- Oded Raanan & Vera Michlin
Israel-Russia Relations: Mutual Esteem or Cold-Eyed Utilitarianism?
Last month, the Russian military launched its biggest military exercise since the end of the Cold War. The tension persisting between the Kremlin and the West has spread to the Middle East, warranting an analysis of Russia's regional aims—and Israel's calculated response. The Arena convened five experts to discuss the different considerations affecting Israeli-Russian relations and to predict their most likely future direction
Israeli PM Netanyahu and President Putin in Moscow, 2013 | Photo: Koby Gideon, GPO
(Editor’s Note: The roundtable was conducted prior to the September 18 incident in which a Russian naval patrol airplane was shot down during an Israeli operation in Syria; it therefore does not take resulting developments into account)
On May 9, 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu marched in Moscow's annual parade to commemorate the Allies’ victory over Nazi Germany. Netanyahu, the only foreign leader to arrive as a guest of Vladimir Putin, marched alongside the Russian president and laid a wreath at Russia’s grave for the Unknown Soldier. The two then watched the military parade together, which showcased the advanced weapon systems that Russia either already sells or is at least thinking of selling to Iran and Syria, Israel's enemies. Three months earlier, a surface-to-air missile system like the ones later marched before Netanyahu brought down an Israeli fighter jet as it attacked a cache of Russian-made weapons and control systems in Syria. The Israeli airstrike occurred despite swathes of Russian military advisers located in the region to protect the Assad regime.
This study of ironies beautifully illustrates Israel's complex relationship with the Russian Federation, which has rapidly become one of its most complex foreign policy challenges. Russia's intervention in the Syrian civil war and its support, in conjunction with Iran and other elements, of Bashar al-Assad's regime, has made Moscow Israel’s primary contact as it formulates its response to the civil war raging over its northeast border. Over the past few years, Netanyahu has attended approximately ten formal meetings in Moscow. Today, he possesses a direct line to President Putin.
This relationship is remarkable, particularly given the history of Israeli-Russian relations. For most of its history, Israel was perceived as the West’s representative in the Middle East. But as Russia strives to regain influence in the international sphere, the former superpower has stepped up its involvement in the Middle East just as the United States has backed away from it—and Israel has taken note.
Beyond security and political issues, over which Russia and Israel share both converging and conflicting interests, the two countries maintain diplomatic relations along several additional planes—including thriving tourism and a wide range of economic collaborations. They also share a historic connection through their commemoration of World War II and strong cultural ties stemming from the large population of Israelis who immigrated from the former Soviet Union. To examine how all these components affect Jerusalem’s diplomatic relations with Moscow, “The Arena” convened an interdisciplinary expert panel of professionals who have engaged with various aspects of Israeli-Russian relations:
Ambassador Dorit Golender, Israel's ambassador to Moscow from 2010 to 2015.
Dr. Avinoam Idan, a geo-strategist and expert on Russia and the Eurasian sphere. Dr. Idan teaches at Haifa University and the Interdisciplinary Center of Herzliya, and serves as a senior research fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, based in Washington, DC. He served as a senior attaché to the Israeli representation in Moscow during the fall of the Soviet Union and through the resumption of diplomatic relations between Israel and Russia.
Sima Shine, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). Previously, Shine headed the Mossad’s research division and served as the Ministry of Strategic Affairs’ deputy director-general.
Yevgeny Suva, a journalist and the Israel Director of RTVI, an international Russian-language TV station.
The roundtable, held at IDC Radio 106.2FM studios at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya, was mediated by Vera Michlin-Shapir, a Russia expert at the INSS.
Watch the entire roundtable (in Hebrew):
New Relations, Old Problems
Diplomatic relations between Jerusalem and Moscow proved a nonstarter for most of the Cold War but resumed after the collapse of the USSR in 1991. However, the relationship only began to truly thaw in the 2000s, after Vladimir Putin ascended to the presidency. Putin's successful visit to Israel in 2005 marked the beginning of warm relationships with three successive Israeli prime ministers: Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, and Benjamin Netanyahu. In particular, in 2008, Israel signed a visa waiver agreement with Russia in a move that Moscow keenly appreciated.
