Russia and Israel: A Beautiful Friendship?

When Bob Dylan sang “For the times they are a-changin’” he was not referring to relations between Israel and Russia, but his lyrics might just fit at the present time. No one can speak of a Russian tropical heat wave towards Israel but it isn’t surprising the temperature’s rising. The relationship may be heading to a beautiful friendship if not the beginning of love.

The change has come as a result of President Vladimir Putin’s direction of foreign policy. That direction does not come from any love of Israel or the Jewish people, or from any ideological reorientation. It results from Putin’s concern for Russian national interest.

Russian attitudes, both during the period of the Soviet Union and since, towards Israel and Jews has gone through a number of phases. In the immediate period after the end of World War II the Soviet Union allowed Jews in Eastern European to go to camps in the Western zones; it did not prevent the formation of clandestine Zionist operations in Bulgaria and Romania; it did not stop 300,000 Jews going, between 1948 and 1951, from Eastern Europe to Israel.

When Britain decided to give up its Palestinian Mandate, the Soviet Foreign Minister, Andrei Gromyko, announced in May 1947 and again in November, that his country supported the UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of November 29, 1947 calling for the creation of two states, one Jewish and the other Arab. The Soviet Union was the first state to recognize de jure, on May 17, 1948, the establishment of the Jewish State and its Provisional Government. It also voted against UNGA Resolution 194 of December 1948 calling for refugees to be allowed to return to their homeland if they were willing to live in peace with their neighbors.

It is arguable that Israel was saved by the Soviet Union. David Ben-Gurion in 1968 doubted that the country could have survived the early months without the arms supplies from the Soviet bloc. Those arms, including tanks and combat planes, started coming nominally from Czechoslovakia but essentially from the USSR from May 1947 for at least two years.

With the onset of the Cold War and the increasing paranoia of Joseph Stalin directed against “Zionist imperialists” and imaginary Jewish medical assassins and saboteurs, the harmonious relationship changed, persisting even after Stalin’s death in March 1953. The result was both increasing anti-Semitism, and an end of Russian Jewish emigration to Israel. After the 1967 Six-Day War, the USSR broke diplomatic relations with Israel, and they were not restored until October 1991. The USSR became a major supporter of the Palestinian groups and of pro-Arab resolutions at the UN, and a leader in the campaign attacking Israel as being a racist state.

Whatever Putin’s objectives may be in general, Russia while he has been in power has been more cordial, or less hostile, towards Israel. Important differences still divide the two countries, particularly in relation to Iran’s nuclear ambitions and projects that have been helped financially by Russia, and its diplomatic and material support for the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Putin is aware that there are more than 14 million Muslims in Russia, 10 per cent of the population, and only 200,000 Jews.

Russia has also been selling arms to Arab countries, especially Syria. In 2009 it sent Syria eight MiG-31 planes, costing $500 million, and in 2014 planned to send 26 Yak-130s, costing $550 million. Russia has remained helpful to Iran on nuclear issues. In September 2014 Russia agreed to send materials to Iran including S-300 nuclear reactors. Some Russian weapons sent to Arab countries fell into the hands of Hezb’allah.

Nevertheless, friendly gestures or agreements between Russia and Israel were more important. One concerned Russian actions in Chechnya which were criticized by the U.S. and European countries. But Israel, understanding that Russia’s struggle against terrorists was comparable to its own struggle against Palestinian terrorists, and observing that Putin recognized the need to combat terrorism and extremism, refrained from criticism. The Islamist terrorist attack on the school in Beslan in September 2004 that killed hundreds of schoolchildren was particularly meaningful. Though Putin favors a Palestinian right to self-determination, he did not approve a unilateral declaration of independence.

There are ties between Russia and Israel in a number of areas: economic, military and demographic. The population link is considerable. Almost 1 million -- one seventh -- of the Israeli population has come from Russia, and is integrated into Israeli political and economic life. Russians also form the largest number, after North Americans, of tourists visiting Israel: in 2013 they numbered 380,000, 13 per cent of the total.

Trade between the two countries has been increasing: in 2013 it accounted for $3.5 billions. Israel exported to Russia mainly agricultural products, electronics, and medical materials, amounting in all to $1.5 billions, and imported rough diamonds and hydrocarbons. In February 2013 Israel made an arrangement, a 20- year deal, with Gazprom that would buy liquefied natural gas from Israel’s Tamar offshore gas field. In December 2013 a free exchange zone between the two countries was set up.

Israel will continue its exports of agricultural products to Russia, in spite of the EU sanctions imposed in July 2014 against Russia over its actions in Ukraine. Russia in response had stopped agricultural imports from Europe, and Israel is interested in expanding its own agricultural products from $325 million a year to more than $1 billion. Israel’s sale of fruits, especially apples and plums, to Russia help make up its losses from the EU ban on imports of all dairy, meat, poultry, and egg products from the West Bank, Golan Heights, and Jerusalem.

In the military and industrial sphere, Israel since 2009 has been selling drones to Russia. In March 2011, agreements were reached on a number of areas: space cooperation, joint research programs, including astrophysical and planetary research, medicine, and intellectual property and science exchanges. The Israel Aerospace Industries has since 2010 been engaged on a $400 million project with the Russian company Oboronprom for Russian based production of unmanned aerial vehicles.

Personal and political connections have been pursued by both sides. In June 2012 President Putin visited Israel for the inauguration of the national Victory Monument in the coastal town of Netanya honoring the soldiers of the Soviet Union who fought against Nazi Germany during World War II. Putin in June and July 2014 declared his support for the struggle of Israel in its attempts to protect its citizens. In a meeting in June 2014 Putin agreed with Prime Minister Banjamin Netanyahu to especial a special hotline connection, a direct line, between their two offices. This connection evades any interference by the United States, which already has a direct line with Israel.

Some surprise among Western countries was registered by Israel’s position on the non-binding UNGA Resolution of March 27, 2014 which implicitly criticized Russia for “its disruption of the national unity and territorial integrity of Ukraine” through the use of force, and its annexation of Crimea. The Resolution was approved by 100-11, but Israel was one of the 58 nations that abstained.

Russia has been a member of the Quartet, together with the U.S., the EU, and the UN, set up in March 2002 to act as mediators for the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Over the last twelve years the Quartet has made little, if any, progress in the attempt to foster substantive negotiations. However, Russia is in a unique position as a country that has degrees of friendly relations with the Palestinian Authority, with Hamas, and with Israel. Can it be the intermediary that can persuade the Palestinians to agree to begin the process for peaceful negotiations? Again, the lyrics of the great bard Bob Dylan are pertinent. The wheel’s still in spin and there’s no telling what it’s naming.