In February, Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu met with his Russian counterpart, President Vladimir Putin. In what can only be described as a bravado attempt to flaunt the strength of the ties between the two countries, Netanyahu pointed out that, “tourism is at an all-time high, with 400,000 Russians visiting Israel every year and about 200,000 Israelis visiting Moscow every year,” adding that, “(he has) the honor to contribute somewhat to this statistic.” The first part of that statement is accurate; yet, the latter part is far from the truth. Russo-Israeli relations had been improving for decades before Netanyahu entered the Israeli political scene.
Primakov’s Mission: Laying the Foundations for Russo-Israeli Relations
The “founder” of improving Russo-Israeli relations, Yevgeny Primakov, made a point (almost a mission) of maintaining some type of relationship between the two countries. Since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War all the way up to the latter years of Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev’s leadership, Moscow officially considered Israel a “pariah state.” However, in the 1970s, during the “Brezhnev Years,” Primakov, a Jewish-born Soviet, was a key member of Soviet delegations that held several rounds of secret talks with the Israelis (usually in hotel rooms from Vienna to Tel Aviv) despite Moscow breaking off diplomatic relations with Israel.
Following Brezhnev’s death, Primakov continued his “mission” by maintaining correspondence with his Israeli counterparts while serving in various capacities within the Soviet establishment in order to preserve communications between the two countries. When Gorbachev began his perestroika and glasnost policy, relations between the Soviet Union and Israel slowly began to improve. Gorbachev’s policies allowed Soviet Jewish “refuseniks” to immigrate to Israel, which eventually led to the resumption of diplomatic relations with Israel in October of 1991—two months before the breakup of the Soviet Union. In December of that same year, Gorbachev announced the breakup of the Soviet Union but relations between the newly formed Russian Federation and Israel continued.
The 1990s were a tough decade for the newly formed Russia. The breakup of the Soviet Union saw the end of a social, cultural, economic, and political lineage that lasted for roughly seventy years dissolve overnight, thereby sending the citizens into dearth and poverty at unimaginable levels. As a result, Russia was a very weak state and did not have much leverage in the international arena. It did not help that the Yeltsin government implemented an American-backed “shock therapy” economic policy that de-modernized the country several decades and left the vast majority of the state in calamitous conditions.
Under the Yeltsin presidency, Russia was destabilized to a high degree (some would argue that it was worse than the years of the Great Depression in the 1930s), crushing their economy. Russians often term the “Yeltsin years” or the decade following the breakup of the Soviet Union as smutnoe vremya (time of troubles), or smutnoe for short, in reference to political crises caused by tumultuous transition periods. The term was most notably used following the demise of the Rurik dynasty, which eventually saw the establishment of the Romanov dynasty. It was also used, to a lesser extent, during the years of the Russian Revolution—the transition from the Russian Empire to Soviet Russia.
Similar to the “Brezhnev years” of stagnation in the 1970s, Israel proved to be a sanctuary for many Russian Jews during this chaotic period. Russian Jews (and other Jewish citizens from former Soviet satellite states) were no exception to this smutnoe of the 1990s, and as a result, Soviet and Russian Jews chose to immigrate to Israel in large numbers.
Despite the tough economic times in Russia, the Russian political elite, which included the then-Russian Foreign Minister (and eventual Prime Minister) Yevgeny Primakov, did its best to preserve its relations with Israel, while maintaining its longstanding foreign policy principle of a two-state solution regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This was consistent with its overall foreign policy of stability in the region. In the 1990s, Russia (similar to the Gorbachev era of the Soviet Union) maintained a balanced approach when it came to the Middle East, ensuring its national interests were preserved.
The Putin Era: Advancing Interactions, Strategic Engagement, and Navigating the Palestinian Question
Relations between Israel and Russia significantly improved under Russia’s current leader, Vladimir Putin. Throughout his nineteen years in office, since being elected in 2000, President (and Prime Minister) Putin has often received many Israeli Prime Ministers along with other Israeli officials. Putin and others have also visited Israel on many occasions. Both Israeli and Russian officials often cite the size of the Jewish community in Russia and the Russian diaspora in Israel as proof of warming relations. In fact, today the Russian Jewry often claim that the community has it better under the current leader than at any other point in Russian history. And, there is a reason for that. The extent of anti-Semitism in Russia is minimal in comparison to the past. This increased acceptance is reinforced by President Putin. The Kremlin often speaks kindly of the Jewish community in Russia, and Putin has even taken it a step further by stating that Israel and Russia have common histories – namely that the two despise fascism and Nazism of any kind. In addition, the Russian Jewry now has the freedom to practice its religion with no fear of retribution today and can travel to Israel freely—a right greatly curtailed in the Soviet Union.
