Caught in the crossfire: Israel embraces both Trump and Putin

Upon Trump becoming president, the initial view from Jerusalem was that Obama’s yoke had been thrown off.

THE TIES between Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been characterized as straightforward, open and built on personal trust (photo credit: REUTERS)
THE TIES between Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been characterized as straightforward, open and built on personal trust
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Recent shifts in the American foreign policy in the Middle East gave rise to concerns over its genuine unpredictability. In contrast, President Vladimir Putin’s Russia maintains linear actions that encompass trustworthy relationships with Israel.
As many in Jerusalem worry whether US President Donald Trump is going to continue president Barack Obama’s approach of further shrinking American presence in the region, there are increasing threats that Israel might be pressured to sacrifice security for an imperfect peace agreement with the Palestinians. In effect, developing a new modus operandi including Russia is vital for the Israeli national security.
Upon Trump becoming president, the initial view from Jerusalem was that Obama’s yoke had been thrown off. Trump pledged to keep Israel strong and maintain its qualitative military edge. During the election campaign he also promised to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The confirmation of David Friedman as American ambassador to Israel, a staunch supporter of the settlement enterprise, was taken to mean that settlement expansion would be permitted. Trump likewise announced a “get tough” policy on Iran and Islamic State and, in short, Israel was rapturously happy with the incoming administration.
But it has been the delusion of the past several American presidents that they are uniquely qualified to bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and Trump does not break the mold.
An agreement between Israelis and Palestinians would give him a place in history. Nevertheless, the reality for Trump the “negotiator” is that unfettered support for all Israeli initiatives will prevent any chance of a peace agreement with the Palestinians or of bringing the Sunni states into the equation publicly. Hence, the embassy is not moving to Jerusalem any time soon and hawkish rhetoric will not lead anywhere. Instead, the new administration supports the two-state solution and is gradually moving away from the populism of the presidential campaign.
At the AIPAC conference last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reaffirmed Israel’s commitment to the close alliance with the United States and highlighted the strength of the mutual friendship between the two countries. Despite Trump’s proposed cuts to foreign aid, Israel’s aid package of $3.1 billion remains intact. The close military and intelligence cooperation also continues to flourish.
While Israel would prefer to rely on the White House when it comes to existential issues, Russia’s new pivot to the Middle East caught Jerusalem in the crossfire and pushed it to maneuver. The Kremlin’s impact on Syria and ties with Iran mean that Israel needs to get on good terms with Putin as a matter of national security, while also paying tribute to its strategic commitment to Washington.
Both Russia and Israel pursue political goals similar at their core. Mutual targets encompass securing national borders, curtailing expansion of Islamic extremism and halting further destabilization of Arab regimes across the region.
Israel drew a few red lines that Russia agreed to, which are transfer of certain weapons to Hezbollah and the creation of anti-Israel groups in the Golan Heights led by pro-Iran and Shi’ite militias. In return, Jerusalem acknowledged Moscow’s objective of keeping the current Syrian regime in place.
Jerusalem perceives Tehran as the sole force capable of launching a devastating strike against it.
Despite the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, aka the Iran nuclear deal, Israel worries that Iran one day could lay hands on nuclear weapons and even use them, given its political establishment which is viewed by Israel as ideological and irrational. In effect, while close ties between Moscow and Tehran cause deep concern in Jerusalem, the Kremlin likewise serves as a liaison between the two states.
Israel recognizes Moscow’s contribution in fighting both al-Qaida and Islamic State, as well as other radical jihadi groups. Russia’s involvement on the side of Assad’s troops also implies that under no circumstances will Syria launch attacks against Jerusalem. Therefore, unlike Washington, Moscow emerges as the sole power capable of physically guaranteeing the security of Israel’s borders.
The current vector of cooperation is not restricted by political interests alone as both societies continue interacting via tools of people’s diplomacy.
More than a million Israelis speak Russian in daily life, with the Jewish community in Russia flourishing amid public celebrations of Jewish holidays and construction of new Jewish centers. Attitudes toward Jews in Russia likewise are at an all-time high, with Russians constituting the second-largest group of tourists to Israel after Americans.
Despite recent speculations that Russia is halting Israeli activities in Syrian skies, the reality differs.
Both nations continue to exercise cordial understanding of each other’s policy. The high level of bilateral relationships was underscored during Netanyahu’s recent visit to Moscow, along with a display of unprecedented interpersonal bonds between two leaders.
As Putin most likely will be reelected in 2018, there are few doubts in either Russia or Israel that the Kremlin’s foreign policy tenets will undergo any major shifts. Therefore, both nations will continue to maintain close relations in the years to come, with the United States remaining the strategic ally behind the curtains.
Nathan J. Kornfeld is a scholar on international politics from the NYU Center for Global Affairs. Dmitriy Frolovskiy is a Moscow-based writer and analyst of Russian politics. His articles have been featured in The New York Times, Forbes and elsewhere.