Relationship Status "It's Complicated" – The Russian-Israeli Relationship in the Shadow of the Syrian Conflict

Vladimir Putin and Benyamin Netanyahu, January 2018. Photo by the Press Office of the President of the Russian Federation (CC BY 4.0)

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Relations between Israel and Russia have never been better off than under Putin and Netanyahu – in this regard, there is quite a consensus within the Israeli media. Especially the pro-Russian course of US President Trump seemed to give the relationship additional momentum. But the rekindled conflict in Syria illustrates how deceptive the supposed rapprochement of Russia and Israel is: the strategic interests of both states in the region are diametrically opposed. In this context, Syria is increasingly developing into a test of Russian-Israeli relations.

When the first media reports of an air strike on a Syrian military complex near Damascus appeared on the morning of April 27, the most important question – who was behind the attack – had long since been answered. The Israeli Air Force operates so freely in the neighboring state’s airspace, that even Israel Katz, Israeli Minister of Intelligence, has made only a half-hearted attempt to deny Israel’s direct responsibility for the air strike. In an interview with the US Army Radio Katz gave vague answers as expected, but said that the attack was generally compliant with Israel’s policy to prevent arms deliveries to the Lebanese terrorist militia Hezbollah. The rather loose manner in which Israel’s military is operating in Syria seems, however, to cause great discontent especially in Moscow.

For a while now, it seemed that the Russian-Israeli relationship has been in a continuous upward trend – in March, the Jerusalem Post wrote an article referring to the bilateral relations between the two states as the “warmest relations ever.” This was not least due to the inauguration of US President Donald Trump, his pro-Russian Course and alleged “male bonding” with Russian President Vladimir Putin also offered Israel the opportunity to continue the years of progressive rapprochement with Russia. But after the US military strike against the Syrian regime under Bashar al-Assad in April, the relationship between the two major powers has abruptly cooled. The, according to Trump, “record low” relations between the US and Russia, now also forces Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to position Israel again more clearly between the two rivals.

But regardless of the US role, the often-portrayed image of Putin and Netanyahu as architects of a new Russian-Israeli friendship is misleading. For the intensification of the Syrian conflict reveals how quickly alleged progress on the diplomatic level can fall victim to the uncompromising realpolitik of the two heads of state. Increasingly, it becomes clear that the regional interests of Russia and Israel are not only in tension, but are basically completely incompatible. The struggle for the future of Israel’s neighbor state could now be the crucial test of the relationship.
From Russia with no Love

At the beginning of April 2017, it had become clear on which narrow line the relationship of the two states often moves. On the morning of April 6, the Russian foreign ministry issued a statement that may have even taken the Israeli leadership by surprise: in addition to supporting the two-state solution, Moscow was in favor of recognizing West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Although the declaration also recognized East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state, Russia swiftly rose to become the first state in the world to publicly support Israel’s claim to a capital in Jerusalem.

However, the supposedly positive signals from Moscow were overshadowed by the developments in Syria on the same day. After Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in an interview that President Assad was “with one hundred percent certainty” responsible for the previous Khan Shaykhun chemical attack, Putin condemned the Israeli Minister’s statement as “unfounded allegations” and “unacceptable” in a heated phone conversation with Netanyahu. That the Israeli government publicly endorsed the subsequent retaliatory strike by the United States is unlikely to have soothed Putin’s mind.

Fertile soil for good relationships

To put it in a nutshell, the two states seek rapprochement but, thanks to their regional interests, repeatedly maneuver themselves into opposing camps. Since Putin’s inauguration in 2000 and his push into the Middle East, Russia and Israel have grown closer together, politically as well as economically. Especially under Netanyahu, political relations picked up speed – hardly a head of government has visited Netanyahu in the past few years as often as Putin. At the same time, the bilateral trade volume tripled from 2000 to 2014 and has grown to a total of US $ 3 billion. Russia hopes that through economic cooperation, a technology transfer will give new impetus to the Russian economy, especially in agriculture and high tech. Israel also sees Russia as a potential partner for the development of the enormous gas reserves discovered in 2009 off the Israeli Mediterranean coast.