Despite being political rivals, President Putin, like others, sought Primakov’s advice when it came to the Middle East. Being an Arabist and an expert on the Middle East, Primakov felt (and wrote extensively) that Russia’s main challenge in the 21st century was to fight international terrorism—something that the new President agreed with (and still agrees with to this day). The President has long sought better relations with the Zionist entity as a result of his belief that one of Russia’s main national interests in the region is reducing international terrorism. President Putin believes, for better or worse, that Israel can be a strategic partner in fighting international terrorism. However, President Putin and the entire policy class also believe in a two-state solution along the 1967 borders (in reference to the land Israel captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War) to allow for a future Palestinian state to exist alongside Israel. Furthermore, the Russian policy class believes that state sovereignty must be respected. On the former, Israel has made little to no effort and, on the latter, Israel has consistently overstepped its bounds with regards to state sovereignty, often pushing hard enough to destabilize the region.
A policy reversal by the Israelis on the Palestinian question – that is to disengage from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, as well as fully withdrawing from Gaza – seems highly unlikely. Moreover, it also seems unlikely that Israel will cease its illegal excursions in other countries, such as what it is doing in the Syrian arena. This begs some fundamental questions: is Israel’s belligerence putting its citizens in harm’s way and, more importantly, is it risking losing Russia as a national security partner, with its fifty years of unofficial relations and twenty-plus years of official relations? If this is the case, then Israel will be putting itself in a very dangerous conundrum.
The United States, Russia, & Israel: Is it a Triangle?
It is true that Israel, for decades, has relied on the United States for military aid and moral support in the international community in times of war. However, since the fallout of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the United States has been slowly (but surely) leaving the scene. American citizens do not want their country to be extensively engaged in the Middle East or elsewhere. They would rather the exorbitant amount of money spent on these commitments abroad be invested in improving lives of American citizens through domestic programs, like healthcare, education, and increased job security. The direct lineage between the elections of candidates Barack Obama and Donald Trump (not John McCain, Mitt Romney, or Hillary Clinton) proves this to be the case. We are seeing further evidence of this as politicians vie for control of the Democratic Party. Voices within the party are justifiably asking questions out loud that have been asked behind closed doors for years. Questions like: why is it that a foreign country receives so much financial support from the United States when many of its own citizens still struggle to survive? As a result, support for Israel in the American political scene is waning, despite the Israeli lobby’s claim. Today, only a certain portion of the Republican Party blindly supports Israel wholeheartedly. At some point, those voices will grow quieter and quieter or, at the very least, become less influential.
When America leaves the scene and becomes less influential on the international stage, Israel will be left alone. Yet, Israel can move eastward in pursuit of securing its national interests, creating a new alliance with Russia, a country that is more invested in the region today. This can be beneficial to Israel’s national security but, for that to happen, Israel will need to change its course on both the Palestinian question and its excursions in the region. The decision is a “no-brainer” given that the current course is creating an outcome where Israeli citizens are endangered from rockets as well as stabbings, shootings, and car-ramming attacks.
Russia, who seems to be invested in the region for the long haul, has been a willing partner thus far. Most recently this was evident when Russia –– in coordination with its military and the Syrians –– cooperated with Israel to help return the body of the fallen Israeli soldier, Zachary Baumel, who was killed in the 1982 “Lebanon War.” However, the Israeli establishment cannot take its Russian counterparts for granted forever. While the vast majority of the Russian policy class and President Putin still seem to want better relations with Israel and are willing to give it the benefit of the doubt, this is not guaranteed going forward. The policy class is not homogenous and some within it can override the Russian President when they deem Russia’s national interests are being jeopardized, as we saw when Russia finally decided to deliver its S300 surface-to-air missile systems to Syria. Thus, if Israel continues its confrontational activity in the region and prolongs its actions towards the Palestinians, Russia has cards at its disposal that will be unfavorable to Israel—leaving Israel isolated and weaker.
The ball is in Israel’s court. It must decide if it wants better relations with Russia or not. For the moment, the Russian policy class desires this; there is no doubt. However, at some point, Russian patience might run out. With the United States slowly leaving the scene, Israel would be wise to move closer to Russia. However, for that to happen, it needs to seriously consider changing its policy towards the Palestinians and cease its military excursions in the region. Israel should not test Russia’s resolve like it has done in the past, because the consequences for the Zionist entity could prove to be existentially dire.
First published in our partner RIAC