Putin-Netanyahu summit sends multiple messages

Sunday 24/04/2016
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) talks to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu during their meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow on April 21st.

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.