Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s upcoming visit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, which was announced at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, will be among the most important the two have held in recent years. On the docket will be more than the question of maintaining Israel’s freedom of action in Syria; the two leaders will determine the future of the countries’ relations in the wake of the deep crisis caused by the downing of a Russian spy plane by Syrian air defenses in September.
Along with the announcement of the impending meeting, a report in the Arab media on Sunday said that Russia has offered to mediate between Israel and Iran to lower tensions between the two rivals, reach understandings and delineate red lines regarding Iranian activity in Syria. Such a development would help stave off the breakout of an Israeli-Iranian war, which many view as inevitable and a matter of time.
Perhaps Moscow has deemed its “punishment” measures against Israel sufficient—whether the harsh tone it has adopted, or more importantly, the S-300 anti-aircraft system it has delivered to the Syrian army that could restrict Israel’s maneuverability over Syria.
Netanyahu and Putin will therefore meet as old friends, but it’s vital that Israel learn the appropriate lessons from the incident and its fallout. It seems the incident was simply an excuse for the Russians to expedite steps they had intended to implement regardless upon the war’s end—whether to impose restrictions on the Israeli air force or to supply advanced weapons to the Syrians.
We should keep in mind that at Israel’s inception, Israeli-Russian relations were exceedingly positive. Russia, not the United States, rallied to support the fledgling Jewish state and gave it weapons—albeit indirectly through Czechoslovakia. Russia also opened its gates to hundreds of thousands of Jews to emigrate from Soviet bloc countries in Eastern Europe. Russia, or more precisely the former Soviet Union, didn’t do this because of its love for Jews; it did so mainly because of its hatred for Great Britain and its allies in the Arab world.
In very short order, however, the Soviet Union altered course. Israel refused to be a Soviet satellite, as the Soviets had hoped, while in the Arab states, for example Egypt and Syria, anti-Western military dictatorships ascended to power. These regimes sought weapons, and the Soviet Union wasted little time providing them.
This weaponry helped the Soviet Union establish a grip on the Arab world, but also contributed to exacerbating tensions between Israel and the Arabs and ultimately pushed the region to war. Such was the case in 1956, and again in 1967. The inevitable result was the gradual deterioration of diplomatic relations between Jerusalem and Moscow until they were completely severed in 1967.
While the Russian president doesn’t conceal his desire to restore his country’s glorious past as a global superpower, Putin’s Russia isn’t the Soviet Union—certainly not when it comes to Israel. But many things in Moscow have indeed remained unchanged. Chiefly, Russia’s political and military bureaucracies still harbor a burning hatred for the United States and the West. Israel, whether it likes it or not, is perceived by Moscow as part of the Western bloc. Secondly, selling advanced weapons was and remains a winning card for the Russians, in their attempt to expand their sphere of influence across the globe and of course the Middle East.
In this context, it’s important to remember that although Israel is a country with which Moscow maintains friendly relations, Iran is the strategic ally helping them penetrate the Middle East. Moreover, Iran and Russia have a common enemy: the United States.
Israel’s interest is clearly to rehabilitate its understandings with Moscow, and just as importantly, its friendly relations with it. At the same time, however, it is imperative to understand the challenges that Israel will still face in the Russian context.
In this regard, we must realize that unlike Israel’s relationship with the United States, which is strongly supported by American public opinion, buttressed by a system of checks and balances between the administration and Congress that restricts unexpected policy fluctuations, in Russia everything starts and ends in the Kremlin.
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.