Whose ears burn most when Russia, Israel meet?

Moscow has been hosting an array of dignitaries recently, leaving observers to speculate on the possible topics of conversation.

al-monitor Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting in Moscow, March 9, 2017.  Photo by REUTERS/Pavel Golovkin.

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recep tayyip erdogan, vladimir putin, benjamin netanyahu, russian influence in syria, russian support for iran, iranian-israeli conflict, israeli-palestinian conflict, us-israel relations

Mar 14, 2017

With the coming of spring, the political scene in Moscow appears to be flourishing, with a number of distinguished foreign guests visiting. Among others, these have included top-level Israeli politicians.

First came an official visit by Isaac Herzog, a leader of the parliamentary opposition and head of the Israeli Labor Party. The March 6-7 trip included meetings with representatives of both chambers of Russia's parliament and the Foreign Ministry, as well as personal negotiations with Mikhail Bogdanov, the deputy foreign minister and special envoy to the Middle East and Africa.

Accompanied by the Knesset speaker and the Israeli ambassador to Russia, Herzog also met with the leadership of the Russian Jewish community and visited two museums, where he endorsed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s role in the Middle East: “I greatly respect … Putin. Today he has the special opportunity of being able to improve the situation in the Middle East.”

No sooner had Herzog left Moscow than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to town March 9. Netanyahu’s visit lasted less than a day and included only one event — meeting with Putin. Evidently the importance of the issues discussed was worth the trips, though it is remarkable that Netanyahu and Herzog came to Moscow separately rather than as part of one delegation.

Netanyahu and Herzog had much the same agenda. Though the latter had a broader list of topics, such as different aspects of bilateral cooperation, Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution, fighting anti-Semitism and other issues, both leaders mainly wanted to express Israel's position on the threat Iran poses to their country and the Middle East in general, through Hezbollah and other Shiite militias.

Herzog said that it comes to Israel's security, the nation is united: “There is no opposition when Israeli security is at stake.” Both Netanyahu and Herzog want to make sure that Russia, while fighting Sunni terror, doesn't in any way enable Shiite terror development, as Netanyahu has put it. So conveying this through the two channels perhaps was to make the message stronger and well-understood in Moscow.

The Israelis’ main idea is to limit — and ideally exclude — Iran’s participation in a future Syrian political process, or at least to ensure that Shiite militias aren't allowed to control those parts of the territory that border Israel. Israeli delegates made it clear they are not happy with Russian weaponry finding its way into Hezbollah's hands. Israelis take the problem seriously and have taken concrete measures, such as bombing arms caravans headed toward Hezbollah camps. Netanyahu and Herzog tried to persuade Moscow to exert more control over its arms deals with Iran and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia’s thinking is that to maintain good working relations with Iran, Moscow can't pressure the ayatollahs’ regime to withdraw from Syria. Ensuring, however, that Hezbollah and other Shiite militia groups don't operate close to Israeli borders doesn’t seem an impossible task for Moscow. Russia isn't particularly happy with the weapon transfer to Shiite militias and, at least until now, has turned a blind eye to Israel's bombing weapons caravans in Syria.

However, since Putin and Netanyahu were not willing to share specific outcomes of their personal meeting with the press, it is difficult to discern whether the two reached a concrete deal on any of the issues. Future developments involving Iran will have to show to what extent the visits were fruitful.

What would Russia expect from Israel for such “favors”? There are at least three possibilities:

  • Continued close cooperation and information sharing in and on Syria.
  • Israel's agreement to take part in potential direct talks with Palestinians in Moscow. This idea is still on the table, but it appears to be a tough task to get both sides to accept this offer from the Kremlin.
  • Tel Aviv's provision of a “positive background” for Russian gas companies’ participation in Israel's natural gas market. This one is a mixed bag. It’s an easy promise for Netanyahu (and Herzog) to make, because Israeli politicians don't have a direct say in business issues — they can only voice opinions. But it’s difficult for exactly the same reason: Some people in the Israeli establishment fear Russian officials might be inclined to use the Russian natural gas giant Gazprom to exert pressure on their counterparts if political problems occur.

The timing of the two visits is important for two reasons. Geopolitically, Israel has noted Russia’s activity in Syria's political process. Though only initial steps have been taken and there is a long road ahead, Israelis want to ensure their voice is heard and their position is thoroughly considered when major decisions are being made on Syria’s future. From the perspective of inner politics, Herzog is a political rival of Netanyahu and is among those pushing for him to step down. Herzog's move may be seen as an attempt to muscle in on Netanyahu’s turf, and in the most annoying manner possible: by visiting Moscow just a couple of days before Bibi. Of course there is always a possibility that it was mere coincidence — but that's difficult to believe.

Another “coincidence” was Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's visit to Moscow the day after Netanyahu's trip. Last summer, Turkey reconciled with Russia and Israel almost simultaneously, soon after one of the Israeli prime minister's visits to Moscow. The three countries have at least two joint interests: stabilizing Syria and developing eastern Mediterranean natural gas infrastructure. Given these circumstances, it's quite logical to assume Putin discussed these matters during his meetings with Israeli and Turkish leaders.

Finally, we can assume that Putin and Netanyahu discussed their countries' relations with the United States, as both had their difficulties with the administration of President Barrack Obama. If an effective way is found to resume cooperation, especially between Russia and the United States, all three countries are likely to benefit. And Syria could potentially serve as common ground for developing a new cooperation framework in which Israel could mediate between Russia and the United States.

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