Added to this is the “living bridge” between the two states: a large part of the Jewish population can look back on roots in Russian-speaking areas. In the wake of the largest wave of immigration of Jewish Russians following the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the number of Russian immigrants grew to more than one million – a significant number given Israel’s total population of 8 million inhabitants.

In addition, those responsible in Moscow and Jerusalem know that even in geostrategic issues, there is no way around each other. Putin can only live up to his claim to be a regional power in the Middle East by keeping close coordination with Israel, the region’s largest military power. For Israel, on the other hand, Russia is one of the most important actors when it comes to the security of the Jewish state. A good connection with Moscow promises indirect influence on how long the leash is on which Putin holds its regional partners Assad, Hezbollah and Iran.

Strategic Differences

But this is precisely the structural problem that will cause tensions between the two countries in the long term. As long as the Russian government backs Israel’s declared enemies in the region, Israel’s security is not guaranteed. No good relationship between Russia and Israel will persuade Putin to abandon his geopolitical interests and turn away completely from his regional partners. Conversely, Israel’s defense beyond its borders threatens the ability of Putin’s allies to act, thereby weakening Russia’s position in the Middle East.

This problematic dynamic between the two states is illustrated clearly in the framework of the conflict in Syria. Putin’s military support for the Syrian regime has a long-term goal of helping Assad reconsolidate its control of Syria’s entire territory. From Israel’s point of view, however, this would entail the unacceptable consequence that enemy forces such as Iranian Revolutionary Guards or Hezbollah militias could henceforth operate again from an area just off the border in the Golan Heights, which is still occupied by Syrian rebels. In talks with Moscow, Avigdor Liebermann had recently emphasized that this was a red line for Israel, which will be enforced by all means.

At the same time, Israel’s military intervention on Syrian territory reduces Putin’s chances of regional influence. In recent years, repeated attacks by the Israeli Air Force on Syrian weapons depots and convoys that transport arms shipments to Hezbollah in Lebanon have caused discontent on the Russian side, as it became clear in March: after an Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) air strike against a target in Syria, Moscow angrily demanded an explanation of Israel’s unilateral operation – apparently the attack was in the immediate vicinity of a Russian base. Although direct clashes between the two countries have been prevented so far due to various cooperation mechanisms, this fact will hardly diminish Russia’s distrust of Israel’s ambitions – the deployment of Russian air defense and radar systems in September 2015 should therefore not be seen as a coincidence and will indirectly pursue the objective of limiting the IDF’s freedom of action in the Syrian airspace in the future.

No Alternative for Washington

Finally, the fact remains that the United States remain Israel’s most important international ally. The longstanding and close relationship between the two states will set a natural limit to the intensity of the Israeli-Russian relationship as long as Russia and the US regard international politics as a zero-sum game. The initial love between Trump and Putin originally gave Israel more room to do so, but since the American response to Assad’s chemical gas attack, Israel will position itself on America’s side. Too much of Israel’s security depends on US military aid, which announced last year that it would provide $38 billion for Israel’s national defense over the next decade.

In the future, too, the profound economic and cultural ties between Russia and Israel will guarantee that the two countries will coordinate their actions on important regional issues and keep all communication channels open. In addition, Putin and Netanyahu will continue to seek to capitalize on their good personal relationship as a hallmark of closer cooperation between the two states.

However, a genuine partnership between the two countries is unlikely in the long term. Both Netanyahu and Putin are guided in their actions primarily by their strategic vision for the future of the Middle East – and those visions are incompatible. This fundamental incompatibility could soon be revealed by a further escalation of the Syrian conflict. And that’s not unthinkable: Assad’s recent launch of rockets in the direction of Israel indicates that the Syrian ruler will not put up with Israeli interferences within Syrian territory indefinitely.

As long as Putin does not make an unexpected U-turn in Russia’s Middle East policy, Israel must ask itself: can my enemy’s friend really be my friend?


Israel Public Policy Institute (IPPI) serves as a platform for exchange of ideas, knowledge and research among policy experts, researchers, and scholars. The opinions expressed in the publications on the IPPI website are solely that of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of IPPI.

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