Though the Israel-Russia relationship is now warmer still, Russia has yet to diverge from its traditional anti-Israeli line in various international institutions, and meanwhile also cultivates ties with declared enemies of Israel, such as Syria and Iran. Some claim this reflects a familiar trend in Russia's foreign policy, in which it treats the same international actor differently according to the arena. In Israel's case, Russia distinguishes its warming bilateral relationship with the country from its overall strategic stance vis-à-vis the Middle East. Is Russia—despite frequent visits, loud praise of Israel’s leadership, and expanding coordination in security affairs—actually coldly and exploitatively manipulating Jerusalem? The experts at the roundtable had diverging views.
Ambassador Dorit Golender began. As she explained, “This representation of Israeli-Russian relations is essentially negative. In Russia, there is great respect for Israel—a small, strong country with military and technological might, which stands up for its political and security interests. It is true that Moscow has not voted in our favor in any diplomatic forum, but the dialogue with it today is more open. Achieving mutual trust and public international support is a process that takes more than a day or a year. It takes time, trust, and good will. You can say a lot about the Russians’ policy toward Israel, but I think it has one special thing—they stay true to their word.
"In parallel, Israel's relationship toward Russia has been changing. Most adult Israelis grew up with negative perceptions from the Soviet period. But a lot has changed in recent years. Keep in mind, we do it of our own free will. Nobody is forcing these relations on us.”
Sima Shine: The USSR's decades-old presence in the Middle East and its close relationships with the Arab states, its supplies of weapons, its voting pattern in the UN — are all deeply embedded in Russia's relations with them, and won't go away in a day
In response, Dr. Avinoam Idan argued that Israeli-Russian relations can be defined in a single word: Interests. He insisted that ignoring the pragmatic reasoning undergirding the Israel-Russia relationship would be a dangerous mistake. “International relations are based on a sober view of interests and how to achieve them. The rest is all decoration,” he stated. “When Putin told Trump that he admires Netanyahu, that really was impressive, and makes us feel terrific, but we shouldn't be dazzled. That statement was very calculated, and so is Russian policy as a whole.
“In contrast to the years of the Cold War and immediately afterward, today Israel and Russia have close ties in several areas, for instance Syria. It ostensibly affects the atmosphere, as covered by the media—but we need to keep in mind, again, that [Russia’s] interests can change at a moment's notice . . . “
Sima Shine elaborated. "Interests are of course the basis for the relationship—if both sides profit. But there are some things that are immutable, or that change very slowly because of their historic baggage. One is the USSR's decades-old presence in the Middle East and its close relationships with the Arab states. Its supplies of weapons, its voting pattern in the UN Security Council—these are all deeply embedded in Russia's relations with them, and they won't go away in a day.
"But—and this is a big but—the change in Russia's status in the Middle East is not necessarily limited to its relationship with Israel. In contrast to the USSR period, Russia maintains excellent ties with both sides of the Israel-Iran and the Saudi Arabia-Iran conflicts, and with Egypt and Syria. One of its greatest achievements in recent years has been creating a range of common interests with several countries in the region, even while there are conflicts of interests in other areas.”
Putin, Iranian President Rouhani and Turkish President Erdogan in Tehran, September 7th, 2018 |
Photo: Kremlin.ru (CC BY 4.0)
Shine continued, “It is important to stress that the entire situation changed in September 2015, when Russia intervened directly in the fighting in Syria. For the first time since the USSR exited the Middle East, Russia has a significant military presence fighting in the area, and is also cooperating with a third actor: Iran. Further, Russia continues to arm Israel’s enemies, and has no intention of stopping. For years we have been warning the Russians that the weapons they sell to Syria are being transferred by Damascus to Hezbollah, in violation of the agreement with them. Russian intelligence certainly doesn't fall short of its Israeli counterparts and knows this too, but all they said to us was ‘prove it.’ We couldn't surmount that obstacle.”
