Friday, September 24, 2010

Russia & Israel

Nineteen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Communist empire, Russia has reconstituted its role as a significant player in the Middle East and Islamic world. What does it want? Mainly, influence, stability, and the opportunity to make a great deal of money selling weapons. While not driven by ideology, as in the cold war, these goals are mostly out of sync with Israel's.


Cases in point: Moscow has announced that the nuclear-power plant it has been intermittently constructing and fueling outside the city of Bushehr in Iran will go into operation by the end of the summer. After a meeting in Damascus between Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Syrian President Bashar Assad, it emerged that Russia would sign a major arms deal (apparently underwritten by Iran) to supply Syria with MIG-29 fighter planes and cruise missiles. Disregarding the stated policy of the "Quartet on the Middle East," of which his country is a member, Medvedev also conferred with Hamas head Khaled Mashaal. During a subsequent meeting in Ankara with President Tayyip Erdogan, he said that no party—meaning Hamas—should be excluded from the diplomatic process.

On the other side of the ledger, relations between Jerusalem and Moscow may be better today than at any time since the late 1940s. As distinct from the cold-war era, Israeli leaders nowadays deal directly with the Kremlin. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu made a hushed visit last year to Moscow to talk about Iran. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has hoped to nudge the two countries closer by emphasizing cultural affinities, symbolized by the presence in Israel of a million Russian-speaking immigrants. While asserting that he would never weaken Israel's bonds with Washington to curry favor in Moscow, Lieberman has also said that in today's multipolar world, Jerusalem needs to cultivate relations with other powers. President Shimon Peres, in Moscow to help mark the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, presumably reiterated what Israel hopes to get from Russia: a limit on the kinds of weapons it sells in the region; help, rather than hindrance, in the effort to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb; pressure on Syria to adhere to its contractual obligations not to transfer Russian-manufactured weapons to Hizballah.

Where to draw the balance?

There has been some collaboration between Russia and Israel's armaments industry, but Jerusalem's commitments to Washington greatly constrain any enlargement of such ventures. Although Russia shares with Israel an interest in combating Islamic terrorism, it insists that the Islamic uprisings in the Caucasus are a criminal matter and emphatically rejects any connection between them and the larger confrontation between jihadist Islam and the West. It may even be that Moscow's fairly consistent diplomatic support of Iran's mullahs (despite the occasional spat) is a quid pro quo for their refraining from fomenting Islamist terror within Russia's borders.

And this is not to mention other factors, including Moscow's renewed rivalry with the U.S.; the persistence of its traditionally autocratic form of government; its long history of antipathy to Jews; and the plethora of economic incentives awaiting it in the Muslim and Arab worlds. In short, warmer as Russia-Israel relations have become in some respects, there is a sharp limit to how good they can get.

-- June 2010

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