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Why Israel, Russia remain chums

Russia and Israel will continue to enjoy strong relations despite Russia’s UN Security Council vote for Resolution 2334 condemning the Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory.

On the last day of 2016, the final night of Hanukkah, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Russian President Vladimir Putin. In their second phone conversation of the week, the two leaders discussed developments in the Middle East with a special focus on the Palestinian-Israeli peace process and continued security coordination in Syria.

The conversation was critical in light of Netanyahu’s previous statement that Israel would review its relations with the nations that supported United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334, passed on Dec. 23. Russia was one of those 14 nations. The resolution says, among other things, that Israel should immediately and completely cease all settlement activities. It calls upon states to differentiate between their dealings with Israel and with these territories. Although the resolution is rather harsh on Israel, it was a recommendation, not a sanction.

The document was, rather predictably, heavily criticized by both the Israeli government and many analysts. Their major concern was that the resolution was unbalanced and did not distinguish between the Western Wall and Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

As retired Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, the head of leading Israeli think tank the Institute for National Security Studies, put it, the resolution praises Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ efforts to produce international pressure on Israel and thus makes him less willing to participate in direct talks with the state.

This reaction was not surprising. What was interesting was the broad discussion within Israeli society that the resolution triggered, as well as the level of dismay expressed by the leader of the state. Amid criticism of the resolution by Israeli analysts and politicians from across the political spectrum, much was also directed at the government and Netanyahu personally. The government was blamed for not solving the settlements problem, while Netanyahu came under fire for his personal conflict with the outgoing US president and his administration, which supposedly led to a change in American attitudes toward anti-Israel UN resolutions.

Netanyahu’s own reaction was unexpectedly fierce: He ordered a halt to financing for five UN bodies. Israel’s Foreign Ministry summoned ambassadors from those countries with which Israel has diplomatic ties to notify them that Israel will be limiting their bilateral relations. Netanyahu canceled a scheduled visit by Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman to Israel as well as his own visit to Angola, and he called off a meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May that would have taken place at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

From Russia's perspective, there are four major reasons why the Israeli prime minister reacted so strongly. The first is the emotional nature of the personal relations between Netanyahu and Obama. When one is already emotional about someone, it can be hard to keep those emotions in check when necessary. Netanyahu was expecting some “extraordinary moves” by the outgoing US president, and he saw what he expected to see when the United States abstained from the vote.

Second, within Israel’s ruling right-wing coalition, Netanyahu is often seen by some of his partners as overly prone to compromise. To preserve his leadership, Netanyahu has to occasionally show strength, and the resolution provided him with such an opportunity.

The bribery and fraud accusations against Netanyahu could be a third reason. As was recently reported, the Israeli attorney general has opened a full-scale criminal investigation against the prime minister. One of the most-used tactics in a situation like this is to shift public attention to something else. The UN, which Israelis have long deemed a source of problems, provided the perfect opportunity for such a trick.

Finally, Netanyahu may have been at the top of the Israeli leadership for far too long. He might be really bright, but history shows that power held for too long can deceive its bearers. Netanyahu responded to the resolution as if he represented not a small country that came into being due to a UN decision, but as the prime minister of a superpower. It looked ridiculous, even arrogant.

The US administration will change in two weeks and incoming leader Donald Trump is building his politics based on controversy with his predecessor, which means Trump’s attitude toward the current Israeli leadership will be more positive. We can clearly see the signs of this trajectory in Trump’s Dec. 28 tweet reacting to the resolution.

As for Russia, not much will change in its bilateral relations with Israel. The Dec. 31 phone conversation between the two leaders was a clear sign. Israel is fully aware of Russia’s position toward Jewish settlements in the West Bank and, given the history of Russia’s previous UN votes on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there was no surprise at Russia’s vote this time. In recent years, Netanyahu has managed to establish rather warm personal ties with Putin. It’s been 25 years since the two countries re-established official diplomatic relations and they enjoy the highest level of interaction, especially on the most sensitive issue: security.

Also, there are at least three Russian-speaking ministers (defense, immigration and environmental protection) in Israel’s government that see a strengthening of Russian-Israeli relations as a means to strengthen their own political power.

In Russia, there has been almost no reaction to Israel’s response to the Russian vote, meaning that today, common interests are more important than problematic issues. Moscow greatly praised Israel’s abstention when the UN voted on sanctions against Russia. Russia looks at Israel as a true partner, not only in politics, but also in economics, especially in high-tech cooperation.

Israelis themselves understand that Russia has effectively returned to the Middle East and plays a key role in some parts of the region. For Russians willing to hear and favorably consider Israeli concerns, Israel’s establishment seems ready to make some concessions.

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