Yevgeny Suva agreed. “There is no question that for years, one of the main goals of Russian foreign policy was to maintain close relations with the Arab states.” He then hastened to qualify: “But what is foreign policy? It isn't dictated by some book that somebody at the Russian foreign ministry publishes. Foreign policy is first and foremost people—some of whom have been in place for 30 or 40 years and can’t just relinquish deeply rooted concepts overnight, even if the USSR is breaking apart and the world is opening up. Israel really did try to establish ties with Moscow in the 1990s, but rapprochement doesn’t happen in a day. It's a process.
"Today a new generation is growing up in Russia that doesn’t view Israel through the prism of Soviet propaganda, but sees it as a developed Western nation. The visa waiver agreement was also an important move. The younger generation in Russia could yet improve the relations even more, and deepen them.
“It is also worth noting the improvement in the Russian media’s stance toward Israel. During the Second Lebanon War in 2006, the media was quite hostile, using words such as 'aggression’ and ‘occupation’ and others that we’ve become accustomed to hearing. But by Operation Cast Lead in 2009, the tone had completely changed.
“The sudden change is explained by Israeli public diplomacy actors becoming much more involved, and managing to influence the government in Russia, which in turn influenced local media. Make no mistake, that’s how it works there—it is a country which holds elections, but the government hands down a very clear line.”
He concluded, “Israeli policy definitely did contribute to that improvement. For example, when Operation Cast Lead began, the first call made by then-Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was to her Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. She advised that we were going to attack terror-related targets, and the Russians got the message. They like being shown respect. Hence the change on the part of the government, which seeped through to the media’s attitude, causing Israel in 2009 to be perceived as much less aggressive and hostile. The media also talked about Israel having the right to defend itself.”
Between East and West
One major sign of how important its relations with Russia are to Israel is its demonstrated independence from its Western allies regarding its Russian policy. The starkest examples in recent years include Israel's decision to refrain from condemning Russia when it annexed Crimea in 2014, its failure to join the resulting sanctions against Russia, and the decidedly muted criticism Jerusalem issued following the assassination attempt on Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK this March, which did not so much as mention Russia by name. Many around the world wonder how Israel, diplomatically speaking, manages to avoid accusations that it has “betrayed” the West, its values, and the united front that it tries to present against the Kremlin.
Shine provided more context behind Israel’s tricky balancing act. “At some stage Israel decided that the relationship with Russia was very important to it. Translating that decision into policy included an acknowledgement that Russia plays an important role in the Middle East and world. This connects with Russia's need [again] for respect. Remember the trauma Russia suffered following the dissolution of the USSR, which was magnified, among other things, by the sense that the West was ridiculing it, and that it had turned from a superpower into a country needing external aid.
“Israel therefore decided to try to maintain a foreign policy that was not 100% identified with the United States. It is true that Israel didn't pay a price for that choice, but questions were asked—and more—in Washington and other Western capitals: ‘What is Israel's position?’ It has worked the other way around too. For instance, when Israel supplied military aid to Georgia, the Russians were not happy, and made that starkly clear."
Golender elaborated. “Israel has a very clear policy of non-intervention in the internal politics of other countries, and in the bilateral relations of other countries, and the Russians keenly appreciate that policy. I know this not only because I served in Moscow, but from other diplomats.
Yevgeny Suva: Israel knows how to spell out to the Russians that their dialogue does not mean that it is distancing itself from the West. The Russians understand this, and wouldn't try to test Israel on the matter
"It would be true to say that in practice, Israel gains from this attitude—also because it could only lose by intervening. During the Ukraine incidents, we might have been lucky in that the Foreign Ministry was on strike at the time, and in the UK the reaction was muted. Ultimately, we emerged from the situation easily. But remember that Ukraine had been Israel’s friend for years, and that it had always been on Israel’s side [in the international institutions] while Russia never voted for us.”
In turn, Suva stressed that. "It bears noting that Israel recognized Ukraine's territorial integrity in 2016, so it didn't really abstain in the issue of Crimea's annexation.” He continued, “Also, Israel always knows how to spell out to the Russians that their dialogue did not therefore mean that it is distancing itself from the West. I think the Russians understand this, and wouldn't try to test Israel on the matter. It is an important point, because Israel's decisions on such matters, which ostensibly do not touch it directly, could exact a price—in its relations with the European Union, with the U.S. and with Russia as well.
