Israel's Tightrope Act Between America and Russia

A tough test for Bennett’s statesmanship.

For the first time since Israel began its aerial bombing over Syria, a battery of S-300 aerial defense missiles (ground-to-air) manned by Russian crews fired at an Israeli jet earlier this month. The missile missed its target, and apparently was not intended to shoot down the Israeli jet, but merely to serve as a warning. Putin’s Russia wanted to signal to Israel that it has perceived a tilt by Jerusalem toward Ukraine in the ongoing conflict between the two countries, and that it will not be without a price for Israel to pay.

Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is clouding the skies over Europe. It has increased the threat of a nuclear exchange between Russia and the NATO alliance. The fear that Russia might cross into their territory has prompted Finland and Sweden to apply for NATO membership. Russia’s significant submarine bases in the Baltic seaports, armed with nuclear missiles, and bases in the Kola Peninsula in the extreme northwest of Russia, bordering Finland, is an appetizing target for Putin. Sweden has been a neutral state for over one hundred years, and Finland, close enough to Russia geographically, has been very careful about alienating its powerful neighbor. But, Putin’s aggression and his expansionist designs have convinced Finland and Sweden to throw caution to the wind, and get a security blanket.

Israel, like Finland, is facing a Russian army to its north, in Syria. Moscow views the survival of the murderous Assad regime as its vital interest, especially since Syria is close enough to its soft underbelly in the Caucuses. Former Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu was able to forge reasonably close relations with Putin, especially during the seemingly anti-Israel Obama administration. It enabled Israel’s air force to operate unmolested over Syrian airspace, in close coordination with Russian commanders. That took place while Russia was at least outwardly Iran’s ally, with Tehran being Israel’s arch enemy.

Currently, with Israel actively providing Ukraine with medical supplies and humanitarian aid, as well as defensive arms, it is crucial for Jerusalem to have its political leaders more circumspect in dealing with the Ukraine crisis, and maintain a neutral stance, especially verbally. Open denunciations of Russia made by Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, is risking the delicate balancing act Israel is attempting to perform in the Ukraine conflict. It is now clear that Vladimir Putin’s Russia views Lapid as anti-Russian. Moscow denounced Lapid after he joined other countries in calling for Russia’s suspension from the UN Human Rights Council over its invasion of Ukraine. Lapid has also explicitly accused Russia of war crimes in Ukraine. Should Lapid, the current alternate Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, assume the office of Prime Minister in August 2023, relations between Russia and Israel are likely to become downright hostile.

It is vital to remember that today’s Russia under Putin’s leadership is not the same as the Soviet Union of 1967, and 1973, when Moscow actively aided the Arab states (Egypt and Syria) in their wars with Israel. In 2022, Israel is also not the same as it was in 1973 (Yom Kippur War). It is much stronger, and Putin’s Russia understands that. Therefore it is imperative that both Moscow and Jerusalem continue to maintain a productive dialogue, and prevent violent confrontations that might damage the interests of both nations. Moscow does not aim to hurt Israel, and Russia has an overriding interest in preserving its gains in Syria. That in of itself is not contrary to Israel’s interests.

Putin, as this reporter mentioned on numerous occasions, has a soft spot for Israel, and unlike many of his predecessors he is far from being an antisemite. On the contrary, his relationship with the Jewish community in Russia is very good, and many Jews are among his closest friends. Hosting Israel’s former President Reuben Rivlin in the Kremlin on March 16, 2016, Russia’s Tass reported Putin as saying, “Russia and Israel have developed a special relationship   because 1.5 million Israeli citizens came from the former Soviet Union, they speak the Russian language, are bearers of Russian culture, (and have a) Russian mentality. They maintain relations with their relatives and friends in Russia, and this makes the interstate relations very special.”

While Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett made a sincere attempt to mediate between Russia and Ukraine, and has been in touch with both Putin and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, Foreign Minister Lapid has taken a clear side in the conflict. The Washington Post (March 10, 2022) was able to report that, “Bennett’s ability to communicate between the sides brought about a shift in the positions of both sides since the beginning of his mediation – from existential to territorial. The result has been that Putin is no longer demanding Ukraine’s dissolution.”

Bennett’s mediation bought Israel some time to ward off western criticism for not falling in line with western sanctions against Russia. Some political voices in Washington were not pleased with Bennett’s mediation, but Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave Bennett a green light. The point has been reached however, in which mediation might no longer be an option, and relations with Russia are likely to deteriorate. Thus, Israel’s aerial freedom in Syria might be in jeopardy. But, at least for now, the coordination mechanism between the Russian command in Syria and the IAF (Israeli Air Force) is still operating.

Israel is walking a tight rope. The Biden administration and its western allies want Israel to take a more critical stance against Moscow, and Lapid is doing just that. In the meantime, however, Washington and its European allies are pushing hard to finalize the nuclear deal with Iran, a deal which appears weaker and of shorter duration than the previous 2015 JCPOA deal. If concluded, it would pose a serious existential threat to Israel.

The Bennett government is on shaky ground, and the opposition leader, former PM Benjamin Netanyahu, is accusing the Bennett coalition of undermining Israel’s sovereignty. And, unless Bennett’s government is able to assert Israel’s critical interests, meaning, press for a better deal with Iran, or for a US military option against the Islamic Republic in exchange for Israel falling in line on Russia, Bennett stands to endure a colossal foreign policy failure. Bennett and Lapid must make it unambiguously clear to Washington that it cannot put at risk its vital interest of stopping Iran’s schemes against Israel in Syria, by alienating Russia, while at the same time the western powers go about concluding a dangerous deal with Iran. This is certain to test the statesmanship of the Bennett team. 

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