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analysisIsrael at War

‘Russia will exploit Gaza war to derail Saudi peace’

Riyadh-Jerusalem normalization would pose a serious challenge to the interests of Russia, Iran and China in the region, professor says.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow, Jan. 30, 2020. Photo by Kobi Gideon/GPO.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow, Jan. 30, 2020. Photo by Kobi Gideon/GPO.
Pesach Benson

Israeli relations with Russia are often described as walking a tightrope.

While Israel is aligned with the West, it is sufficiently independent to sometimes break with international consensus and engage Moscow. An estimated 150,000 Jews live in Russia while roughly one million Russians and their descendants live in Israel, forming a unique cultural bridge.

But on the other hand, Moscow has considerable weight to throw around. For years, Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes in Syria against Iran and its proxies. Jerusalem and Moscow have a security-coordination arrangement to prevent their forces firing on each other, but the war in Ukraine has strained this.

More vexing for Israel is Russia’s ties with Iran, which have strengthened since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

While there is no evidence directly implicating Russia in Hamas’s surprise assault on Israeli communities near the Gaza Strip, analysts said that Moscow will try to exploit the Gaza war to distract the world from its war in Ukraine and spoil Israel-Saudi Arabia peace efforts.

Russian ‘imprint’ on Hamas terror

“There is no validated evidence for a direct involvement but there are several reasons to suspect at least Russia’s imprint or its part in the chain of events leading to the attack,” said Joseph Rozen, a geopolitical strategist and a contributing writer to the Jerusalem-based Misgav—The Institute for National Security and Zionist Strategy.

“For years, the leaders of Hamas were warmly welcomed in Moscow by high-rank officials, receiving political support and training,” he said.

“Not surprisingly, Hamas thanked Russia for its support after the horrendous Oct. 7 attacks. In a video taken by Hamas terrorists showing the infiltration to Israel, there are clear calls in Russian by one or two terrorists,” Rozen said.

Professor Ze’ev Khanin, an expert on post-Soviet politics and society at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, said, “There’s no denying that the Kremlin is keen on using this new situation to bolster its weakening position in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Southern Caucasus.”

Khanin explained that Israeli-Saudi peace runs counter to Russia’s Mideast interests. Moscow seized on the Hamas violence to disrupt normalization efforts.

“Saudi-Israeli normalization practically puts an end to the century-old Arab-Israeli conflict in its classic forms and also removes many obstacles to the formation of an alliance between the United States, Israel and the countries of the Saudi bloc,” the professor explained.

“That would pose a serious challenge to the interests of Russia, Iran and China in the region,” Khanin said.

Israel can ‘dare more’

Asked what the war with Hamas means for Israeli-Russian ties, Rozen said Jerusalem already has justification for adopting a stronger policy.

“Russian backing of Hamas is enough, in my opinion,” he said. “Since the terror attacks, Russia showed its true antisemitic face. [President Vladimir] Putin compared Israel’s siege of Gaza to the siege of Leningrad by Nazi Germany. Simultaneously, Russia’s propaganda machine published antisemitic content on social media, and unleashed the Kremlin’s ‘ideologists’ to blame Israel and the U.S.”

He stressed, “Eight days after the attacks, Israel did not return its ambassador from Moscow and did not call the Russian ambassador in Israel for clarifications. Israel must change its Russia policy, including a clearer support of Ukraine.”

With Moscow increasingly dependent on Iran, and weakening on the international front, “Israel should change its policy and dare more vis-à-vis Russia,” Rozen insisted.

Khanin, citing an analysis by the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based research institute, warned, “The Kremlin is already, and is likely to continue, leveraging the Hamas attacks in Israel to advance several information operations aimed at diminishing U.S. and Western support and attention to Ukraine.”

According to him, Ukrainians are already expressing concern that they will be sidelined by war in Gaza in terms of media and political attention, and in terms of ammunition.

“Ammunition supplies to the Israel Defense Forces from American depots on Israeli soil were previously allocated to the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” Khanin noted.

According to Rozen, Moscow’s top priorities in the Middle East are assuring its influence in the region, mainly in Syria, and providing a lifeline to Iran.

“There is also a possibility that Russia is no longer interested in preventing a nuclear Iran, so it might even help them [the Iranians],” Rozen warned. “Russia can use the Middle East as a distraction from the war in Ukraine.”

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