“[It is also important to] mention that this is not the first time that Israel has broken ranks with the West. Moments before the 1999 election, Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon criticized the NATO attacks on Serbia, which were led by U.S. president Bill Clinton. That cost us, but Sharon was not afraid to adopt an independent line. It depends on the leader and isn't necessarily a maneuver, but a policy of realpolitik, which always involves some risk.”
These descriptions indeed suit the current state of affairs in the Jerusalem-Washington-Moscow tripartite relationship. As one former senior Israeli diplomat put it, “Israel's success is at not being called a traitor in any of these capitals.”
Idan subscribes to this point of view. As he said, in recent years, “Israel really has played a very clever game, and the results prove it. We have benefited a great deal from having a president in the White House like Barack Obama. It was an excellent window of opportunity from our perspective to walk that thin rope.
"I was in Washington during the Ukraine crisis. The Americans were highly understanding of our constraints and why our policy did not identify completely with theirs at that time. But the direction of the diplomatic winds can change instantly, because President Trump is unpredictable. Look how he’s slammed the Europeans over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, standing at a conference hosted by Angela Merkel and explaining to her how the Germans are being held captive by the Russians. Under certain circumstances, we may run into much bigger trouble while walking this thin line.”
“Israel always gained when relations between Washington and Moscow were good, and vice versa,” stressed Shine. “We don't want to get caught between them when they fight. We sometimes play the role of conveying messages—though that’s silly because they don’t really need a mediator—‘as though’ we influence the White House. We can't influence the nature of their relations, but we stand to gain when they're good.”
“Yet,” Idan added, “to generalize, the U.S. is hardly present in the Middle East any more. There is no conflict between the U.S. and Russia in the region right now, which seems to be part of the deal between Trump and Putin. Based on what’s happening in Syria, I'm not sure that the harmony between the two superpowers will always play in our favor.”
Tango with a Bear
Russia's entry into the Syrian civil war in 2015 on behalf of Bashar al-Assad was its first official military operation beyond the former USSR’s historical borders since the Communist bloc collapsed. In its effort to preserve Assad's regime, Moscow joined arms with Iranian forces, Tehran’s Lebanese protégé Hezbollah, and Shiite militia groups supported by Tehran. In parallel, Russia established a military coordination process with Israel to preclude incidents between their forces in the Syrian skies. It has also regularly turned a blind eye to attacks on Syrian and Iranian forces in Syria; Israel has claimed credit for at least some of those attacks.
What are Russia's considerations when it decides to give Israel such freedom of movement? Where does Moscow draw its lines in the sand?
Golender explained: “Russia went into Syria and is there now to make sure that Assad remains in power. It isn't there to save Israel, or to harm it,” she said. “Israel, for its part, has spelled out that we cannot remain indifferent to certain scenarios in Syria involving Hezbollah and Iran. The Russians understood that, so the coordination process operates perfectly.”
Shine added, “What is happening in Syria is certainly extraordinary. First of all, from the first day things started there—and after much internal debate—the Israeli government decided that we wouldn’t get involved in the war. Other than isolated incidents of terrorist activity on the border, we hadn’t been involved there for years. Israeli military activity in Syria has mainly only occurred in the last two years.
Putin with Syrian President Assad in Khmeimim airbase in Syria, December 2017 | Photo: Kremlin.ru (CC BY 4.0)
“In my opinion, Russia’s interference in Syria surprised Israel, as it did many others. But it has been a mixed bag. On one hand, Hezbollah and Iran managed to achieve their objective: preserving Bashar al-Assad’s position of power—which is, as we said, Russia's main goal. Apparently, they couldn't achieve that without Russia's military help, mainly from the air.
“Overall, this war led to two negative developments from Israel's perspective: first, Iran and Hezbollah accrued military experience of a kind to which they had not been previously accustomed—experience that was augmented by intelligence cooperation with the Russians.
“Second, the question about Iran's place in Syria the day after the fighting ends: while Israel has declared that no Iranian will remain in Syria, I have said that that scenario is unrealistic. Today, we see that Israel—justifiably, because these are the conditions on the ground and it has no choice in the matter—accepts the arrangement that keep Iranian forces 70 to 80 kilometers from the border, while Israel has a free hand to attack when it feels threatened.
