Putin and Netanyahu: Friends again?

At a time when Russia’s role in the Middle East has been growing, Israel is not even trying to sideline Moscow from the peace process as the United States and Israel did during the Cold War.
Sunday 03/03/2019
Conflicting interests. Russian President Vladimir Putin (2nd L) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) attend talks in Moscow, February 27. (AP)
Conflicting interests. Russian President Vladimir Putin (2nd L) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) attend talks in Moscow, February 27. (AP)

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on February 27. Reports said this was their 14th meeting in the past decade but their first since the September 2018 incident in which a Syrian air defence missile downed a Russian military aircraft in the wake of an Israeli attack on Syria.

Even though Syrian forces fired the missile, Moscow blamed Israel for the loss of its aircraft and everyone on board and so a chill developed in the previously warm Russian-Israeli relationship.

Facing both criminal indictment and a difficult upcoming election at home, Netanyahu appeared especially eager to show what a good relationship he has with Putin. Indeed, Netanyahu went out of his way to ingratiate himself with Putin through praising Russian-Israeli military cooperation as well as inviting Putin to visit Israel for the opening of a monument commemorating those who suffered in the Nazi siege of Leningrad during World War II, something Putin’s family endured before he was born.

Netanyahu and his advisers presented Israeli intelligence assessments about Iran’s activities in Syria to bolster Netanyahu’s argument that Iran’s behaviour is highly threatening. Israeli journalist Noa Landau, writing for Haaretz, reported that Netanyahu said after his meeting with Putin “that getting the Iranians and all foreign fighters out of Syria is also one of Russia’s stated goals.” She also cited a diplomatic source saying “Putin did not place limitations on Israel’s actions in Syria.”

Netanyahu and this “diplomatic source,” though, may have been putting words into Putin’s mouth. While Netanyahu would very much like to show both the Iranian government and the Israeli electorate that Russia agrees with his negative view of the Iranian role in Syria, the Russians are not stating this publicly.

Indeed, while Putin genuinely values good relations with Israel, he also values good relations with Iran (and with Turkey and all Arab governments, too, for that matter).

While Netanyahu might want to portray Putin as siding with Israel against Iran, this is not what Putin is doing. While Netanyahu emphasised Iran in his talks with Putin, the Russian president talked about the possibility of Moscow playing the role of mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, something that Netanyahu is really not interested in having Russia do.

Netanyahu may hope that the optics of revived Russian-Israeli summitry might send a message to Tehran that if it thought Russian-Israeli relations had permanently deteriorated after the September 2018 incident, it was wrong.

While the Iranian government is hardly pleased to see the revival of Putin-Netanyahu meetings, Tehran seems to be downplaying the importance of the February 27 gathering. Instead, the Iranian media emphasised preparations for the battle to restore Assad regime control over Idlib. It will be a battle in which Moscow and Tehran are on the same side.

What this latest Putin-Netanyahu summit shows is that, as close as Netanyahu is to the Trump administration, it is vitally important for the Israeli leader to cultivate good relations with the Kremlin. At a time when Russia’s role in the Middle East has been growing, Israel is not even trying to sideline Moscow from the peace process as the United States and Israel did during the Cold War.

What this also suggests is that the most likely Russian reaction to efforts by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement will be to exploit the widespread Arab opposition to it that is likely to arise and promote a “better” Russian alternative. This is unlikely to succeed but Putin is less interested in bringing about Israeli-Palestinian peace than in making sure that the United States does not do so.

Arab public opinion remains as focused as ever on the Palestinian issue but key Arab governments allied to the United States — Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in particular — share Israel’s concern about the threat from Iran.

Putin has maintained good relations with both Iran on the one hand and Israel and the Gulf Arabs on the other despite their antagonism towards each other. However, with the Assad regime having basically won the civil war with Russian and Iranian support, continued Iranian military activity in Syria is going to test this.

Netanyahu told Putin that Israel will continue to act against this Iranian activity. It would not be surprising if Riyadh and Abu Dhabi support Israel in this, at least tacitly.

Unless, then, Moscow can mediate between Israel and Iran, conflict between them in Syria and possibly Lebanon is going to escalate and both will push Moscow to side with it against the other. Putin will find maintaining good relations with both to be increasingly difficult.

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