Above the fray of Cold War II

After having been a protagonist of the last century's East-West conflict, Israel tries to remain neutral as Russia and the West return to spar.

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May 12, 2018 03:23

US tells Russia "you are isolating yourselves" by backing Assad (credit: REUTERS)

US tells Russia "you are isolating yourselves" by backing Assad (credit: REUTERS)

 
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THE COLD War is back. 


The US-led missile attack on Syria on April 14 pitted a Western alliance – the US, Britain and France – against Russia, underscoring the return of the Cold War that dominated international relations for nearly half a century following World War II. 

The great geopolitical chasm of the last century seemed dead and buried after the fall of the Berlin Wall. What culminated with the dissolution of the USSR seemed to have bridged the ideological abyss and ended the strategic rivalry between East and West. 

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The schism that pitted communism against capitalism and democracy against “the proletariat’s dictatorship” impacted practically all of mankind, dividing not only neighbors like Bulgaria and Greece or Ethiopia and Kenya, but even nationalities, as in Germany and Vietnam.

By the end of the 20th century, the international system had been reprogrammed as capitalism’s fixtures, from stock markets to business schools, sprouted from Riga to Sophia while former East Bloc members joined the European Union and NATO as functioning democracies with private business and a free press. 

That was then. Now the previous era’s ghosts are back, carrying proxy wars, arms races, bickering rhetoric and diplomatic expulsions wrapped in cloak-and-dagger mystique. 

Then again, this sequel is in many ways different from the original, most obviously in its motivations and locations, and less obviously – but very tellingly – in its relationship to the Jewish state.

UNDERSCORED BY 22 Western countries’ expulsions in March of more than 100 Russian diplomats, Cold War II has reached a new climax within a decade of its unpredicted return. 

The renewed clash first erupted with Russia’s invasion of Georgia in summer 2008. The five-day confrontation that cost both sides more than a combined 340 lives signaled a newly assertive Moscow’s resolve to block NATO’s eastward expansion. 

Georgia made no secret of its quest to follow in the footsteps of the Baltic republics – Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – which, like Georgia, had been part of the USSR and joined NATO in 1999. The Russian response meant Georgia’s quest would remain unfulfilled despite NATO’s sympathy, especially considering the presence of 8,000 Russian troops in the Caucasian republic. 

Having made this statement vis-à-vis NATO, Russia then proceeded to the European Union and its quest to coopt Ukraine. Sharing a 2,300-kilometer border with Russia, Kiev hoped to follow 11 formerly communist countries and become an EU member. This quest was thwarted when Russian-backed militias invaded Ukraine in 2014. Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea altogether quashed the Ukrainian plan to veer west. 

President Vladimir Putin’s statement to an applauding Russian National Assembly that “Crimea has always been an inseparable part of Russia” baffled Western leaders who responded with harsh sanctions. 

The EU, the US and other Western countries froze major Russian companies’ assets and imposed financial restrictions and travel bans on more than 100 Russian individuals. The consequent collapse of the ruble debilitated the Russian economy, which stumbled into deep recession. 

Though all this acrimony took place beyond Israel’s immediate surroundings, the new Cold War was also fueled by events in the Middle East. 

First, the upheaval in Libya in the winter of 2011 and Muammar Gaddafi’s downfall were understood in Moscow as a NATO robbery of a Russian outpost. This thinking fed Russia's intervention in the Syrian civil war, beginning in the fall of 2015. Russia is set out to reassert its imperial sway. 

This, then, is how Cold War II reached the doorstep of Cold War I veteran: the Jewish state. 

ISRAEL WAS born in part thanks to Joseph Stalin’s hope to undermine Britain’s global interests by backing the UN’s Partition Resolution that led to Israel’s establishment. 

However, Stalin’s hope that Israel would be a Soviet satellite was quickly dashed, as he himself realized when he discontinued the Czechoslovak arms shipments that helped Israel win its War of Independence. 

Since the 1950s, Israel’s place in the Cold War has been obvious. Israeli spies obtained and handed the CIA the secret speech in which Nikita Khrushchev exposed Stalin’s purges; Israeli diplomats backed the US during the Cuban missile crisis; Israeli generals showed their American peers Soviet- made tanks, radars and jets that the IDF captured from Arab armies; and Israeli athletes joined the American-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. 

That is not what is happening now. Israel is treating Cold War II as if it never heard of its outbreak. Jerusalem expelled no Russian diplomat, even after London’s expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats was joined by the US, Canada and Australia in addition to Germany, France and most other EU members. The expulsions followed Britain’s charge that Russian agents poisoned, on British soil, former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, with a nerve toxin that was left outside their door. 

Moreover, the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s formal condemnation of the poisoning in Britain did not mention the word “Russia,” even after London expressly requested that Jerusalem make such mention. 

Similarly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made no mention of Russia in his response to the US-led attack in Syria, saying only “Israel’s support for Trump is unchanged” and “Assad’s willingness to let Iran consolidate in his country endangers Syria.”

Israel’s neutrality on Russia is part of a pattern that harks back a decade. 

