Despite S-300s to Iran, Israel to stay close to Russia

Jerusalem didn’t condemn Ukraine invasion, but Moscow continues to support Syria, Iran and pro-Palestine votes at the UN. Does Israel suffer from beaten-wife syndrome?

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) holds a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) in Jerusalem on Monday, June 25, 2012. (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) holds a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) in Jerusalem on Monday, June 25, 2012. (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

Jerusalem may be fuming at Russia’s announcement that it will deliver sophisticated S-300 missile defense systems to Iran, but despite threats to shift away from Moscow, analysts warn that strong ties with Russia remain vital to Israeli interests, and may yet yield advantages.

For years, Israel has been cultivating its ties with Moscow, hoping to establish a friendship with another superpower that could lessen Jerusalem’s dependency on the United States. But while Israel has taken some flak over its support for Russia, it has received nothing in return.

Israel angered Washington when it remained neutral in the Ukraine conflict, refusing to support American and European efforts to denounce Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Israeli officials this week refused to speak on the record about Jerusalem’s relations with Russia and Ukraine. In private conversations, however, they said Israel kept a “low profile” in the Russia/Ukraine crisis because there are large Jewish communities on both sides and Jerusalem feared that taking a stand could jeopardize Jewish lives.

Russian soldiers guard the center of Simferopol, Crimea, Thursday, March 27, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Max Vetrov)
Russian soldiers guard the Simferopol, Crimea, March 27, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Max Vetrov)

Regardless of its motives, Israel paid a diplomatic price for its neutrality.

“Israel’s policy on Ukraine resulted in some damage to the fabric of relations with the US. We’re talking about cumulative damage here, especially at a time when relations are already at an all-time low,” said Roman Bronfman, a Russian-born former Knesset member.

Last year, a senior US administrator condemned Israel’s refusal to censor Russia’s aggression in eastern Ukraine and to vote in favor of an anti-Russia resolution at the United Nations General Assembly. America is Israel’s best friend in the world, always there to defend its junior ally in the diplomatic crises it constantly faces, the official noted, and therefore Washington can expect some quid pro quo.

But Jerusalem willingly accepted America’s scorn, hoping to gain favor in Moscow’s eyes. As long as Russia refrained from selling the S-300 missiles to Syria and Iran, policymakers in Jerusalem could justify their position, even though Russia routinely votes against Israeli interests at the UN (most notably in favor of granting Palestine non-member state status at the General Assembly in 2012 and in favor of a Security Council resolution calling for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank within three years in December).

Israel didn’t criticize Russia’s invasion of Crimea and didn’t join US and European Union sanctions against Putin, and in turn Moscow didn’t criticize Israel’s actions in Gaza, said Zvi Magen, who served as Israeli ambassador both in Kiev and Moscow.

“Both sides were careful. For years, Russia refrained from supplying balance-disturbing weapons, like the S-300, to the region: not to Iran, Syria or Egypt since 2007, when this was agreed upon,” Magen said. “The Israeli policy on Russia was not a failure at all in this respect; on the contrary, it has been beneficial. But the strategic fault lines have shifted, as they occasionally do.”

Now that Moscow is making clear that Iran can be welcomed back to the family of nations, Jerusalem took off the gloves and issued a series of uncharacteristically harsh statements condemning the prospective arms deal.

“Israel views with the utmost gravity the supply of S-300 missiles from Russia to Iran, especially at a time when Iran is stepping up its aggression in the region and around the borders of the State of Israel,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday.

Russian army S-300 air-defense missiles move during a final rehearsal of a Victory Day parade at Red Square, Moscow, May 2008. (photo credit: AP/Sergey Ponomarev, File)
Russian army S-300 air-defense missiles move during a final rehearsal of a Victory Day parade at Red Square, Moscow, May 2008. (photo credit: AP/Sergey Ponomarev, File)

Last week, he told Russian President Vladimir Putin over the phone that the deal will “only encourage Iranian aggression in the region and further undermine the stability of the Middle East.”

Moreover, it was reported that Israel is considering selling arms to Ukraine as a direct retaliation to Russia’s rapprochement with Iran. While Jerusalem never confirmed this report, Putin advised Israel against such a step, saying that lethal weapons could “increase the number of victims” without changing the result of the conflict.