“This looks like a good solution, but is awkward for two reasons. First, we don’t necessarily know when Shiite militias sponsored by Iran are nearing our border. Militants from these organizations shed their uniforms and mix into the Syrian army. There's no way to stop this. Second, regarding Israel’s attacks, it is possible that by ignoring them, the Russians also gain from them. The moment we attack and the Iranians grasp that they have no advantage over Israel in Syria, the Russians can press both sides to reach all sorts of understandings.
"In sum, the game here is very complicated, and caution is due lest a single Russian soldier come to harm. That is Russia's red line.
Bolstering Shine, Golender added, “Everybody also remembers what happened to Turkey [which shot down a Russian jet that flew into its territory, and which Putin subsequently punished]."
Idan elaborated, “Preserving Assad's regime is not the goal of Russian activity in the region. It is a means to achieve a perspective with which Russia is already familiar: more broadly and strategically, in the Middle East and beyond. You can see the thread between their actions in the Caucasus against Georgia and Ukraine, in the Black Sea and in the Middle East, and in the field of energy as well. (Editor’s note: he was referring to the Eastmed gas pipeline.)
"Israeli-Russian relations in the Syrian context can be represented metaphorically as an intimate tango. Their only difference is in weight. One is a featherweight, and the other is a bear. Even with the war in Syria ostensibly nearing an end and with the Assad government already back to its original borders, the strategic problem that Israel faces is not trivial. At the very least, the reality we anticipate is more complicated than the one we have so far experienced.
Dr. Avinoam Idan: Russia holds the key to the Iranian presence in Syria. From Israel's perspective, Moscow determines the extent of that presence, which gives it extraordinary leverage over Israel that it can exploit over time
"The significant thing is that Russia now holds the key for Iranian presence in Syria. From Israel's perspective, Russia determines the extent of that presence, which gives it extraordinary leverage over Israel that it can exploit over time. The reality is therefore highly complex and problematic.” Idan concluded, “We should not feel comfortable about the way things are developing.”
Suva chimed in, “I agree with Dr. Idan that Russia won't settle for leaving Assad in government.” He added, “They are not maintaining the air base at Khmeimim and the port at Tartus for Assad's sake. There is an American fleet in the Mediterranean and Russia is acting against it, for fear that the Americans will control the Mediterranean Sea and that their influence will reach the Black Sea through the Bosporus Straits. The conflicts in Georgia  and in Crimea are associated to a great degree with Russian fear of American soldiers in the Black Sea. The U.S. and NATO have been putting long-range missile boats there, which are a real threat as far as Russia is concerned.
“That is the heart of the Russian defense concept: not to allow a Western missile threat deep within its territory. Russia’s military presence in the Middle East, at Tartus and Khmeimim, is also a message to the Americans: ‘We will meet you in the Middle East, not on our border.’
Pursuing the analogy of the tangoing bear, Suva then added, "I liken the Middle East region to a neighborhood. Israel is behaving like the neighborhood bully, but in a good sense: it spells out that it doesn't matter what everyone else does and what agreements they reach among themselves, we have the strongest air force and army and the moment we decide to do so, we will act as we see fit. Even when the dancers are of different weight, the big Russian bear must realize that in our neighborhood, Israel is the superpower and therefore it has to consider its interests.”
A Russian warship off the shores of Syria, in 2017 | Photo: Russian Ministry of Defense (CC BY 4.0)
Shine then summarized, “I think the various opinions arising in this discussion reflect reality, which is not clear-cut or black-and-white, but involves both shared and conflicting interest.” She concluded, “there is no doubt that the Russians are cooperating with Iran, and we have yet to discuss the nuclear agreement [JCPOA]. But unfortunately, ours is not an ideal world. Israel has enjoyed several years of quiet on the north-east border stemming from Syria’s preoccupation with its inner turmoil. That reality has ended, and now there is a new one; its advantages and disadvantages must be identified, and a new Israeli strategy must be formulated.
