In spy wars, Israel chooses Russia over UK, but Trump could play spoiler

London expects solidarity after Salisbury poisoning, but Jerusalem is unlikely to start antagonizing Moscow — unless Washington gets involved

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

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)

Israel generally considers itself a Western nation, but when it has come to censuring Russia, the Jewish state usually perches itself quietly on the fence rather than side with its traditional allies and risk the Kremlin’s wrath.

This week, 23 Western countries expelled more than 120 Russian diplomats suspected of being spies, in response to Moscow’s alleged involvement in a nerve gas attack in Salisbury, England.

In addition to kicking out 60 Russian diplomats, the US ordered the closing of Moscow’s consulate-general in Seattle. Germany, France, and Poland expelled four Russian diplomats, Australia two, and even Hungary’s generally pro-Russian government asked one Russian to leave.

Israel kicked out zero Russian diplomats.

Jerusalem’s desire to stay in Moscow’s good graces side is understandable. For a start, many Israeli citizens have deep roots in Russia. More importantly, the government of Vladimir Putin has become a major player in regional affairs, having boots on the ground — and jets in the air — only a few miles from Israel’s borders in Syria.

But Israel’s neutrality is being tested by the West’s harsh response to the poisoning of ex-Russian double spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia earlier this month, which much of the world blames Russia for.

The British government said it expects Jerusalem to take a clear stand, but whether Israel will continue to remain silent on the matter will ultimately depend on Washington.

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May greets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at 10 Downing Street in London, February 6, 2017. (AP/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

“I have found great solidarity from our friends and partners in the EU, North America, NATO, and beyond over the past three weeks as we have confronted the aftermath of the Salisbury incident,” UK Prime Minister Theresa May declared Monday. “If the Kremlin’s goal is to divide and intimidate the western alliance, then their efforts have spectacularly backfired.”

Downing 10 will likely be disappointed by Israel’s refusal to join this “Western alliance.”

“We expect strong statement of support from all our close partners, Israel included,” the embassy in Ramat Gan had stated on March 20, five days after Israel’s Foreign Ministry issued a lukewarm statement that condemned the “event that took place in Great Britain” but failed to mention Russia’s ostensible involvement.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry on Tuesday refused to comment on the widespread expulsion of Russian diplomats.

But Construction and Housing Minister Yoav Galant told reporters Tuesday that it is not in Israel’s interests to pick a fight with Russia.

“There are more than a million immigrants who arrived from Russia to Israel, and the Russian government considers them citizens, or at least veteran citizens,” he said at a briefing organized by The Israel Project.

“Also, we have to remember proportions and distances. Israel is in Russia’s backyard; [geographically] it’s very close,” Galant, a member of Israel’s security cabinet, said of the 1,190 kilometer (740 mile) distance between the countries at their closest points.

Israel belongs to the Western world and is closely allied with the United States, he went on, “but at the same time we have to be proud that we can negotiate, talk and live side by side with the Russians. And this is what we’re going to do.”

With Russian troops stationed in Syria, mere miles from the border with Israel, Israel is navigating an extremely tricky situation and has to tread carefully in the diplomatic arena, he said. “We have to think about Israel’s interests, and not about the interests of others.”

A Syrian man runs past a burning vehicle following reported bombardment by Syrian and Russian forces in the rebel-held town of Hamouria, in the Eastern Ghouta, on January 6, 2018. (AFP/ABDULMONAM EASSA)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has met with Putin more often in recent years than with any other world leader, has long painstakingly avoided offending Russia. His policy of not antagonizing Moscow predates Russia’s active involvement in the Syrian civil war.

“Israel has gone out of its way in recent years to ensure that it does not upset the Kremlin, most controversially perhaps in staying away from a key UN debate over the invasion of Ukraine” in 2014, noted Azriel Bermant, who teaches international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University.

On March 19, Netanyahu sent Putin a letter with “sincere congratulations” on his winning the presidential elections, which many observers say were hardly fair, as his main competitor was prevented from running.

“I greatly value our personal dialogue and I look forward to continuing to work closely together in the spirit of trust and understanding to promote our countries’ vital interests,” Netanyahu wrote.

Netanyahu’s “groveling to Russia” may be understandable, said Bermant, a UK-born scholar living in Jerusalem, but he added that it is “damaging Anglo-Israel ties.”

Some commentators happy with Israeli neutrality on Russia said that Jerusalem doesn’t owe the UK anything. London routinely votes against Israel in international forums, for instance in December 2016, when Britain voted in favor of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334, though officials later showed contrition for the move.

But, in fact, in recent years, the UK has improved its voting record vis-a-vis Israel. Just last week, London switched from “abstain” to “no” on a resolution condemning Israel at the UN Human Rights Council.

Russia, on the other hand, continues to back every single anti-Israel motion.

And yet, the UK’s disappointment alone is unlikely to get Israel to publicly criticize Russia. In 2014, Jerusalem showed its good relations to Moscow were even worth risking the ire of the US administration, when it failed to vote with the rest of the Western world in favor of a resolution criticizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

But at that time Barack Obama occupied the White House, and Netanyahu did not hesitate to pick a fight with his administration.

Things have changed since then. In the 14 months since Donald Trump moved into the Oval Office, Netanyahu has gone out of his way not to been seen as critical of the president. In fact, he has stressed that Israeli and US policies are entirely aligned, going as far as saying that the two leaders have had no disagreements.

So far, Trump has been seen by many as too soft on Russia, since he refused to criticize Putin for having meddled in the US election or for irregularities in his re-election earlier this month.

But the US president on Monday appeared to adapt a harsher stance toward the Kremlin, personally okaying the expulsion of dozens of Russian diplomats and the shutting of the Seattle consulate.

As long as it is only the British that expects Israel to speak out against Moscow, Jerusalem will probably maintain its neutrality. But if Trump were to urge Netanyahu to back up the West’s anti-Russia moves, it’s unlikely he’d be able to resist the pressure.

“If we’re put between this rock and that hard place,” a senior Israeli official told The Times of Israel on Tuesday, “my guess is that the prime minister is going to go with the US president.”

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