The dust up between Vladimir Putin and President Erdogan of Turkey is warming at least a few Israeli hearts.
It comes against the background of Erdogan's strong tilt toward the Palestinians, especially the more radical Hamas faction. Prominent in our recent history with him is the effort of the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara to reach Gaza, the violence of several of those on board toward IDF personnel who dropped from helicopters, and the persistent demands of Erdogan for payment and apology on account of those killed in the confrontation.
Now we are hearing Erdogan's insistence that Turkey will not apologize for the downing of the Russian warplane that flew over a sliver of its airspace for 17 seconds, with no threat of attack..
Behind all of this is Erdogan's aspiration to renew the grandeur of the Ottoman Empire as the leader of Sunni Muslims, against the claims of leadership expressed by Saudi Arabia and Egypt. This comes after a half century of Turkish secularism, and the earlier crumbling of what had been a significant power. Weakness was evident in the middle of the 19th century, when it caved in to Christian demands for the establishment of churches and other institutions in Jerusalem. Early in the 20th century was the stain of Armenians genocide, which the Turks deny. Defeat in World War I brought European powers to divide what was left of Turkish rule outside of Turkey.
What remains is a hodge podge of ethnic groups, with the large community of Kurds on the verge of armed rebellion, and Erdogan's political party hanging on to parliamentary control, but not to the extent that it's a sure thing..
Also involved is Russian-Turkish conflict over which side to support in the Syrian civil war. Russia is fighting in behalf of Assad, who Turkey strongly opposes. Russia charges that Turkey is supporting the Islamic State by buying its oil via a company in which the Erdogan family is involved.
Israel is assiduously out of it, but not all that uncomfortable with Russian support of the Assad regime.
Bashar Assad is far from an ideal ruler, but he and his father demonstrated over the course of decades that they would not upset things on Israel's side of the border. Compared to Assad, the various alternatives appear less predictable, and likely to be more overtly hostile.
The US and a few other governments may think they have identified moderate opponents to Assad who are worthy of support.
Israel has learned at high cost the problems of making bets about Arab politicians, whether they be Christian or Muslim.
Also in the air are tensions between the US along with Western European governments and Russia about Ukraine. Russians are admitting that they are hurting due to the sanctions imposed.
Israel's government has made appropriate noises about the borders of a sovereign country. One can find Israelis of Ukrainian background who are offended by Russian actions, but there others who see Ukraine as a swamp of political corruption hardly worth preserving, and remember the participation of Ukrainian nationalists on the side of the Nazis.
Some 15 percent of the Israeli population represents families that came from the former Soviet Union since its collapse. A much larger percentage of Israelis have an ancestor who came from an area of Eastern or Central Europe under the control of Russians.
Israeli sentiments about Russia are more than a bit complex. Individuals have bad memories, distrust of the Russian leadership, as well as pride in accomplishments, and no small measure of satisfaction in having left--or having their ancestor leave--a place with numerous problems.
The Jews of the former Soviet Union did better than others in terms of educational, occupational, and economic accomplishments, but they also had to cope with the burdens of being Jews.
There remains at least a small cluster of Israelis--Jews and Arabs--who identified with the Communism of the Soviet Union. An earlier generation established the Israeli Communist Party, and produced an assessment by the US State Department at the time of Israel's Independence that it wasn't in the interest of the US to recognize the new country because it would eventually become a satellite of the Soviet Union.
Just this week Marcus Klingberg died in Paris at the age of 97. He came from his native Poland soon after Israel's independence, after having served in the Red Army during World War II. He reached a high position in the IDF and then in one of Israel's top secret institutes, where he remained a dedicated Communist and provided sensitive material to his Soviet handlers. His arrest and trial was one of Israel's most spectacular, and he served 15 years of a 20 year sentence before being paroled.
The Israel Communist Party segued into a joint effort of Jews and Arabs called Hadash (New), which in the most recent election joined with other Arab parties in the United Arab list. The lone Jew on the list to reach the Knesset is Dov Khenin, with a family background in the party, who has made a name for himself as one of Israel's most well informed and persuasive advocates of environmental policy. He is also active in behalf of the rights of Israeli Arabs, Palestinians, workers, women, and animals..
The Russians who came from the late 1980s onward tend to vote to the right of center, either for the party led by one of their own--Avigdor Lieberman--or for Likud. Among Israel's rightists, however, it is not hard to find those whose parents were proud members of the Communist Party, or acquired a party card to help with their careers. We still see older immigrants--fewer each year-- walking tall on Israeli or Russian holidays in their fading suits, with the jacket bedecked with row after row of medals acquired in World War II.
Few Israelis may be Russian patriots, but more feel at least a bit to ambivalence about tensions between Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama.
Involved here is the much greater aid Israel has received from the United States, and the appropriateness of saying thanks and behaving well as members of an American-led alliance.
There is also a widely shared perception about the flakiness and flabbiness of Obama's approach to the Middle East, compared to Putin's decisiveness on matters which Israelis can understand if not support wholeheartedly.
One should not expect Prime Minister Netanyahu or any other ranking Israeli to side with Vladimir against Barack. However, Bibi and Vladimir have praised one another's contribution to the coordination between Russian and Israeli air forces over Syria. The IDF has lots of Russian speaking personnel who can manage the details. There have been Russian planes that strayed into Israeli airspace while on missions over Syria, but there have been no threats of an Israeli shoot-down. Israel continues to pound its targets in Syria, mostly munitions destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon, or Syrian fighters who fire by accident or intention into Israel.
Israel is a tiny place. Like its ancient predecessor, geography provides a tough neighborhood. The modern version is able to defend itself and make trouble for those who threaten it. It also has learned to stay out of quarrels where possible, and to avoid playing in the politics of those unlike it in culture and politics.
Israel will try to sit on the sidelines as the US and Russia maneuver for influence and space, hope to maintain appropriate relations with both, do what it can to avoid fallout, and leave to individuals to think and express themselves about one big power or the other.
As always, comments welcome.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem