Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who visits Moscow more often any other foreign capital, was there again to attend the ceremony marking the 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Russia. In addition to a lengthy official agenda and the signing of a number of important documents on cooperation in regard to economic and social issues, the two parties’ security agreements, particularly pertaining to the conflict in Syria, drew rapt attention.
Many experts have tried to predict whether the two countries’ stance on Syria will now shift toward direct combat cooperation in the fight against radical Islamists. One sign of this could be seen in Avigdor Lieberman’s appointment as Israeli defense minister. The political party he leads is the largest faction with a Russian-speaking base, and he is well-known for his commitment to maintaining close ties with Moscow.
The leader of the Israeli government has by and large confirmed the expectations of a further expansion of the two parties’ cooperation vis-à-vis Syria. He has acknowledged that the established mechanisms for coordinating the countries’ military operations in Syria have worked well and also kept their relationship from deteriorating – as happened between Moscow and Ankara – during the time that the contingent of Russian forces was active in that country.
Netanyahu has made it clear that the two countries will gain additional benefits from beefing up this cooperation even further. He has expressly called for «Israel, Russia, and the whole world» to form a united front against militant Islamic terrorism. According to Netanyahu, Israel’s involvement in the Syrian conflict is limited to two areas: «We offer medical assistance to wounded Syrians, and we take steps to prevent Iran from using Syrian territory to attack Israel and to send modern weapons to Hezbollah».
Some media outlets have reported that the Israeli air force struck a string of sites in the province of Homs on the very eve of Netanyahu’s Moscow visit. The fact that the Syrian authorities made no protest at the time is a sign that this attack hit Islamic State (IS) targets. It has also been noted that Syrian defense systems were tracking the Israeli planes in its airspace, but held their fire.
The website DEBKAfile, which has close ties to Israeli military intelligence, reports that one of Netanyahu’s goals in Moscow was to find a place for Israel in the Russian-American mechanism for coordinating operations in Syria. It has been noted that many of Netanyahu’s initiatives regarding both Russia as well as Putin personally are being promoted by the Israeli prime minister in a challenge to Obama, who, Israelis feel, is taking overly «dangerous steps» and «at Israel’s expense», as his term comes to an end, while trying to resolve a situation in the Middle East that he himself has made more problematic.
However, a powerful pro-American lobby exists in Israel that sees the US as its primary strategic ally and which is leery of closer ties with Russia or of cooperation with Moscow over Syria. The prominent military analyst Amos Yadlin, of the Institute for National Security Studies, continues to insist on the need to boot out the Assad regime, which is also contributing to the increasing influence in the region of Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. In his opinion, the Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus-Beirut axis is more dangerous than the Islamic State, which, he claims, has already been weakened by US-Russian actions. He feels that the priorities in the fight should be: Assad first, and then IS. According to this theory, the establishment of «moderate» Sunni rule in Syria would in itself help to weaken IS, as its supporters would stop battling against such a regime. According to Yadlin, Israel should put its faith in an alliance with the conservative Sunni regimes of the Persian Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia. Discussions should be held with Russia, mainly in regard to ousting Assad, possibly promising to «preserv[e] Russian interests in northern Syria». This reads like an allusion to a partition of Syrian territory. But this sort of short-sighted policy has been thoroughly discredited, now that it has led to the current state of affairs in Syria as well as the rise of IS.
Barak Ravid, a columnist for Haaretz, claims that Russia is supposedly acting against Israel’s interests, both politically and militarily. «Putin rolls out the red carpet for Netanyahu and gives him back an old tank that’s been sitting in a museum, but when it comes to the real issues, his actions are very detrimental to Israel’s interests». The Israeli journalist cites Russia’s support for anti-Israel resolutions at the UN.
Alex Nirenberg and Eli Klotstein take an even more radical position in their article posted on Israel’s NRG news website, eloquently titled «Netanyahu’s visit to Moscow: an attempt to find an alternative to the United States». They conclude that the Netanyahu government is looking for a new strategic ally in the Middle East. The journalists claim that the «Russification» of Israeli political and social life can be blamed for all of this. They write that Russian-speaking immigrants «have altered the entire political landscape in Israel over the course of the last 25 years» and have taken over key positions in the Knesset and government. «In the foreign ministry, Abba Eban’s English has given way to Lieberman’s Russian,» Nirenberg and Klotstein complain. They claim that «today Russian can be heard throughout the corridors of power in Jerusalem, and now many find that the Moscow mentality makes more sense to them than do the liberal winds that have been blowing through Washington in recent years».
And some commentators go so far as to suggest that Israel and Russia could be working together to support Donald Trump’s candidacy for US president. Given Israel’s influence on the American media, this collaboration could be quite fruitful. Trump’s gestures toward America’s Jewish lobby have been noted, for example. On the eve of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland where he will receive his official nomination, Trump is planning a visit to Israel. There he intends to make a series of highly publicized pronouncements, which will include a denunciation of the nuclear deal with Iran. Jason Dov Greenblatt, Trump’s chief legal advisor and a well-known Jewish activist, is coordinating the visit. Of course, this is a pretty much a pure speculation, and it is hard to imagine that any kind of agreements like that actually exist. However, the line of reasoning is fairly typical.
And it would be premature to speak of any military alliance between the IDF and Russia’s armed forces in the war against IS. There are a lot of obstacles in the way. However, modern warfare offers other opportunities to render mutual assistance in order to reach compatible goals. But above all, they have to be compatible. And when it comes to IS, it seems that they are.