Friday, August 29, 2008

Putin’s war and the Middle East: Ramifications for Israel?

Political science professor Robert O. Freedman, in the context of the recent Russian invasion of Georgia, writes:
Russian-Israeli relations have had their ups and downs under Putin, but in recent years it is clear that relations have deteriorated. Russian support for Hamas, its turning a blind eye when Syria transferred anti-tank missiles to Hezbollah, and its military and diplomatic support for Iran at a time when the Iranian leadership has been calling for the destruction of Israel, have all soured relations. Yet, as a high-ranking Israeli diplomat who specializes in Russian-Israeli relations told me in 2007, “relations are not as bad as they could be.”

Indeed, Moscow has a bifurcated if not schizophrenic relationship with Israel. While on the one hand Russian regional policies vis-à-vis Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and Syria, have clearly hurt Israel, on the level of bilateral Russian-Israeli relations, the ties between the two countries are developing surprisingly well.

Thus, on the eve of the Asad visit to Moscow, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had a telephone conversation about Israeli-Syrian relations and about the situation in Georgia. Trade between Russia and Israel has exceeded $2.5 billion a year, much of it in the high tech sector which Putin needs to develop the Russian economy so that it is not dependent on dwindling energy exports. Cultural ties are thriving, and Moscow just established a cultural center in Tel Aviv. The two countries have signed a visa-waiver agreement to facilitate tourism.

Negotiations are underway for the return to Russia of Czarist property in Jerusalem. Russia and Israel cooperate in the sale of weaponry to third countries, such as an AWACS aircraft to India (Russia supplies the airframe and Israel the avionics). And Israel’s ruling Kadima Party has just signed an agreement with Putin’s United Russia Party to establish party-to-party relations. While some in the Russian military such as Russia’s Deputy Chief of Staff Anatoly Nogovitsyn publicly complained about Israeli aid to the Georgian military, Foreign Minister Lavrov went out of his way to praise Israel for stopping arms sales to Georgia.

What then explains Russia’s bifurcated policy toward Israel, and how will the Russian invasion of Georgia affect it? It appears clear that Russia has three goals vis-à-vis Israel. First, it is the homeland of more than a million Russian-speaking citizens of the former Soviet Union, and Russia sees Russian-speakers abroad as a source of its world influence. Hence the emphasis on cultural ties between Russia and Israel, in which Israelis of Russian origin play the dominant role. Second, Putin badly wants to develop the Russian economy, and high-tech trade with Israel is a part of his plan. Third, the Arab-israeli conflict is a major issue in world politics, and Putin would very much like to play a role in its diplomacy, if not in finding a solution to the conflict.

For this reason he has called for an international peace conference in Moscow in November and he would like Israel to attend, so as to build up the role of Russia as a world mediator. In this context, one should not discount the possibility that Putin has told the Israelis (and the message may be reinforced if Olmert makes a rumored trip to Moscow in September) that Russia will overlook Israeli arms sales to Georgia, and will not sell the feared Iskander-E or SAM-300 missiles to Syria, if Israel agrees to attend the November peace conference in Moscow.

He concludes that: "[T]he Russian invasion of Georgia was the culmination of an increasingly aggressive foreign policy on the part of Putin in the Middle East and elsewhere. While Syria quickly supported Moscow, most of the rest of the Middle East, including Russia’s ally Iran, withheld support, calling only for a quick cease-fire.

While there has been a good bit of speculation that the invasion will lead to an improvement of American-European relations in the face of the new Russian threat, the American position in the Middle East could also improve as a result of the heavy-handed Russian policy in Georgia, although that improvement may have to wait until a new American administration takes office in January 2009."

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