On June 7, Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the iconic Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. “Russia and Israel can take pride in our high level of partnership, fruitful cooperation and far-reaching business contacts,” Putin said in an address before the ballet.
Since then, that partnership has continued to grow, but the looming crisis in Syria threatens to upset this dance.
Moscow is a close ally of the regime of Bashar Assad, and Israel seeks to ensure quiet on its northern border. Israel carried out an air strike in Syria last Thursday night designed to prevent advanced weapons from being transferred to Hezbollah. Israel Ambassador Gary Koren, who presented his credentials as recently as March 16, was asked to meet with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov the following day to discuss the incident.
The Syrians interpreted this as a message to Israel that its “freedom to act in Syria is over,” but Netanyahu and IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot have reaffirmed that Israel will continue to thwart arms transfers.
The reality is that the September 2015 decision to work toward “deconfliction” in Syria has functioned well for Israel and Russia. The Russians assert that they are satisfied with military-to-military relations between Israel and Russia. They understand Israel’s redlines relating to Iran and Hezbollah in Syria, just as Israel is encouraged to understand there is a Russian redline relating to the Syrian regime and its forces. The Koren-Bogdanov meeting was precipitated by Israel officially acknowledging the strike, but it appears that the meeting was not representative of a crisis, as it has been portrayed in some quarters, but of the relatively smooth relations between the countries and the desire that a misunderstanding would not occur.
It wasn’t always this way. Several decades ago the Soviet Union and Israel did not have relations, and Russia was one of the most implacable Cold War foes, aiding and allying with regimes that opposed Israel.
But recent years have seen a dramatic about-face.
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Last year we saw the most intensive political dialogue in history between Jerusalem and Moscow, said Alexey Drobinin, deputy chief of mission at the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv, in a conversation this week.
High-level delegations traveled back and forth in 2016, including Netanyahu’s two visits and a visit to Israel by Chairman of the Federation Council Valentina Matviyenko.
This year is off to an auspicious start as well.
“For us, Israel is an important partner in the Middle East. Why? Because we believe Israel is a vibrant economy, strong state, especially if you compare it to some other states in this region which have been weakened over the past years. We believe we have a lot of potential to tap into in the coming years with Israel in the political, tech and economic fields, and movement is both ways; Russia has a lot of things to offer, and Israel has a lot to offer,” says Drobinin.
He describes a relationship that is straightforward and open about the countries’ differences, such as relating to the Palestinian issue, a relationship in which each side listens to the other.
“We respect the national security interests of Israel and take into account Russia’s interests in the region. That allows us to avoid misunderstandings with regards to the intentions of the other party and overcome differences,” he says.
Russia has historic ties to the Middle East, including numerous monasteries and pilgrimages by Orthodox Christians. Many Israelis also have origins in Russian-speaking lands, not only from the era before 1948 but also since the 1990s, when a million Russian-speakers arrived on aliya.
Dobrinin, who served at the Russian Embassy in the early 2000s, calls this a “living bridge.” He notes that 200,000 Jews died fighting for the Soviet Union against the Nazi menace. “We note with pride Israel celebrates the 9th of May  victory, the only country outside the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] that celebrates Victory Day.” There are large numbers of Jewish veterans of the “Great Patriotic War” living in Israel, and 40,000 Israelis receive retirement benefits. A new agreement will see former Soviet-era citizens receive access to these benefits.
There is also talk of increasing economic relations with Russia.
“We want Israeli technologies to be used to boost the Russian economy, such as in agriculture and hi-tech. Russia has something to offer in energy,” Dobrinin says.
Russia would like to see Israel create a free trade zone connected to the Eurasian Economic Union, of which Russia is a leading member.
One of the unique aspects of the relationship between Israel and Russia is the personal connection between Putin and Netanyahu. Russia sees it as one built on personal trust. Although at home Netanyahu may be incapable of dealing with issues such as the public broadcasting authority or the housing crises, in Moscow he is seen as reliable and straightforward.
Netanyahu also shifted Israeli policy during the Obama years to favor greater contacts with non-Western countries, such as China. Russia, which has had difficult relations with European Union countries since they imposed sanctions on it in 2014, and whose relations with the Obama administration deteriorated greatly in his last year in office, sees Israel’s policy as balancing its relations with the West with pragmatic nurturing of ties with Moscow.
Now Israel finds itself in a new conundrum.
With Donald Trump in the White House and Trump seen as being more pro-Russia, Israel can openly side with the US administration and yet be seen by US Democrats as part of Russia’s orbit.
For Israel, the Russian connection is essential in the current Middle East. Russia is the dominant player in Syria, and relations with Moscow are essential to reduce the Iranian threat on the Golan Heights and make sure that if and when the Syrian regime launches an offensive in the Golan, Hezbollah is not sitting astride Quneitra.
Both Hezbollah and some among the Syrian rebels might like to see Israel dragged into the Syrian conflict. In general, in the Middle East Russia is seen as an increasingly powerful player, as opposed to the erratic policies coming from Washington.
Russia tends to take the long view relating to Syria, Iran and the Palestinians.
On the Palestinian issue, there is no haste for an agreement, and the option for discussions between Netanyahu and Abbas in Moscow remains open.
In Syria, it will take years for stability to come to the country, and in talks in Astana in Kazakhstan Syria has shown flexibility relating to some of the opposition groups.
Russia is a signatory of the JCPOA or “Iran deal” of 2015 and asserts that Tehran has a right to peaceful nuclear energy.
Where Israel sees Iranian tentacles spreading throughout the region, Russia tends to see Sunni Islamist extremism as the greater threat. In that sense, Iran is a more rational regime, whereas Sunni jihadists spread chaos and terrorism, including terrorism that has affected Russia in the Caucuses.
How Israel and Russia continue to manage their relationship will help determine major issues in the region and also likely cement Israel’s attempts to build a foreign policy built on stronger relations with countries outside the US-EU orbit.
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