Russia and the New Middle East: Inching toward a Grand Bargain
The relationship between Israel and Russia saw little improvement in the first two decades following the fall of the Iron Curtain and the USSR, though there were signs of better days ahead.
Pro-Israel Vladimir Putin was elected in 2001 as was the more pro-Russian Ariel Sharon, who described Putin as "a true friend of Israel."
In 2006, Vladimir Zhirinovsky visiting as part of a government delegation said that "Russia will never allow any kind of violence against Israel".
In 2011, Putin said:
"Israel is, in fact, a special state to us. It is practically a Russian-speaking country. Israel is one of the few foreign countries that can be called Russian-speaking. Putin additionally claimed that Israel could be considered part of the Russian cultural world, and contended that "songs which are considered to be national Israeli songs in Israel are in fact Russian national songs".
He further stated that he regarded Russian-speaking Israeli citizens as his compatriots and part of the Russian World.
In April 2014, Israel took a neutral stance on the Russian annexation of Crimea at the United Nations, angering U.S. State Department and White House officials. During Operation Protective Edge in 2014, Putin stated that "I support Israel's battle that is intended to keep its citizens protected."
Relations between Israel and Russia further improved after the Russian military intervention in Syria in September 2015. From then until July 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Putin met a total of 9 times. In October 2015, Israel and Russia held meetings to coordinate over Syria, and avoid accidentally clashing or scrambling each other's communications while operating over the country.
In March 2016, Putin said the relations with Israel were special and based "on friendship, mutual understanding and the long common history." Putin stated:
"Russia and Israel have developed a special relationship primarily because 1.5 million Israeli citizens come from the former Soviet Union, they speak the Russian language, are the bearers of Russian culture, Russian mentality. They maintain relations with their relatives and friends in Russia, and this make the interstate relations very special."
In a meeting with Netanyahu in June 2016, Putin described Israel and Russia as "unconditional allies" in "efforts to counter international terrorism."
Yisrael Beyteinu, the Israeli political party which best represents the interests and concerns of Russian Israelis, is led by an immigrant from Russia, Avigdor Liberman.
Prior to and immediately after the 2016 United States presidential election, Israel began lobbying the United States to strike a deal with Russia over restricting the Iranian military presence in Syria in exchange for removing sanctions over Russian military action in Ukraine. Donald Trump was reportedly a favorite candidate for both Russia and Israel, as Trump is widely seen, by both, as a strong supporter for Israel yet friendly to Russia.
During a private meeting shortly before the November, 2016, election, Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, floated to a longtime American interlocutor what sounded, at the time, like an unlikely grand bargain. The Emirati leader told the American that Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, might be interested in resolving the conflict in Syria in exchange for the lifting of sanctions imposed in response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
Current and former U.S. officials said that bin Zayed, known as M.B.Z., was not the only leader in the region who favored rapprochement between the former Cold War adversaries.
While America’s closest allies in Europe viewed with a sense of dread Trump’s interest in partnering with Putin, three countries that enjoyed unparalleled influence with the incoming Administration—Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the U.A.E.—privately embraced the goal. Officials from the three countries have repeatedly encouraged their American counterparts to consider ending the Ukraine-related sanctions in return for Putin’s help in removing Iranian forces from Syria.
Marwan Bishara. "Netanyahu, Trump and Putin: A love story". Al Jazeera. Retrieved 22 February 2020.
It all began with a meeting at Trump Tower in late September, 2016.
The meeting quickly turned into a “master class” in world geopolitics, according to former Trump advisor Steve Bannon. The seasoned four-term Israeli premier coached the billionaire political novice about the importance of US-Israeli relations in the shadows of the bitter realities of the Middle East.
He distilled and focused it all into a simple formula: Iran, not Russia, is “our” main enemy. In fact, the Russian president is uniquely positioned to help us against the ayatollahs and radical Islam.
Neither Trump nor Netanyahu could convince the US foreign policy establishment to embrace Putin, not even as a way to counter Iran.
