Russia / Mideast

Russia balances relations with Israelis, Palestinians

Article Summary
Russia and Israel appear able to compartmentalize their differences, including their approaches to the Palestinian cause, while improving bilateral relations.

Despite improving relations with Israel, Russia has maintained its support for the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the broader Palestinian cause. Few, however, ask why Moscow continues its backing of the Palestinians to the extent it does or how it reconciles this with its new and stronger ties with Israel. By contrast, US-Israeli relations attract far more media attention to the point of wondering whether the Barack Obama administration — apparently no longer willing to conceal its well-known disdain for Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu — would actually veto a UN Security Council resolution sought by the Palestinians should they force the issue of recognition of Palestine.

In recent years, Moscow has considerably improved relations with Israel. Bilateral trade more than doubled between 2009 and 2013, to more than $3.5 billion, and like Turkey, Israel appears set to increase food exports to Russia after Moscow cut off US and European exporters in retaliation for Western financial sector sanctions. For perspective, in 2013 UN statistics put Russia’s trade with Egypt at close to $3 billion and with the PA at slightly less than $1 million. Russian-speaking Israelis and large tourist flows from Russia to Israel have established strong cultural and people-to-people contacts. Of course, Israel’s Russian-speaking foreign minister, Avigdor Liberman, maintains close and regular diplomatic contacts with Russia.

More fundamentally, Russia and Israel have similar (though not identical) perspectives on stability in the Middle East, an issue on which their governments may be closer in their instincts than either is to the United States. Put simply, when it comes to the uncertainties of democracy, Israel and Russia often appear to prefer strong regimes that can maintain order and do whatever it takes to control extremism. This likely derives in no small part from their shared experience with long-term domestic terrorism — 20 years for Russia and much longer for Israel. Each is itself prepared to do whatever it takes to halt terrorism, including at the expense of civil liberties. In international affairs, similar perspectives on issues like this can form the basis for close strategic partnerships.

Despite its relations with Israel, Moscow has maintained close ties to the PA, often offering diplomatic and rhetorical support for its positions. Russian President Vladimir Putin met with PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Moscow in June 2014, and the two also had encounters in January 2014, March 2013 and January 2012. According to government broadcaster Voice of Russia, since 2005 Abbas has visited Russia 10 times, an average of about one trip per year. Russia has also pursued contacts with Hamas officials, apparently to the extent that Putin offered to mediate between Israel and Hamas during a telephone conversation with Netanyahu in late July during the war in Gaza.

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Diplomatically, Russia has continued to press for the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders. Moreover, while some Russian official statements appear quite balanced, the Foreign Ministry is often critical of Israel's conduct. In September, for example, the ministry said it viewed with concern “information about the Israeli plans to annex land plots in Palestinian territories,” adding that “such unilateral actions will significantly harm the prospects of the Palestine-Israel Peace Process.” In October, the ministry expressed “grave concern” about a plan to build 2,600 homes in East Jerusalem in the Givat Hamatos settlement and argued that the move would “undermine Palestine’s territorial continuity.”

Why does Moscow take this approach? One possible explanation might be Cold War-era inertia. Russia supports the Palestinians because it always has. There is likely a degree of truth to this in that many in Moscow’s foreign policy establishment — in government and prestigious research institutes — have had ongoing contacts with Palestinian officials over a period of decades and understand their perspective. There is, however, much more to Russia’s interest in the Palestinian cause.

First, on a strategic level, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is a source of considerable prominence and visibility for Russia in the Middle East and globally. Active engagement in the peace process and close contacts with Palestinian leaders buttress Russia’s claim to global great power status. Also, from Moscow’s perspective, there is a self-reinforcing process underway, in which Russia’s status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council provides it a role in the peace process, and its role in the peace process continually reminds others of its Security Council position. Likewise, the Quartet — the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and United States — puts it on equal footing with the United States and the European Union despite the US and EU economies each being some eight times bigger than Russia’s.

Second, and even more important, is that despite their common perspectives on many regional issues, Russia and Israel differ significantly in how they connect the Israeli-Palestinian dispute to regional stability. As Putin put it in answering a question about the conflict, “We proceed from the fact that Middle East conflict [between Israelis and Palestinians] is one of the primary causes of destabilization not only in the region, but also in the world at large. Humiliation of any people living in the area, or anywhere else in the world, is clearly a source of destabilization and should be done away with.” Put simply, Russia’s government sees the dispute as a key driver of extremism and terrorism. Israeli officials, on the other hand, see extremism and terrorism as expressions of hostility toward Israel and opposition to Israel’s existence rather than reactions to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

Russian and Israeli leaders, however, appear to be quite pragmatic about this important difference of opinion and are able to compartmentalize it as they pursue other opportunities. As one Russian expert at Moscow’s respected Institute for the World Economy and International Relations put it, “Israel understands that Russia supports Palestine. Almost the entire world supports Palestine. So what?” Indeed, some in Israel feel the same way and even perceive a new “atypical restraint” by Russia.

This story is far from over.

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Found in: vladimir putin, two-state solution, russia, palestinian authority, palestine, mahmoud abbas, israeli-palestinian conflict, israel

Paul J. Saunders is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Russia Mideast Pulse. He is a senior fellow at the Center for the National Interest and a research scientist at the Center for Naval Analysis (CNA). He was a State Department Senior Advisor during the George W. Bush administration. On Twitter: @1796farewell

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