In the new Cold War, Israel must navigate carefully

Putin is waiting for Trump, and Netanyahu is waiting for both of them.

Russian President Vladimir Putin  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Russian President Vladimir Putin
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Fifty years ago, just before the Six-Day War broke out, there was a popular song that everyone used to sing in Israel: Rabin is waiting for Nasser. And when Israel won the war, it turned into one of the best-known victory songs associated with the war.
A similar song could be sung these days with a slight change in the lyrics: Putin is waiting for Trump. The former has just completed a lightning-fast and brutal conquest of Aleppo, and just like after he took over the Crimea, everyone around him is turning a blind eye.
I’d like to recall one more memory from the past before I concentrate on current affairs: twenty-five years ago, the Japanese-American philosopher Francis Fukuyama gave an important lecture titled “The End of History?” not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Eastern Bloc.
Fukuyama argued that the end of the Cold War was “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” He believed that there could be no progression from liberal democracy to an alternative system.
Since then, many historians have claimed that history has not come to an end, and current events seem to prove this statement. We are in the midst of a new cold war between the US and Russia, and the present time may truly be the end of diplomacy.
President Obama, who will be completing his term on January 20, 2017, initially discounted renewed Russian attempts at taking back control of regions that had been lost. A year ago, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said that Russia is merely a regional power, whereas the US is a global power, and doubted whether Russia was really capable of challenging the US. If you look at what has happened in the years since Putin returned to power, you will see that the Americans were completely misguided.
Obama and Putin are not speaking the same language. Putin is an advocate of using political strength and economic weapons in his international negotiations. He demonstrated this in the Chechen War, in the annexation of Crimea, as well as when he threatened neighboring countries, including the Czech Republic, Poland and Lithuania.
Putin views Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics as part of Russia’s sphere of influence. In contrast, Obama projects an image of much more limited power. He seeks to gain global influence, but through the dissemination of values such as peace and democracy and the promotion of friendly relations, diplomacy and negotiations.
Obama has consistently refrained from using military force, in spite of the fact that the US is the world’s strongest military power.
The crisis in this drawn-out war in Syria was a watershed. Assad used chemical weapons against the rebels and the civilian population.
Obama hesitated responding with force, but with the cooperation of Russia succeeded in dismantling Syria’s chemical weapon capability (although probably not completely).
Russia was a partner in this agreement, but as a result of this interaction Putin understood clearly that the US was in no hurry to implement its threats of using military force. And since then, Russia has increased its military activity, and in conjunction with its partners, Iran and Hezbollah, has succeeded in crushing the rebellion. The US has continued its war against ISIS, but without much success.
Encouraged by recent successes, for the first time in history, Putin decided to meddle in domestic US affairs. Russian hackers managed to infiltrate the Democratic National Committee’s email system and thereby help Donald Trump win the election. This cyber war has escalated, and the conflict has risen to a new level.
As it turns out, US intelligence agencies were aware of this activity, but did nothing to prevent it, and after the election they announced that Putin’s hand had influenced the outcome of the election.
Obama confirmed this claim at a recent press conference, in an offhand manner, which is surprising considering that this was a flagrant violation of the rules of international relations. Trump immediately sent out a tweet on the issue, and then took it off his agenda.
An interesting and intriguing new chapter in relations has begun between the US and Russia. Granted, Putin undermined Hillary Clinton, but who knows if one day he might live to regret this particular success. No one has any clue what sort of foreign policy the president- elect will engage in.
Most of the statements he made during and after the campaign have been contradictory. Is his call to “Make America great again” a strategic ploy referring to the role the US has been playing as the international policeman, or does he mean that we need to focus on something else entirely? Trump’s cabinet appointments have also shown a clear direction, especially his tendency to make professional appointments, such as the individuals he appointed for secretary of defense and national security adviser, as opposed to political appointments.
Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, the nominee for secretary of state, for example, is a mix of political loyalty and diplomatic and economic experience, but he has no official bureaucratic experience.
Diplomat Dennis Ross, who briefed a group of Israelis at the Jewish People Policy Institute in Jerusalem this week, also raised many questions, such as whether Trump will serve as head of the board of directors but let his staff make all the day-to-day decisions, and whether or not he will involve himself in every decision that needs to be made. This new complex international map is very important for Israel.
Netanyahu is carefully navigating his way among these two superpowers.
Of course, our main focus is on Israel’s relationship with the US, but Israel is right to tread carefully in all matters concerning our new neighbor, Russia, where it has recently taken up permanent residence.
Israel and the US have a solid defense alliance, and we can rely on the premise that the US will not allow Israel to be harmed. However, what was a given in the past may no longer be valid for the future.
Israeli officials recently sat down with Trump’s transition team in order to brief them on matters pertaining to security in the Middle East, namely Iran and the war on terrorism.
Russia has a clear goal for its presence in Syria. Israeli officials are wondering, however, whether the Trump administration has plans to stop the Russians from progressing and maybe even turning this cold war into a hot one. Maybe they are interested in making changes in territorial configuration like the Allies did following World War I.
Putin is waiting for Trump, and Netanyahu is waiting for both of them.
The author is a Knesset MK from the Zionist Union Party, a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and head of the Lobby for US-Israel Relations.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.