Jerusalem also reportedly downgraded the delegation it plans to send to Moscow to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Allies’ victory over Nazi Germany. Israel initially planned to send Immigration Minister Sofa Landver, but after the S-300 deal, Israel will only be sending its ambassador to the event.

Do Netanyahu’s harsh comments, the rumored arms deal with Ukraine and the downgrading of the delegation to the Moscow commemoration signal an about-face in Israel’s efforts to play nice with Russia? Kiev certainly hopes so.

“What we do realistically expect is more support in training and non-lethal gear from Israel. We would welcome it, even if it comes from political motivations,” said Igor Kohut, a Kiev-based political analyst.

The Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry decided not to respond to the reports of arms deals with Ukraine and to Putin’s subsequent comments. There are indications that the Russian president’s warning fell on attentive ears: an unnamed Israeli defense official told Channel 2 that Israel is afraid of Putin and is therefore backing off the reported arms deals.

A superficial look at Israel’s Russia policy might therefore suggest Jerusalem is suffering from beaten-wife syndrome. Israel spent years wooing Moscow’s love and even took a beating from its most important ally, the US, for its silence during the invasion of Crimea. Putin rewarded Israel’s loyalty with nothing but a hostile voting pattern at the UN and support for Israel’s enemies in Damascus and Tehran.

But such a view assumes that Israel actually has the power to influence the Middle East policies of global powerhouses — which it doesn’t, according to Jonathan Dekel-Chen, a historian and Russia expert at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

“These last few days were something of a reality check for Israel,” he told The Times of Israel this week. “We might like to think of ourselves as a major player on the world stage. But we have been, and continue to be, a regional power — and nothing more.”

There are processes afoot that may change the strategic balance in the Middle East, and Israel has limited power to influence them, he said. For various reasons — many of which are not directly related to Israel — world powers are reengaging in the region and pursue their own interests here, regardless of whether ties with Israel are warmer or cooler at any given moment.

“Once major powers are engaged in the Near East, they have their own priorities. At times, they fit Israel’s immediate needs; at other times, they don’t. Israel’s room to maneuver is just that — room to maneuver. We cannot change the behavior of the world powers.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during a meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, on January 16, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Sergei Karpukhin, Pool)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (left) during a meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, on January 16, 2014 (photo credit: AP/Sergei Karpukhin, Pool)

That is not to say that Israel shouldn’t pursue an independent, interest-driven foreign policy, Dekel-Chen continued. Staying out of the Ukraine crisis was “pragmatic and sensible” in that Jerusalem wants to maintain strong ties with both sides.

Russia may sell weapons to Iran and Syria, and Israeli leaders should accept that they cannot do anything to change Putin’s mind. It would be a mistake to jeopardize relations with Moscow over this or that arms deal, since they are of great strategic and economic importance to Israel, he continued. Trade and tourism between Russia and Israel have been dramatically increasing for years.

Now angry about the S-300 deal, Israel might want to get closer to Kiev. But at a pragmatic level, Jerusalem should know Ukraine cannot make up for Russia. “It’s not a major player and never will be,” Dekel-Chen claimed. “They’re very different countries in terms of what they are for Israel’s national interest.”

While the Russians have clearly chosen to support Iran and Syria, they consider Israel one of the major powers in the region and do want to stay on good terms, explained Magen — the former Israeli ambassador to Moscow — lest Israel decide to move to thwart Russian efforts in the region.

“Putin does give a damn when it comes to Israel. He does not want relations to be ruined. And that means that the Russians could be moved to offer some sort of compensation for the sale of the S-300s, which could have a silver lining,” Magen added. If Israel kept the row over the missiles on a low flame, he suggested, it could ask Moscow to keep the Iranians in check or to adopt a friendlier position at the UN.

Given Russia’s recent history of near-complete disregard for Israeli wishes, it remains to be seen whether Jerusalem’s public indignation over the S-300s will yield any diplomatic gains, or whether Moscow will continue to pursue its interests here without taking anyone’s interests but its own into account.

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