Appearances matter. And anyone following Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s schedule over the last two weeks could not help but notice that his appointment diary has been heavily laden with meetings and phone calls with top Russian officials.
For instance, Netanyahu hosted Alexander Lavrentiev, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy on Syria, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin, for talks in his office on July 10. The very next day he himself went to Moscow for talks with Putin. Present at part of those discussions were foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov On July 20, last Friday, Netanyahu spoke by phone with Putin. And on Monday he hosted Lavrov and Gerasimov.That’s a lot of meetings with a lot of high-level Russians in such a short period of time. During this period he had one phone call with US President Donald Trump.A cursory look at this diary by the uniformed could lead to the conclusion that Israel is putting its eggs in the Russian basket. But it is clear to anyone watching the Middle East why it is that Israel has an interest in such close coordination with Russia.Russia is parked on Israel’s back porch, in Syria. More than that, with the Syrian Civil War winding down, Russia is the kingmaker in Syria. It is of critical importance to Israel that Russia knows what Israel’s interests are, and how it plans to act to secure those interests – just as it is of critical importance for Israel to know what Russia’s interests are in Syria, and how it intends on protecting them.But appearances matter.As Yousef al-Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates ambassador to the United States, was quoted as saying Friday in The Washington Post: “The prime minister of Israel is going to Moscow more frequently than he is going to Washington. I say that as a way of trying to tell you how different the Middle East is today.”This statement shows that people are paying close attention to Netanyahu’s diary, noting with whom he meets and talks, and with what frequency. And right now – at least publicly – he is talking to the Russians significantly more than he is talking to the Americans.And that could lead to faulty impressions.FOR INSTANCE, even as Netanyahu was in Moscow two weeks ago, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham from South Carolina – one of Israel’s staunchest supporters in the Senate – tweeted a warning.“To our friends in Israel – be very careful making agreements with Russia re[garding] Syria that affect U.S. interests,” Graham wrote. “I don’t trust Russia to police Iran or anyone else in Syria. U.S. must maintain presence in Syria to ensure ISIS doesn’t come back and to counter Russia/Iran influence.”On the morning of that tweet in Moscow, Netanyahu began a briefing with reporters by saying that his messages to Putin in their meeting a day earlier about the need to remove Iran from Syria were coordinated with “our best ally, the United States.”In a response to a question by The Jerusalem Post, Netanyahu added that Israel was acting “with complete transparency with the United States.”It is also worth noting that following the Putin-Trump press conference in Helsinki last week, in which both leaders talked about the importance of Israel’s security concerns in Syria, Netanyahu’s first mention of the meeting when responding afterwards was to thank Trump first, and then Putin.“Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomes the deep commitment of the United States and President Trump to Israel’s security, as expressed in the meeting between President Trump and President Putin, and the friendship between Israel and the US has never been stronger,” the statement said.Then it added, “Prime Minister Netanyahu also greatly appreciates the security coordination between Israel and Russia and President Putin’s clear position on the need to implement the 1974 separation agreements between Israel and Syria.”That order – first the US and then Russia – was not coincidental. It was on display again on Monday at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting. Before announcing his meeting later in the day with Lavrov and Gerasimov, Netanyahu found a way to thank Trump and laud the state of the US-Israel relationship.“First, I would like to commend the strong position expressed yesterday by President Trump and Secretary of State Pompeo against the aggression of the regime in Iran. Over the years, this regime has been spoiled by the major powers and it is good to see that the US is changing this unacceptable equation,” he said. “In this context, I must point out that our diplomatic and military cooperation with the US is at an all-time high.”And only after that praise did he mention his high-level Russian visitors. Why? Because although the situation in Syria has forced Jerusalem to cooperate and coordinate extremely closely with Moscow, Netanyahu knows that Jerusalem has no closer friend and ally than the US, and wants to let everyone know that he knows – lest anyone have any doubt.
PM Netanyahu meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow and discusses Syrian aircraft the penetrated Israeli airspace, July 11, 2018 (GPO)