What was achieved when Naftali Bennett met Vladimir Putin? - opinion

At the most fundamental level, Bennett needed to maintain Israel’s freedom of action in Syria.

RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin meets with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in Sochi last month. (photo credit: Evgeny Biyatov/Sputnik-Kremlin via Reuters)
RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin meets with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in Sochi last month.
(photo credit: Evgeny Biyatov/Sputnik-Kremlin via Reuters)

Naftali Bennett’s October summit with Vladimir Putin ran overtime. Its unscheduled five-hour duration meant that the prime minister could not return to Israel before Shabbat, and was stuck in Sochi until Saturday night. Yet Bennett’s time with the Russian president at the Black Sea resort was well spent, among the more consequential meetings the prime minister has had since assuming office in June.

At the most fundamental level, Bennett needed to maintain Israel’s freedom of action in Syria. Since the outbreak of the civil war a decade ago, and the ensuing growth of Iran’s presence, the IDF has repeatedly targeted Iranian positions and those of its proxy Hezbollah. Tehran’s pretext for involvement was to bolster its ally Bashar Assad, but its goals were much larger; to expand its sphere of influence, and ultimately to transform Ba’athist Syria into an Iranian satellite, a forward position from which to threaten the “Zionist regime.”

Israel decided not to merely observe the growing Iranian buildup, but to adopt a policy of active preemption. The logic of the Israeli strategy mirrored that of the United States in the much-studied 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when President John Kennedy declared that the mere positioning of Soviet missiles in the Western Hemisphere was an unacceptable provocation, irrespective of a decision on their actual use. From Jerusalem’s perspective, the Iranians’ deployment so far from their homeland, and so close to ours, was in itself illegitimate, necessitating a robust Israeli response.

But in September 2015 a new factor arose: the Kremlin took a decision to intervene directly in Syria with its own forces in support of Assad. The Iranians and Russians were now fighting on the same side of the civil war, coordinating their military efforts. In these circumstances, it could no longer be a forgone conclusion that Israel would still be able to continue striking against Iranian positions without incurring the wrath of Tehran’s superpower partner.

Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu understood that Russia’s upgraded role in Syria was a game-changer. Prudently, he took the seemingly uncharacteristic decision not to join the United States and other NATO countries in publicly criticizing the Kremlin’s decision. Instead, Netanyahu expeditiously flew to Moscow for a face-to-face meeting with Putin, where he successfully reached a series of understandings that safeguarded Israel’s freedom of action.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Bocharov Ruchei state residence in Sochi, Russia September 12, 2019.  (credit: REUTERS/SHAMIL ZHUMATOV)Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Bocharov Ruchei state residence in Sochi, Russia September 12, 2019. (credit: REUTERS/SHAMIL ZHUMATOV)

“I went to Moscow to make clear that we should avoid a clash between Russian forces and Israeli forces in Syria,” Netanyahu told CNN following the summit. “I’ve defined my goals. They’re to protect the security of my people and my country. Russia has different goals. But they shouldn’t clash.”

Avoiding such a clash – “deconfliction” in the language of the experts – was crucial in itself, but the prime minister’s dialogue with the Russian leader held greater implications. As Assad’s regime triumphed in the internal conflict, it was vital to start a conversation with the Kremlin about developments in Syria and the future of that war-torn country, an exchange that sought convergence between the dictates of Israel’s national security and Russia’s historic interests in the Middle East (that date back to the days of the czars).

Such a discussion was possible because unlike Iran, Russia is not overtly hostile toward Israel. On the contrary – Putin has declared his friendship toward the Jewish people and the Jewish state, solidarity he emphasized during his various official visits to Jerusalem (most recently at the January 2020 commemoration on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz). 

The effective Netanyahu-Putin dialogue created a situation in which out of all of America’s close allies, it became Israel that had the most intimate discourse with Russia. In May 2018 Netanyahu was Putin’s honored guest at the annual Victory Day parade in Moscow (the only Western leader at the event). And while there is pressure across post-Communist Eastern Europe to remove statues honoring the Red Army, Israel has been proudly erecting such monuments, as was done in Netanya. This is much more than a manifestation of Israeli realpolitik, but reflects a genuinely felt recognition of the Red Army’s indispensable role in the defeat of Nazi Germany.

Of course, Jerusalem’s distinctive ties with Moscow are not to everybody’s liking. When I served as Israel’s ambassador in London, my Baltic counterparts would indicate unease over Israel’s close engagement with the Russians. And after the March 2018 assassination attempt against Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England, the British also had reservations.

Following that incident, Britain ousted 23 Russian diplomats and asked its friends around the world to follow suit. Close to 30 countries did so, with 153 Russian diplomats being expelled worldwide. Other nations, reluctant to banish Russian diplomats, recalled their ambassadors from Moscow. Israel did neither.

When British interlocutors lamented Israel’s “lack of solidarity,” I would point out that as bad as UK-Russia relations were after Salisbury, the chances of the British and Russian militaries actually shooting at each other remained slim. This while the regular nightly attacks by the Israel Air Force against Iranian targets in Syria often occurred in immediate proximity to allied Russian military positions.

From Israel’s perspective, it was paramount to maintain healthy lines of communication with Moscow. (Japan, like Israel, an integral member of the Western alliance, also refrained from expelling Russian diplomats because of the sensitive ongoing talks over the future of the disputed Kuril Islands).

Even Benjamin Netanyahu’s critics credit him for astutely handling Israel’s relations with Russia. The Financial Times, not normally known for praising the former prime minister, expounded upon the “positive” Netanyahu-Putin relationship that “stands out on the global stage,” the two leaders having “forged an unlikely alliance” that “has benefited both leaders militarily and survived the shifting loyalties of that (Syrian) civil war.”

Accordingly, Bennett had minister Ze’ev Elkin accompany him to Sochi. Though ostensibly invited to provide effective Hebrew-Russian translation, the Ukraine-born minister’s attendance had a higher purpose. Elkin participated in Netanyahu’s numerous meetings with Putin, and Bennett was signaling through Elkin’s presence Jerusalem’s desire to maintain the Israeli-Russian understandings achieved under his predecessor.

Since the October summit there have been reports of fresh Israeli strikes against enemy targets across the Golan and in the Damascus area. This indicates that the crucial Israeli-Russian understandings reached since 2015 remain operative, and that is without doubt good news for Israel’s pilots flying missions over Syria.

The writer is a former adviser to the prime minister and currently a senior visiting fellow at the INSS. Follow him at @AmbassadorMarkRegev on Facebook.