Led at the time by Ehud Olmert’s center- left government, Israel did not mention Russia in its response to the invasion of Georgia, unlike then-US president George Bush’s response. All Israel would say back then was that it recognizes “Georgia’s territorial contiguity.” 

The following decade’s Netanyahu governments continued this trend, first by remaining mum in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and then by failing to join its allies’ anti-Russian sanctions. 

The Obama administration tried to add Jerusalem to the international front it was building, and also conveyed to Jerusalem its displeasure with Israel’s failure to rebuke Russia, but Israel would not budge.

The geopolitical paradox is such that while Israel is missing alongside its greatest ally, the US is flanked by the likes of Albania, which has backed anti-Russian sanctions following the Crimean annexation, and Moldova, which just expelled three Russian diplomats. 

Why, then, is Israel not taking its natural place alongside its allies? 

JERUSALEM’S ATTEMPTED neutrality is driven by three engines, the first of which is trade. 

Since the collapse of communism, Russian- Israeli trade grew steadily, approaching at one point $2 billion. The main component in that equation was Israeli oil imports, which began declining last decade as Israel began buying crude from Kurdish Iraq. 

Even so, Israel still buys oil from Russia, as well as Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, both former Soviet republics, and the latter also a member of the six-nation, Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union. 

Though Israel’s exports to Russia remain relatively marginal – $1b. on the eve of the ruble’s collapse in 2014 – Russia’s proximity and its wealth of raw materials make it prominent in Israel’s long-term commercial thinking.

In addition, Russia has become a major market for Israeli fruits and vegetables, with annual exports up more than tenfold since the last decade, at more than $300 million. As much as 80 percent of some crop harvests, like carrots, radishes and green peppers, were sent to Russia up until 2014. 

Russia’s subsequent economic crisis has pressured Israeli exports, but the simple realities of supply and demand mean that growth’s return is but a matter of time, especially given that Israel supplies Russian households with basic foods like tomatoes, cucumbers and apples. 

All that having been said, trade is a secondary consideration in Israel’s relations with Russia, which is driven first and foremost by the two factors that defined Israel’s position in the previous Cold War: the Jewish Diaspora and the Arab Middle East.

The Jewish people were at the heart of the previous Cold War – both as a target and as a warrior. 

The USSR’s ban on Jewish emigration and its obstruction of Jewish religious observance made it an enemy in the eye of the rest of the Jewish world, which mobilized to fight its policies. 

The current Cold War is unfolding against an entirely different backdrop. 

Russia’s Jews are free to travel and live wherever they please; the Jewish faith is fully legitimate; the land is checkered with Jewish schools, kosher restaurants and ritual baths, all of which were unthinkable during the communist era; and Putin openly associates with rabbis. 

The Jewish state therefore has no qualm with Russia’s treatment of its Jews. At the same time, Israel must consider the future of Russia’s still sizable Jewish community, and also of Ukraine’s, which are estimated at 250,000 fully identified Jews and hundreds of thousands more semi-Jews. 

ONE WRONG Israeli step on this front, coupled with some sudden political tremors of the sort that greater Russia tends to experience every several decades, and Israel might damage an important part of the Diaspora. 

The existence of sizable communities on both sides of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict further compels Israel to remain above its fray. That is why Israel chose, with the opposition parties’ acquiescence, to remain neutral in this conflict, a choice apparently led by Soviet-born Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (in his 2014 role as foreign minister). 

Israel, then, had solid and unique reasons to keep distance from Cold War II. 

Still, just like the Jewish context is in this case more important for Israel than its trade with Russia, so too is Russia’s new Middle Eastern presence inspiring Israel’s attitude more than anything else. 

Russia's military intervention in Syria has not only tilted the war in favor of its client, President Bashar Assad, it has also convinced Egypt to restore its arms purchases in Moscow, which were discontinued by Anwar Sadat more than four decades earlier. 

The Egyptian decision was partly President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s reaction to what he saw as Barack Obama’s betrayal of Hosni Mubarak following the riots of winter 2011. However, Cairo’s new waltzing with Moscow was also part of a sober suspicion that American commitments may carry unwritten expiration dates, unlike Russia’s imperial appetites, which seem part of an imperial DNA. 

Now, with Egypt buying $2 b. worth of Russian jets, missiles and radars, and with Russian fighter planes parking just several minutes’ flight from the Galilee, Israel must dialogue with Russian generals as cautiously as it handles the Jewish situation on both sides of the Dnieper. 

Coordination between the IDF and the Russian army is indeed regular, amicable and efficient. No, Israel is not expected to seek Russian weapons. However, Israel has resolved to respect Russia’s regional role by emulating Finland’s role in postwar Europe. 

The Scandinavian country that heroically fought the invading Red Army in 1939 was a Western outpost in every cultural and economic respect, but diplomatically, it remained neutral during the Cold War due to its traumatic history with, and geographic proximity to, the Russian bear. 

Cold War II places Israel in a similarly precarious position between its former foe in the East and its historic allies in the West. 

It’s a thankless position, no doubt, but considering the cordiality and mutual respect between a pair like former KGB agent Putin and former Prisoner of Zion Sharansky, for Israel Cold War II is much more pleasant than Cold War I.

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