The US missile attack against Syria has greatly exacerbated the Russia-US relations pushing the two powers to the brink of military conflict. It brings to the fore the question whether actors deeply involved in Syria’s conflict, pursuing opposing interests and supporting different warring parties, could avoid tensions, effectively de-conflict and cooperate on other issues of common interest? The answer is yes, they can. This affirmation is confirmed by an example – the relationship between Russia and Israel.
The two face deep divisions on how they view the situation in the Middle East. For instance, they have conflicting views on the role of Iran.
Israel is informally participating in the Syrian conflict through occasional strikes on Hezbollah targets in Syria and some cross-border exchanges of fire. Before the Russian Aerospace Forces launched an operation in 2015, Moscow had applied efforts to discuss a de-confliction agreement. Israel met the Russian initiative halfway. As a result, the parties reached de-confliction and information sharing agreements, including the establishment of «a joint mechanism for preventing misunderstandings» between respective forces operating in Syria, with follow-on talks at lower level.
It’s hard to say if Russia used its influence or not, but somehow Hezbollah and other Shiite militia groups don't operate close to Israeli borders. Moscow has contributed to preventing a major clash between Israel and Syria.
No doubt, Israel is very interested making its voice heard and interests taken into account when major decisions are being made on Syria’s future. Russia is perfectly fit to represent it at the talks and act as intermediary. It’s an indisputable fact that the region needs a new security structure. Moscow must play the key role of mediator in this system because it is the only country that maintains working relations with all Middle East countries.
«I am very pleased to see that we have such close and trusting contact. We meet regularly in person, are regularly in contact by telephone, and work together at the ministry and agency level», said Russian President Vladimir Putin, greeting the Israeli delegation led by PM Benjamin Netanyahu during the Russia-Israel summit in Moscow on March 9. The Israeli team included Maj.-Gen. Herzi Halevi, the head of Military Intelligence. Netanyahu said that Russia has played an important part in the fight against Sunni Islamic terrorism represented by Islamic State and al-Qaida.
The meeting between Putin and Netanyahu was preceded by an official visit to Moscow by Isaac Herzog, a leader of the parliamentary opposition and head of the Israeli Labor Party. His March 6-7 trip included meetings with representatives of both chambers of Russia's parliament and the Foreign Ministry.
It was hardly a coincidence that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Russia the day after Netanyahu's trip. In 2016, Ankara reconciled with Moscow and Tel Aviv after one of the Israeli prime minister's visits to Moscow. The three countries share common interests: stabilizing Syria and developing eastern Mediterranean natural gas infrastructure.
Moscow’s proposal to host potential direct talks between Israel and Palestinians is still on the table. Russian companies are exploring the possibilities of taking part in Israel's natural gas market. Israel never joined the West’s anti-Moscow sanctions. Tel Aviv is among the countries that refuse to recognize Kosovo as an independent state.
«Despite Syria, Israel-Russia relations are the warmest in history», writes Seth J. Frantzman, an Israeli commentator on Middle East politics, in an article for the Jerusalem Post. «Russia is the dominant player in Syria», Frantzman underscores, adding that for Israel, it is important to maintain close relations with Moscow to ensure the country's security. According to him, «Both Hezbollah and some among the Syrian rebels might like to see Israel dragged into the Syrian conflict», the commentator warned, «In general, in the Middle East, Russia is seen as an increasingly powerful player, as opposed to the erratic policies coming from Washington».
The Middle East is undergoing drastic changes. Israeli-Russian relations are an element shaping the region’s future. Neither Russia, nor Israel conceal the fact that they are divided by serious disagreements, but both are willing to work together where their interests coincide. They know how to compartmentalize foreign-policy issues. After all, both nations face the same enemy – Islamic terrorism. So do Russia and the United States.
Moscow has good working relations with the United States’ closest ally, which views as enemies Russia’s friends in Syria. The divisions are deep, but the relations are close. It can be achieved. Israel has done what the US has so far failed to do despite the fact that America is led by a president whose stated goal during the election campaign was to heal the relationship with Moscow. Now, why does not Washington take a page out of Israel’s book? Syria is the right place to start.