In December 2016, Netanyahu instructed Israel's UN delegation to skip a General Assembly vote on war crimes committed in Syria, under diplomatic pressure from Russia. The following day, Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin proposed postponing a vote on Security Council Resolution 2334 to condemn Israeli settlement-building in the West Bank until after the inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump, in order to allow the new U.S. administration a say on the resolution, but this was rejected by other Security Council members.
In May 2018, Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman stated the Israeli government had opposed sanctions on Russia despite foreign pressure to support them.
In 2018, Israel also suggested, alongside Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, that U.S. President Donald Trump should improve relations with Russia and rethink sanctions relating to the Ukrainian crisis, as Ukraine is Turkey's ally. But Putin contimnues to have positive relations with Erdogan.
At the 2018 Russia–United States summit in July 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump and Putin agreed to cooperate in Syria to ensure Israel's security. U.S. National Security Advisor John R. Bolton later claimed that both Israel and Russia sought the withdrawal of Iranian forces from Syria.
In December 2018, Russia backed Israel's security concerns over Hezb’allah tunnels dug under the Israel-Lebanon border, urging Lebanon to resolve the issue.
On 7 February 2019, the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister urged Israel to cease its airstrikes in Syria. Relations were repaired after a meeting between Putin and Netanyahu in Moscow in February 2019, after which Netanyahu announced Russian support for removing Iranian fighters from Syria, and that Putin had accepted his offer to visit Jerusalem. On 3 March 2019, Netanyahu announced the establishment of a joint Israeli-Russian team to pursue the withdrawal of all foreign troops deployed in Syria. On March 18, 2019, Putin suggested inviting Netanyahu to Crimea for the opening of a new synagogue there.
On January 15, 2020, an Asia Times report cited an Israeli foreign ministry official as stating that Russia expected Israeli diplomatic assistance in ending Western sanctions on the Syrian government in return for permitting the continuation of Israeli airstrikes in Syria.
On 15 December 2020, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov praised the 2020 normalization of relations between Israel and several Arab states, describing it as a "positive phenomenon."
Putin and Netanyahu meet on January 23, 2020
Photo: Office of the President of the Russian Federation CC BY-4.0
Coalition against Iran and Turkey
Russia's improvement of relations with Israel coincided with both nations expressing common opposition (along with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates) toward the neo-Ottomanism initiated by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Both countries are also fighting proxy wars with Turkey in the Caucasus, North Africa and the Middle East. Israel has largely sided with Russia against Turkey in recent years, along with Israel's silent support for Russian intervention in Syria, in opposition to Iran. But Israel objects to Russia's relations with Turkey while Israel maintains relations with Azerbaijan, a strong Turkish ally, to go against Iran.
On Jan 18, 2021, the Russian foreign minister added that Moscow did not want Syria to be the battlefield for an Israeli-Iranian war.
“So, our dear Israeli colleagues, if you have facts that your state is facing threats from the Syrian territory, report the facts urgently and we will take every measure to neutralize the threat.”
When diplomatic agreements with Israel were signed by Serbia and Kosovo in 2020, Russia openly supported the deals which would allow Serbia to move embassy to Jerusalem while Kosovo would establish relations with Israel. In August 2020, following the Abraham Accords in which Israel normalized relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, Russia did not endorse the deal but quietly approved the efforts by Israel to normalize the relations. Turkey opposed both moves.
However, Russia continues to have strong economic and political relations with both Iran and Turkey, and Russia continues to be skeptical about Israel's special relations with the United States.
Russia supports a two-state solution for Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has relations with several Palestinian political parties. Russia does not consider Hamas as a terrorist organization and continues to diplomatically negotiate with them. Iran, Russia, and Turkey all voted in favor of United Nations General Assembly resolution ES-10/L.22 to declare the status of Jerusalem as Israel's capital as "null and void." Russia continues to seek multilateral relations in the Middle East with both Israel's allies and rivals.
Russia obviously has its own interests and remains loyal to her longtime friends, including the Palestinian Authority. At the same time, Russia cooperates with Israel and enables her to pursue her security interests and Israel refrains from criticizing Russia and lobbies for the lifting of US sanctions from time to time.