Against the backdrop of the Obama administration and its attempt at dialogue with the Muslim world, including an effort at direct negotiations with Iran to resolve the ongoing nuclear issue, and given the renewed effort to jump-start the political process between Israel and its neighbors, the international community has of late been actively engaged in the region.
Amid this activity, Russia has not remained on the sidelines. It is demonstrating significant political activism, motivated by the desire to become an influential player internationally. It seems that Russia is not resigned to the loss of its superpower status, and is working hard to restore its former glory. In recent years this ambition has been the leitmotif of its foreign policy, which has striven to achieve parity within the existing international community, or to change the current world order so as to create a multipolar system.
The Middle East has increasingly been the focus of Russia's attention, both because it is becoming a new arena of competition with the US and because of the ongoing deterioration of the Iranian crisis.
Over the last two decades Russia has gradually rehabilitated its status in the Middle East that was lost with the breakup of the USSR, primarily via cultivation of relations with the radical camp, including Iran, Syria, and non-state entities such as Hamas. However, this is not enough to grant it the position of influence it seeks. Regarding the central issues of the region, the US remains the leading player, thus neutralizing Russia's efforts to achieve parity. Russia would like to upgrade its status in the region and upset the US's position of dominant regional player.
It is still hard to point to impressive Russian achievements in the Middle East. It is clear to Russia that it is not going to win entry to the Middle East arena only from it current partners. Beyond the agreement of the international community, there is also the need for cooperation from all the elements, and in particular the moderate countries in the region - including Israel. Israel is seen as a central axis in the moderate camp, at least with regard to the Iranian threat, and as an element capable of allowing Russia to integrate into the political processes in the region on equal footing with the US, for example, by agreeing to hold an international conference in Russia.
RUSSIA SEES Israel as a friendly country that shares something of its own spirit. The current positive relations reflect the conjoined efforts of influential factors - political, economic, even demographic - with Russia explicitly announcing that it feels a sense of responsibility for the more than 1 million Russian-speaking Israeli citizens, recent immigrants to the country. Still, Israel is not viewed in a vacuum but rather in the context of Russia's comprehensive Middle East policy, and relations are built relative to its regional and global political considerations. In this context, the bilateral relationship assumes secondary importance, and it is no accident that Russia's achievements in this area are far from optimal.
Beyond this, Israel is viewed by Russia as the US's ally and as such is not expected to cooperate with it in promoting its objectives in the region. Russia sees it as a challenge to attempt to change this reality, if only in part. While its efforts to include Israel in its realm of influence are unending, its higher priority is to forge cooperation with the Arab world. Indeed, despite Israel's clear interest in viewing Russia as a friendly nation and even a political ally, since the renewal of diplomatic relations, bilateral relations have never gone beyond a very limited scope, with the exception of some specific aspects.
Against this backdrop, the most recent developments in relations between the two nations - including bilateral activity, generally behind the scenes, such as the meeting between Presidents Shimon Peres and Dmitry Medvedev, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's secret visit to Russia, and contacts at various levels between ministers and senior envoys - seem to signal a turning point.
In addition to Russia's interest in becoming actively involved in the Middle East peace process, recent Russian-Israeli contacts suggest the possibility of a Russian initiative in formulating new operational proposals for this process or even a more far-reaching possibility, such as the attempt to mediate between Israel and one of Russia's radical partners. If so, this could augur a real breakthrough, or at least a positive Russian effort to find ways to exit the quagmire.
At the same time, however, Russia is careful to continue developing its positive relations with the opposite camp: Its sweeping support for Iran continues, even though at least superficially it seems that there is cooperation with the international community to stop its nuclear program. Its support for Syria also continues, and it is also clear that Russia is making significant efforts to exert its influence vis-Ã -vis the Palestinians.
While Russia's ambivalent activity, which is not new in terms of its international practice, may reflect attitudes to the different nations, including Israel, as tools for promoting Russian interests in the international community, it is nonetheless its way to reach across all the influential powers and elements that do not allow for simple, unilateral solutions. Russia must formulate a policy that will allow it to appear as the only element in the Middle East that has the capability of speaking with all the parties about all the issues. Such capability would give it a relative advantage over the other players and help it upgrade its international status. However, the missing factor in the equation is Israel. To date, Russia's efforts have not borne appreciable fruit from its perspective, and now is the time for a new attempt.
Given the changing international reality, it appears that Israel too is more ready to examine new proposals. For Israel, Russia was and still is an important country, both in the international context and bilaterally. It is in its interest to generate changes in Russia's current policy, based as it is on sweeping support for its enemies, and to encourage Russia to work toward finding a foundation for positive international cooperation in the Middle East.
Reprinted with permission of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. The author is a research fellow at INSS.