“However, I am not suggesting that we study Israeli-Russian relations exclusively through the prism of Syria. They have a great many Israel-related interests that they want to preserve, though both parties realize they are in conflict over other matters.”
Israel Should Not Overreach
Russia is playing a complicated game with the United States as well, as it makes strategic use of relatively trifling international conundrums to shape geopolitics in its favor. In anticipation of the July Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki, Russia hinted that when the Syrian civil war ends, it might remove its support for Iranian involvement in Syria. Could the U.S. (and Israel) take advantage of this opportunity to drive a wedge between Russia and Iran in the nuclear sphere as well, perhaps even to persuade Moscow to join the sanctions against Tehran?
Shine definitively dismissed the idea. “Russia joining the sanctions against Iran is not a reasonable scenario,” she said. “Keep in mind that Iran is important to Russia on many grounds. Syria is a bargaining chip, but Russia and Iran also cooperate on oil and other interests. And remember too that there is a difference between the Putin administration and Russian industry—a difference that also applies, by the way, to the European nations. The Kremlin can declare that it wants to continue to do business with Iran despite Washington's sanctions, but there are Russian companies with significant economic interests in the U.S. They may elect to abandon Iran for fear of harming their operations. But companies without that sort of interest, of which are many, will continue to do business with Iran, and the Russian government is unlikely to stop them. Furthermore, Russia is presently building a second unit in the Bushehr nuclear reactor. I do not think that it will be in any rush to join the sanctions region.”
Idan agreed. “We should beware of wishful thinking, and that's the case here. However, when you look at it, the intersection between Russia and Iran on the nuclear issue is just one aspect of a much wider relationship. Remember the Persian Gulf region, and the area by China, where Russia has a say about sanctions, too. It is not an option as far as the Chinese are concerned. In short, I think the notion of Russia joining the sanctions led by the Trump administration is wishful thinking, no more."
Golender had a slightly different take. “In my opinion, the Russian side badly wants to end the Cold War with the U.S.," she said. “Everything that the Russians have done—and we don’t know everything discussed behind closed doors—has been done as part of a deal, because politics and diplomacy always involve deals.”
In contrast, Suva stressed, “Remember the motive behind this dialogue with the U.S. The Russian regime has built itself on confrontations [with Washington and the West], for internal gains. In Russia there is a sort of feeling that ‘we are on the top of the world and they are in our way.’ But when it hurts Putin’s cronies in their pockets, they all try to resolve the issue.”
Golender responded, "The process has only just begun. We will see how it develops soon. It has already been said here that Trump and the United States could yet do unexpected things. As I said at the start of this conversation, Putin’s word is to be held in high regard.”
The Aliyah From the Former USSR and Its Role in Israeli-Russian Relations
The Israeli-Russian relationship regarding security and politics is inevitably colored by the fact that more than a million immigrants and their descendants from the former Soviet Union now live in Israel (out of an overall population of nearly nine million). Numerous key positions in Israeli politics and the civil service are held by native Russian speakers. These include the minister of defense, the chairman of the Knesset (Israeli parliament), a Jerusalem mayoral candidate, and more. In fact, so far, the majority of Israel's prime ministers originally hailed from Russia or the USSR. The Russians, for their part, feel warmly toward the Israeli Russian-speaking community. But how does this relationship contribute to relations between the two countries? The experts are divided.
“The half-Jewish Russian poet Vladimir Vysotsky, who is widely quoted in Russia, introduced a sentence into the pantheon of Israeli-Russian relations: ‘In Israel, a quarter of the people are ours,’” Suva relates. “But I think the formerly Soviet community is more important to Russia than to Israel when it comes to influencing decisions.
“In my opinion, when Russia relates to Israel and tries to sell its policy to Israelis, it relies on the large number of Russian-speaking Israelis. But I don’t know to what degree this is done innocuously versus to what degree President Putin sits and thinks on a day-to-day basis about the fate of these people. During the Second Lebanon War, 100,000 Israelis with Russian citizenship were under missile threat. We didn’t hear Foreign Minister Lavrov say ‘Let’s send a ship to the Haifa port and evacuate them’ like they evacuated Russian citizens from Syria. Naturally this example is extreme, but it demonstrates that the presence of people from the former USSR in Israel defines the fate of relations between Russia and Israel."
