Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Israel has tried to minimize criticism over Moscow. The main reason for this cautious approach was the Russian military presence and involvement with Syria. A few years ago, Israel established communication channels with the Russians in order to avoid confrontations in Syrian skies. Thus, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett had vowed to continue the path taken by his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu of preserving and cultivating special relations with the Kremlin. During the first weeks of the fighting, Bennett even engaged in mediation attempts between Moscow and Kyiv.
Still, judging by developments in recent days, it seems that Russia is seeking to escalate tensions with Israel. Reports on June 19 said that Russia is now circulating a draft for a United Nations Security Council resolution that will condemn Israel over an alleged strike last week on the Damascus airport. The draft blames the attack on Israel, saying that it undermines regional stability and goes against international law.
Jerusalem estimates that the resolution will not pass, as it needs to be accepted by all permanent Security Council members. The United States, France and Great Britain are likely to veto it. Still, the mere proposal sends a clear and unpleasant Russian message toward Israel.
On June 10, Syria's state-run news agency SANA reported heavy damage to the Damascus international airport, following aerial attacks it attributed to Israel. Quoting Syrian officials, SANA said, “Landing and departing flights were suspended today till further notification as a result of the Israeli aggression, since it caused heavy damages to the airstrips in several localities and to the navigation lights in addition to the damages [that] occurred in the airport lobby.” Satellite images confirmed the significant damage caused to the airport.
Israel did not take responsibility for the attack. Still, shortly after the missile attack, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova condemned the airstrikes, saying such actions put civilian airlines and civilians in danger. Following this statement, Russia summoned June 15 Israeli Ambassador in Moscow Alexander Ben Zvi for a meeting with Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov.
After the meeting, the Russians issued a statement saying, "Serious concern was again expressed over the June 10 Israeli air force attack on the civilian airport of Damascus, which damaged the runway, navigation equipment and buildings, and disrupted international civilian air traffic. The ambassador was told that the justification received from the Israeli side regarding the strike … was unconvincing and that Moscow expected additional clarification."
Official Israel again chose to remain quiet and did not address publicly the Russian diplomatic demarche. Nevertheless, in what could be considered a message to Moscow, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid spoke June 18 with his Finish counterpart Pekka Haavisto. In a tweet after the phone call, Lapid said they “discussed developments in Ukraine and Finland’s decision to join NATO.”
Israel is concerned over this shift in Russian stance, especially since Russia criticized Israel recently also on another matter, related to Greek Orthodox Church property in Jerusalem.
Last week, Israel’s Supreme Court dismissed a petition by the Orthodox Church to cancel a 2004 controversial secret deal where the right-wing Ateret Cohanim group bought three buildings in East Jerusalem. The three-building complex is known as “Petra Hotel,” and is located near the Jaffa Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City. Ateret Cohanim claims the deal was legal, and that the hotel was owned until 1931 by Jews, with its owner forced to leave the venue over Arab attacks against Jews in the region in that period. The two-decade ownership dispute has become a sensitive diplomatic issue, involving the Palestinians, Russia, Greece and other countries.
On June 16, Zakharova said, “We are deeply concerned about the situation regarding the Christian presence in Jerusalem. Such a decision is predictably detrimental to interfaith peace and raises legitimate concerns about the position of the Christian community in the Holy Land.”
Last March, the Jerusalem District Court canceled a decision giving the Russian government control of another compound in Jerusalem’s Old City, named Alexander’s Courtyard, located near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The court ruled over a petition submitted by the Orthodox Palestine Society, which owned the property until last year. Alexander’s Courtyard has also become a sensitive diplomatic issue between Moscow and Jerusalem, especially after former Prime Minister Netanyahu agreed at the time to give the property back to Russia.