By Jamila Mammadova
On 20 March 2013, Reuters reported on the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin’s, desire to see Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow. Mr. Putin congratulated Mr. Netanyahu over the formation of his new government by sending an invitation letter with no specified dates in it. It has been also reported that the invitation came just before the United States President Barack Obama was due to arrive in Israel to begin his first official visit since his own presidential victory, in the hope of resetting his often uneasy relations with both Israel and the Palestinians.
Instead, it was Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas who was Mr Putin’s guest in Moscow as part of this great power merry-go-round. The Palestinian President expressed his concern over Israel-Palestinian relations to his Russian counterpart.
When Putin meets Netanyahu there is usually a reason behind it. When the Russian President met the Israeli PM in summer 2012, straight after Putin had won his third term of presidency, both leaders were reported to have been concerned about the rising power of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. The mood music suggested that the US had abandoned its long-time ally in the Middle East for the sake of Middle Eastern diplomacy by having chosen relations with extreme elements of the Muslim world over Israel.
Mr. Putin’s concern presumably derived from the statistical likelihood that the next candidate for establishment of an Islamist regime would be in Syria, and that he would no longer be able to exert influence over the Syrian ruling elite. In a speech on Iran, Mr. Putin warned the Israeli authorities against hasty military action in favor of a cautiously thought out strategy. Following the meeting, Mr. Netanyahu confirmed that both Russia and Israel agreed that the possibility of Iranian nuclear weapons was a serious danger for the world.
The interest in a new Russia-Israel meeting may have more to do with Syria. It is obvious that intervention in the internal Syrian struggle may trigger processes that will affect the situation in the vast territory surrounding Syria, and have a devastating impact on both regional and international security.
Risks include the loss of control over the Syrian-Israeli border, a worsening of the internal balance in other countries in the region such as Lebanon and Jordan, weapons falling into the hands of terrorists, and the worsening of inter-faith tensions inside the Islamic world. Russia has indeed begun to distance itself from Syrian turmoil, and announced a couple of months ago the evacuation of thousands of Russians from Syria – a limited sign of acknowledgement by Mr. Putin of the need for change in Syria.
A Russia-Israeli conversation will of course again touch upon the question of Iran, where Israel’s demands will most definitely remain the same: that Iran must cease all uranium enrichment and transfer it out of the country, and that it close its underground nuclear facilities. However, the most interesting part of a discussion might come if Putin and Netanyahu touch upon the prospects of their countries'' relations with the US, which may be Putin’s main priority in the light of the significant external pressure on Russia that has been provoked by the Magnitsky drama.
Netanyahu, in his turn, has been long scathing about Obama''s sympathy to the Muslim world and has often seemed uncomfortable with the experience. Interestingly, during his own summer tour to the Middle East in 2012, Vladimir Putin skipped the Muslim shrines. He met with Christian and Jewish religious figures but avoided meeting Muslim counterparts. When visiting the Palestinian Authority, Putin preferred to come to Bethlehem rather than Ramallah. He artfully chose to play on Barack Obama’s miscalculations. Instead of reaching out to Islam, Putin chose to appear as the defender of Christianity in the Middle East. His gestures could be seen as a signal to Syria, where the Christian minority is standing behind Bashar al-Assad for fear that the Islamists will come to power.
It is possible that Putin has his own view on how the transition in Syria should happen, which may be used by Russia as a bargaining chip in the debate about a pre-emptive strike on Iran. The Russian leader’s invitation might be an attempt to align himself with the US’s most glorified partner in the Middle East. Despite remaining a supporter of regimes in Iran and Syria, the shared concern regarding the Islamist dimension and its periodical disregard by the US, may yet bring Russia closer to Israel.
Jamila Mammadova was born in Baku, Azerbaijan. She holds a BA in Law from Baku State University and MA in Global Affairs from the University of Buckingham. Jamila has previously held positions as a Henry Jackson Society researcher and as a producer on the Voice of Russia radio, both in London. She is currently acting as an independent journalist.