Amb. Dorit Golender: Russia made a terrible mistake by banishing its Jewish citizens. A million former Soviet Jews came to Israel and hundreds of thousands went elsewhere in the world. Today Russia is asking them to return
Golender somewhat disagreed. "On one hand, I keep track of what’s happening in the Russian networks, and they often write categorically anti-Semitic things—you can’t ignore that," she said. “On the other hand, there is respect for Israel and an understanding that it is fighting for its independence. That gets a lot of attention on the Russian side, because what has happened [between the countries] in the 25 years and more since the USSR fell apart has had its influence.
"At the time, Russia made a terrible mistake by essentially banishing the Jewish citizens from its territory. A million former Soviet Jews came to Israel and hundreds of thousands went elsewhere in the world. Today Russia is asking them to return. A lot of Israelis now live in Russia, working there, earning quite well but feeling Israeli for all intents and purposes. They serve as a sort of conduit between the two nations.
“In addition, in recent years a lot of non-Jewish Russians have come to Israel to visit the holy places here. They care about Israel because many renewed a religious faith after the collapse of the Soviet Union, where religion was forbidden. Today they can pray in Jerusalem, Acre or elsewhere. These tourists land in Israel and see this small country, which built itself from scratch and achieved what it achieved. When they fly back they are like ambassadors for us.”
Idan interjected, “I was among the first Israelis to visit Moscow when relations were renewed after the USSR's collapse. We were received quite warmly by Jews and non-Jews, who saw Israel as a model to emulate—as said, a nation of extraordinary achievements.”
He then cautioned, "However, not to spoil this description of harmonic euphoria, but I return to my sober view regarding how the relationship should be understood: Russia’s leadership is highly realistic. ‘Children of the motherland,’ as they say in Russian—people in the diaspora around the world—are part of Russia's strategy to advance its political interests and achieve influence. It would be wise never to forget that.”
Golender added, “It is important to remember that Russia is under sanctions and is isolated from most of the European countries, though there are trade relations here and there. From that viewpoint, Israel’s importance has increased in time. Israel serves, to a degree, as a bridge to other countries.”
Roundtable participants, from right to left: Michlin-Shapir, Idan, Golender, Shine and Suva | Photo: Raffi Shamir
Don’t Go There
The last request made to the panel was a quick one: They were asked to provide one professional recommendation to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of his next trip to Moscow or Sochi.
Idan went first. “My recommendation: Go less often. As I said before, when you ask a bear to tango, the bear is the one who decides when the dance is over. So don’t go so often.”
Golender spoke next. “I think dialogue is always a good thing, so I trust Netanyahu on that.”
Shine said, “I of course agree that dialogue is a good thing—that also applies to Israel and its neighbors, and it wouldn’t hurt if we talked with them more. I don’t oppose the prime minister's trips—they’re good—but in the Netanyahu and Putin relationship, each gains something. I am sure that he hears that from everybody involved in the trip arrangements, but the only thing that matters is that the prime minister understands the system of common interests, and opposing ones too, underlying Israeli-Russian relations. He should know that he needs to maneuver within those parameters.”
Suva went last. “The problem is that we don’t know what happens in the closed room when they meet. But if I had the impudence to advise the prime minister, I would say, ‘Go whenever you want to go, not only when you are invited.’”
Oded Raanan serves as the editor of "The Arena" - Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations. Before joining the Abba Eban Institute as a visiting fellow, he worked on the foreign news desk of "Ha'aretz" daily newspaper. He is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, and holds an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from Ben-Gurion University .
Vera Michlin-Shapir is a Neubauer Research Associate at INSS. Her areas of interests include Israel’s relations with Russia and Europe, Russian politics, and Russia’s foreign and defense policies, as well as European foreign and defense policies. In 2010-2016 she worked at the National Security Council, Prime Minister's Office, in various positions dealing with Israel’s relations with Europe and with Russia. She is PhD Candidate in History at Tel Aviv University, writing on Russian national identity in the post-Soviet era. (Photo: Chen Galili, courtesy of the author and the photographer)