Putin-Netanyahu summit sends multiple messages
Washington - Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu travelled to Moscow on April 21st to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin, a visit that came in the wake of reports — all denied by Moscow — of hostile encounters between Russian and Israeli warplanes.
In addition to improving bilateral relations, the Putin-Netanyahu summit seemed intended to convey other messages.
“It is very good that we maintain regular contacts at such a high level,” the Kremlin quoted Putin as saying. “There are understandable reasons for these intensive contacts,” he said, indicating that he does not regard Israel a pariah but a partner.
“I greatly value our regular cooperation,” Netanyahu said. He said he went to Moscow “with the sole concrete objective of strengthening the coordination between our countries in the security area, so as to avoid mistakes, misunderstandings or incidents”.
This statement appeared to refer to reports of encounters between Russian and Israeli aircraft. Israel has not, and is not likely to, shoot down Russian aircraft the way Turkey did — especially since this would not advance another agenda item that Netanyahu wishes to coordinate with Putin: Making sure “that Hezbollah does not get its hands on the ultramodern weapons coming in from Syria and Iraq”. After the meeting, Netanyahu indicated that “he received assurances” that Moscow would help Israel stop the transfer of weapons through Syria to Hezbollah.
Netanyahu also repeated that Israel has no intention of relinquishing the Golan Heights, which it captured from Syria in 1967.
Economic matters were also discussed. Netanyahu praised Putin’s contribution to a Russian-Israeli agreement on pensions. The Russian news agency, Sputnik, noted that Russian energy firms are interested in participating in natural gas projects off Israel’s Mediterranean coast.
More than anything else, the Putin-Netanyahu summit signalled that Russian-Israeli relations are normal and businesslike. To those who object to Israeli policy towards the Palestinians or Russian foreign policy towards Ukraine, Syria or wherever, Putin and Netanyahu seemed to be saying: We’re going to cooperate with each other whether you like it or not.
Indeed, Netanyahu’s relatively good relations with Putin stand in stark contrast to the Israeli prime minister’s notoriously poor relations with US President Barack Obama. Similarly, at a time when so many Western leaders have developed an increasingly negative view of Putin, the fact that Netanyahu has not is remarkable.
What is also noteworthy is that while so many governments are clearly unhappy about the Russian military presence in Syria, Israel seems to have accepted it. Indeed, for all Netanyahu’s expressions of fear about an Iranian threat to Israel, he seems to be comfortable with Iran’s ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, remaining in power in Damascus. Perhaps Netanyahu sees the Russian presence in Syria as serving to restrain both Iran and Hezbollah vis-à-vis Israel.
The friendly meeting between Putin and Netanyahu also suggests that Moscow is not particularly worried about Iranian objections to Russian-Israeli cooperation. Lack of coverage by the Iranian media of the Putin-Netanyahu summit suggests that Tehran did not welcome it but does not want to publicly argue with Moscow about it either.
The Iranian government, though, will undoubtedly want to privately clarify with Moscow just what Netanyahu meant when he said he had received reassurances that Moscow would help stop the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah.
Putin may also hope that the fact that the United States’ Israeli allies are willing to work with him may encourage America’s Gulf Arab allies to do so as well, if only to get Washington to take them more seriously.
While Moscow’s close ties to Israel may not prove to be an obstacle to their doing so, however, Russia’s close ties to Iran may. After all, if the Gulf Arab states are angry with Obama for attempting to improve Iranian-US relations, they can hardly expect much help from a Moscow that has long had good working relations with Tehran and clearly intends to maintain them.
This logic, of course, applies to Russian-Israeli relations as well: No matter how furious Netanyahu is about Obama seeking better ties with Iran, Israel cannot expect all that much help against Tehran from a Russian government determined to maintain close ties to Tehran. Still, the Russian-Israeli courtship will continue: Netanyahu is to return to Moscow on June 7th.