic pressure on Moscow. Those in charge now in Kiev have no such expectations.
Israel, like every other country in the world, is following the Ukrainian situation carefully. Jerusalem’s concern, however, is not only the possibility that the crisis there could trigger a full-blown war, but also that a revival of a Cold War-like rivalry between the US and Russia would harm Israel’s interests.
With the P5+1 – which includes Russia and China along with the US, Britain, France and Germany – now engaged in sensitive negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, Israel is keen on Russia working together with the US, and not against it, on this issue.
Worsening relations between Washington and Moscow could also have negative ramifications on other areas of great importance to Israel, such as the sale and delivery of “game changing” weapons to Syria, and their possible transfer to Hezbollah.
Putin may strike back at western responses to his Ukrainian moves – such as trade sanctions and kicking Russia out of the G8 – by actively undermining US and western policy regarding Iran, or working against the current diplomatic process with the Palestinians For more than a decade Israel and the US have agreed that when it comes to Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, it is good to have Moscow “inside the tent” feeling a part of the process, rather than outside the tent feeling that the only way it could make its presence felt would be by causing mischief.
That was part of the logic in including Russia as part of the Quartet – along with the US, EU and UN – in Middle East peacemaking.
If Russia wants to hit back at the US, thwart its moves, one place it could do so would be on the Israeli- Palestinian track. The Palestinians could also use increased US-Russian rivalry to stiffen their own positions.
Up until now Moscow has stood on the sidelines as US Secretary of State John Kerry continued his efforts to broker a deal. But if the Palestinians are unhappy with what they think might emerge, they could conceivably now take more inflexible positions, knowing that Moscow might back them more than in the past, if for no other reason than to hinder US efforts.
It is critical – from Israel’s vantage point – for the US and Russia to work together on Iran, and to be on the same page regarding the diplomatic process with the Palestinians.
To get an idea of what happens when they work against each other in this region, all one needs to do is look at the current situation in Syria.