The danger behind Russia's apparent misunderstanding of Israel, Iran

If the ambassador's words reflect Moscow's views, that is a source of significant concern.

Russian Ambassador to Israel Anatoly Viktorov. (photo credit: RUSSIAN EMBASSY)
Russian Ambassador to Israel Anatoly Viktorov.
(photo credit: RUSSIAN EMBASSY)
Russia is not Ireland or Sweden: it’s not everyday that the Foreign Ministry calls Moscow’s ambassador in for a reprimand, known in diplomatic parlance as a démarche.
But that is what happened on Wednesday, when Ilan Bar, the head of the ministry’s Strategic-Diplomatic Department, summoned Russian ambassador Anatoly Viktorov to protest at outlandish comments he made in an interview with the Post’s diplomatic correspondent, Lahav Harkov.
The true source of instability in the region is not Iran’s march toward nuclear weapons or its funding and support of terrorist proxies, from Yemen to Gaza to Lebanon and Syria, he intimated. The main problem is Israel.
“The problem in the region is not Iranian activities,” he said. “It’s a lack of understanding between countries and non-compliance with the UN resolutions in the Israel-Arab and Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
The ambassador further opined, outlandishly, that there is no “proof” that Hezbollah had dug the tunnels stretching from Lebanon into Israeli territory. He also asserted that “Israel is attacking Hezbollah, Hezbollah is not attacking Israel.”
After his meeting with Bar, Viktorov, somewhat predictably, said that his quotes were taken “out of context.”
Had these words, indeed, been uttered by the ambassadors of Ireland or Sweden, two countries that in recent years have not shown great understanding or sympathy for Israel’s complex reality, that would have been one thing. But it is jarring to hear them coming from the ambassador of Russia – a country with which Israel seemed to have developed strong ties over the last few years, and whose president, Vladimir Putin, is a leader with whom Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has met and spoken to more than any other in the world.
Jarring and concerning. Viktorov is no diplomatic novice. He is a career diplomat with some three decades of experience and has served in Israel for more than two years. He knows Israel, he knows diplomacy and how to be diplomatic, and he is not known as someone who shoots liberally from the hip.
His words raise questions about whether they are his own sentiments, or if they reflect the thinking in the Kremlin. And if they do reflect sentiments in Moscow, that is a source of much greater concern.
The Kremlin, it is important to keep in mind, is not monolithic. Just as in the US the White House has traditionally been more sympathetic to Israel and its concerns than the State Department, so too in the Kremlin, Putin is considered as more friendly toward Israel and understanding of its issues than elements within his defense and foreign ministries.
Much has understandably been said and written in Israel since the US  presidential election last month and what a Joe Biden presidency will mean for Israel. Would the president-elect reverse Trump’s policy on Israel and the Middle East? Will he rush headlong back into the Iranian nuclear deal?
The Russian ambassador’s remarks make one wonder, however, whether the focus of concern over a possible change of policy should be Moscow, not Washington.
Russia, through its engagement in Syria – where it is essentially camped out on Israel’s front porch – is now very much an active player in the Mideast. As such, coordination and understanding between Moscow and Jerusalem is critical in ensuring that Russia does not intercept Israeli planes or missiles reportedly hitting Iranian assets in Syria from time to time, and that there is no accidental clash between Israeli and Russian pilots in the skies above Damascus.
Netanyahu has rightly highlighted his relationship with Putin as one of his major foreign policy achievements, and the public has been led to believe that even if Israel and Russia do not see eye-to-eye on everything, there is a basic understanding in Russia of Israel’s concerns and what it is up against.
The ambassador’s words, however, seem to belie that sentiment. To put those concerns to rest, Viktorov, beyond saying that his words were taken out of context, should clarify that Moscow does not see Israel as the aggressor in the Mideast and the root cause of all the region’s problems – bad misconceptions that are a reflection of stale thinking we hoped were a relic of a different era in ties between Moscow and Jerusalem.