The Burgeoning Israel-Russia Alliance

Meeting of Vladimir Putin with Benjamin Netanyahu in Kremlin

The Jewish state’s decision to abstain in the UN on the question of Russia’s annexation of Crimea did not go unnoticed in Washington:

“We have good and trusting relations with the Americans and the Russians, and our experience has been very positive with both sides. So I don’t understand the idea that Israel has to get mired in this,” Lieberman told Israel’s Channel 9 television when asked about the Ukraine crisis.

When White House and State Department officials read these comments, they nearly went crazy. They were particularly incensed by Lieberman’s mentioning Israel’s relations with the United States and with Russia in the same breath, giving them equal weight. The United States gives Israel $3 billion a year in military aid, in addition to its constant diplomatic support in the UN and other international forums. Russia, on the other hand, supplies arms to Israel’s enemies and votes against it regularly in the UN.

The White House is disappointed, but it surely cannot be surprised. Israel has treated the US with contempt since Obama came to office, humiliating the president whenever it could, sabotaging any conceivable progress toward a two-state solution, while pocketing all the aid it can and trying to stymie Washington’s key diplomatic initiative in the Middle East. I cannot think of an alliance quite this perverse: the US gives Israel vital protection at the UN, vast amounts of intelligence and military assistance, $3 billion a year in aid and in return is opposed in most of its foreign policy initiatives, and its officials routinely slimed and attacked by members of the Israeli government. Name any other “ally” that behaves this way.

A much more plausible alliance for Israel in the future is surely with Putin’s Russia.

Russia could enable Israel’s annexation of its neighbors at the UN, since it is bent on exactly the same strategy of territorial expansion, based on ancient land claims and the ethnic composition of its borderlands. Larison:

Even if a significant number of the current government’s supporters weren’t Russian-speakers with connections to Russia and other former Soviet republics, Israel has no particular interest in upholding the sanctity of other states’ sovereignty and territorial integrity. Israel has violated both on more than a few occasions over the decades and reserves the right to do so in the future, so why exactly is it going to denounce Russia for doing things that are in some ways less egregious than its own past actions?

Russia, like Israel, has no real commitment to diplomacy unless it can act as a cover for military expansionism or as a delaying tactic while it entrenches its grip on the West Bank and makes it permanent. Large swathes of the Israeli corporate and political establishment have extremely close ties to Russia, in the wake of the post-Soviet influx, and the Russian immigrants are among the most hardline with respect to the Palestinians. And you can see the rapport between Netanyahu and Putin as clearly as you can see the lack of chemistry between Netanyahu and Obama.

This is unlikely to happen formally in the near future. But informally, it has been gathering momentum. As Putin preps for what may well be an invasion of Ukraine proper, Israel’s increasingly close ties to Russia may face a moment of reckoning:

Officials in Jerusalem attribute Israel’s cautious behavior over the Ukrainian crisis to Netanyahu and Lieberman’s desire to preserve what they see is a good and close relationship with Putin. In fact, fear is a significant motivation. “Russia’s ability to cause damage with regard to issues that are important to us, such as Iran and Syria, is very great,” a senior Israeli official noted, stressing that Israel did not want to get into a confrontation with Russia over an issue that did not directly concern it.

Or to put it another way, Russia’s ability to impound Syria’s chemical weapons still matters, if only to leave Jerusalem as the sole Middle East power with WMDs, and  Russia’s ability to derail the talks with Iran may also be a real life-line for those in Israel seeking military conflict. So the Israelis, as is their right of course, are treating Russia and the US as equal forces in their foreign policy, pivoting between one and the other in order to maximize their national interests in attacking Iran and preventing a Palestinian state. The question is not why Israel would act this way, but why the US cannot get as good and as cheap a relationship with Israel as Moscow has. Why do the Israelis regard Moscow with fear and Washington with contempt?

(Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian president Vladimir Putin appear during the Security Council meeting in the Kremlin on November 20, 2013. Netanyahu was on a one-day visit to Russia. By Dmitri Azarov/Kommersant via Getty Images.)