Netanyahu’s Russian realism

Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics.  The senior editor of  The Tower Magazine and, Cohen is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism.”

By Ben Cohen

These are the days that Vladimir Putin has been aching for since the end of the Cold War. 

On Dec. 5, 1989, three weeks after the Berlin Wall was torn down, angry crowds stormed the Dresden Headquarters of the Stasi, the brutal secret police of the Soviet puppet regime in East Germany. At the time, KGB officer Putin was based in the office across the street reserved for the representatives of the Soviet security apparatus. When Russia’s future president picked up the phone to demand military protection from the surging masses, he was told that nothing could be done without orders from Moscow—and Moscow, said the person at the other end, “is silent.”

What a contrast that is with the present. The beleaguered KGB agent who personally witnessed the collapse of Communism, and has nursed the wound ever since, is now running Moscow—a world capital that is very far from silent. 

In geopolitical terms, Russia trades on fear of its hard power in places like Eastern Europe and the Middle East. But fear is not the only factor; national leaders looking for fresh opportunities in the face of American isolationism and retreat are looking more and more to Putin for support. In that regard, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has met with Putin four times over the last year and with President Barack Obama only once, exemplifies this new trend.

Netanyahu’s most recent visit to Moscow took place earlier this month, when Russia and Israel countries marked 25 years since the resumption of the diplomatic relations severed by the Soviet Union after the 1967 Six-Day War. While there, the Israeli leader announced that his hosts would be returning an Israeli tank captured during the Lebanon War of 1982, which had been on display in a Russian museum. The symbolism here was uncomplicated and largely welcome: Russia, the gesture seemed to say, regrets its past hostility to Israel and will henceforth treat the Jewish State with respect.

But beneath the smiles and outward displays of reconciliation, Israel and Russia have many practical matters to talk about, and that’s exactly what Netanyahu and Putin have been doing. Back in January, the Reuters news agency opined that Putin was “the closest thing to a friend” that Israel has “ever had in Moscow,” citing the Russian leader’s comment during the 2014 Gaza that he supported Israel’s efforts to protect its citizens. 

Yet the same article pointed out the potential for tension between Israel and Russia, in particular over the impact that the S-400 surface-to-air missiles that the Russians have stationed in Syria might have on Israeli aerial operations against the Hezbollah terrorist organization. In particular, Israel wants to avoid being thrust into the same position as Turkey was last November, when its air force downed a Russian jet that Ankara claimed had violated its airspace. 

By talking to Putin and keeping him onside, Netanyahu believes he can avoid such mini-disasters in the future. The same reasoning applies to Russia’s close relationship with the Iranian regime, which now includes the provision of S-300 missiles to Tehran—a weapons transfer that has left the Israelis understandably nervous.

In return, the Israelis can expect some degree of Russian diplomatic support. Netanyahu speaks for the vast majority of Israelis when he says that the Golan Heights, captured from the Syrians in 1967, should remain a part of Israel. The rest of the world doesn’t agree. If Putin sticks by Israel with this demand, and Netanyahu apparently thinks he will, its case to retain the Golan becomes significantly more powerful if it is endorsed by the same country that is sustaining Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. That’s why Netanyahu’s key strategic concerns with the Syrian war—the status of the Golan and the prospect of spillover led by Hezbollah—are better addressed in Moscow than they are in Washington.

Rather than fretting about the conflicts of interest arising from an alliance with Assad and Iran on the one hand, and a productive friendship with Israel on the other, Putin is positively embracing this novel state of affairs. Everyone needs Russia, he will conclude, and that might even allow him the wiggle room to take unprecedented positions on regional issues—like, for example, vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution recognizing a Palestinian unilateral declaration of independence that even the U.S. supports. That is, after all, how a tsar might have behaved.

Within the framework of power politics, then, it isn’t hard to understand why Israel and Russia are coming closer together. Yet, even though it’s difficult to fault Netanyahu’s realist logic in actively shopping for new friendships and reviving old ones such as that with Turkey, Western supporters of Israel are correct to feel anxious—especially when it comes to Russia, a nasty, violent, and corrupt dictatorship with a nuclear arsenal. Historically, Russia has treated its Jews abominably over the centuries. Even now, its ultra-nationalists remain close to Putin’s side. If you are going to bet on which country is more likely to be ruled by an anti-Semite in the next 50 years, Russia still looks a far surer prospect than does the U.S. 

But Israel has more pressing matters to deal with, which is why there is little patience for hypothetical discussions about the future of Russian anti-Semitism. For that reason, there is little purpose in demanding that Netanyahu stop doing what any other leader in his position, inside or outside Israel, would also do. 

Ultimately, if we are to prevent the “Russification” of Israel and, indeed, our other allies—by which I mean a general disdain for classically liberal values, mute acceptance of Russian aggression toward its neighbors, and a resigned attitude to the dilution of American global power—then the solution lies in Washington. Absent that political will, and as much as it might break our hearts, the Putin-Netanyahu bromance will continue to flower.