From Russia with love-hate: Israeli ties with Moscow have always been complex
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From Russia with love-hate: Israeli ties with Moscow have always been complex

The downing of a spy plane by Syria isn’t the first episode to test the Jerusalem-Moscow relationship, which has also seen periods of closeness

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend an event marking International Holocaust Victims Remembrance Day and the anniversary of the complete lifting of the Nazi siege of Leningrad, at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow on January 29, 2018. (AFP Photo/Vasily Maximov)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend an event marking International Holocaust Victims Remembrance Day and the anniversary of the complete lifting of the Nazi siege of Leningrad, at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow on January 29, 2018. (AFP Photo/Vasily Maximov)

From a honeymoon in the years after Israel’s founding, to strained ties after the mistaken downing of a Russian plane in Syria, relations between Israel and Russia have gone through several periods of tensions.

These have mainly revolved around disagreements on Middle Eastern issues.

One of the first to recognize Israel

In November 1947 the Soviet Union’s government accepted the United Nations plan to split the British Mandate of Palestine into two states, one Jewish, the other Arab.

File photo of the vote on the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine or United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 on November 29, 1947 (photo credit: Israeli Government Press Office)
The vote on the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine or United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 on November 29, 1947. (Israeli Government Press Office/File)

It became one of the first countries to recognize the State of Israel after its creation in May 1948.

In May 1949 Moscow voted in favor of Israel’s admission to the UN.

24-year rupture

In June 1967, the Soviet Union broke off relations with Israel following the 1967 Six Day War, during which Israel captured territory from Jordan and Soviet allies Egypt and Syria.

Moscow went on to arm and fund Arab countries for several decades.

A rapprochement started in August 1986, with a first official contact in Helsinki between Israeli and Soviet consular delegations.

Russian president Boris Yeltsin, left, and prime minister Yitzhak Rabin shake hands during their meeting on April 26, 1994, at the Kremlin in Moscow. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianchenko)

In October 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev reestablished diplomatic relations, two months before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

He authorized Jews to emigrate freely. Over a decade more than one million of them moved to Israel.

In April 1994, prime minister Yitzhak Rabin made an official visit to Moscow, the first by an Israeli premier, enshrining the full normalization of bilateral relations.

Meetings

In September 2001, then prime minister Ariel Sharon and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Moscow and jointly condemned terrorism, of which both countries say they are victims.

The positions of the Kremlin and the Israelis had grown closer since the Russian offensive in its separatist republic of Chechnya, where Moscow said it was fighting terrorism.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, speaks with prime minister Ariel Sharon during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on September 30, 2002. (AP Photo/ ITAR-TASS/ Presidential Press Service)

Israel for its part was embroiled at the time in the Second Intifada, during which Palestinians launched terror attacks and suicide bombings on Israeli civilians and population centers.

In April 2005, Putin made a historic visit to Israel against the background of a disagreement over Moscow’s sale of anti-aircraft missiles to Syria.

A year later, the nuclear program of Israel’s arch enemy Iran dominated the first visit to Moscow of prime minister Ehud Olmert.

Cooperation

In June 2008, Russian giant Gazprom said it was examining possible deliveries of gas to Israel.

In September 2010, the Russian and Israeli defense ministers signed an accord in Moscow on military cooperation. This cooperation had already manifested itself in 2009 in the sale to Russia of Israeli drones.

Israel has regularly expressed concerns over Russian arms sales, notably to Iran and Syria.

Contacts have since been stepped up, with Putin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting three times since the beginning of 2018.

Coordination ‘mechanism’ for Syria

In September 2015, Netanyahu met Putin in Moscow. The prime minister said after the meeting the two countries had agreed on a mechanism to coordinate their military actions in war-torn Syria, so as to avoid “misunderstandings” between their forces.

On September 30, the Russian air force launched a campaign of airstrikes in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose forces were struggling against rebels.

Illustration: A video released by the Russian Defense Ministry in Moscow shows a Russian warplane unloading its weapons over a Syrian target, August 10, 2016. (AP/Ivan Sekretarev)

In October, Russia said a hotline had been set up with Israel to ensure there will be no clashes between their air forces.

Israel, which has sought to keep its distance from the Syrian conflict while also defending its interests, has since 2013 carried out strikes on targets tied to Syrian ally Iran, its Lebanese ally Hezbollah and in some cases the Syrian regime.

Russian plane downed

On September 17, 2018 Syrian air defenses mistakenly downed a Russian Ilyushin Il-20 military plane over the Mediterranean, killing all 15 crew members, as Israel carried out a raid on a facility in the coastal city of Latakia that the IDF said was going to provide weapons to the Hezbollah terror group and other Iranian proxies.

A day later during a telephone call, Netanyahu expressed to Putin his “sorrow” at the downing. Putin said it was the result of “tragic accidental circumstances.”

Russia’s military on Sunday blamed “misleading” information from the Israeli Air Force for the incident.

A before and after photo of an ammunition warehouse which was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike on a Syrian base in Latakia, September 18, 2018 (ImageSat International (ISI/Ynet)

And on Monday Moscow said it planned to supply the Syrian military with the advanced S-300 air-defense system and jam radars of nearby warplanes.

Putin told Netanyahu he rejected the Israeli version of events, blaming “the actions by the Israeli Air Force.”

Netanyahu said he was confident of the Israeli account and warned Putin against “transferring advanced weapons systems” to Syria.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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