Vladimir Putin was in Israel this week, and the government rolled out the red carpet for him. Shimon Peres hosted a state dinner for him and he held meetings with Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, and he inaugurated a memorial in Netanya to Soviet soldiers who were killed in WWII. The Israeli welcoming embrace might seem strange given that Israel and the Soviet Union had an acrimonious relationship and that Putin is not exactly seen as a paragon of virtue these days, but it is actually a no-brainer from a domestic political standpoint. There are over 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union in Israel out of a total population of 7.6 million, and there are many prominent Russian-Jewish politicians, from Natan Sharansky to current Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. With the fall of the Soviet Union, many of these Russian olim no longer feel as acrimonious toward their former homeland as they once did, and they still have deep ties to Russia that make the Russian issue a political winner.
This point was really driven home for me this morning reading Marc Tracy’s post-Birthright thoughts on how his trip to Israel has made him feel more viscerally connected and emotionally attached to Israel even though he is an American Jew and not an Israeli. This connection felt by American Jews is one of the primary drivers behind the U.S.-Israel bond, as a particularly active and vocal (and yes, influential – let’s not sell ourselves short) segment of Americans feel so strongly about Israel. In Israel, the same holds true about the Russian population, who are Israeli citizens and may have not been to Russia or other former Soviet countries since they left but nevertheless feel a strong pull and sense of nostalgia toward their previous home. This relationship goes both ways, as the new annual $1 million prize that Israel is going to bestow on recipients whose contributions to sciences or the arts reflect Jewish values is being funded by a group of Jewish Russian oligarchs. It makes sense for Israeli politicians to take advantage of this sentiment through stronger ties with Russia and wanting to have their pictures taken with Putin when he visits.
The question for me is whether this is a good idea for Israel geostrategically once you set aside the domestic political benefits, and my answer is no. To begin with, as Elise Labott points out, Israel and Russia do not see eye to eye on many foreign policy issues these days. The two countries are working at cross purposes when it comes to Iran and Syria, and yesterday Putin met with Mahmoud Abbas and implicitly backed the Palestinian president’s view that Israel is the party responsible for the deadlock in peace negotiations. Peres spent much of the visit publicly pressuring Putin to come around to the Israeli view of things, commenting during the memorial dedication ceremony that the country that defeated fascism will not tolerate similarly odious regimes in Iran and Syria, and expressing his view during the state dinner that Russia will not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons. This seems more like wishful thinking than an expression of confidence, since Russia has so far shown little inclination to budge on these issues and did not hint at any changes in policy during Putin’s meetings with Israeli leaders. Netanyahu, Barak, Lieberman, and other Israeli officials are assiduously working to court Russia, but to no avail. At some point, the closer relationship with Russia is going to come to a head, and it will be easier if there are fewer messy entanglements at that point.
Aside from the fact that Israel is destined to endlessly bang its head against the wall when it comes to Russian policy, there is another good reason for Israel to distance itself from Russia. Putin under Russia has evidenced an increasingly authoritarian bent, with Putin’s domestic opponents harassed and jailed, opposition political parties eviscerated, and charges of election rigging and voter fraud. Russia today is no longer a democracy, and Freedom House this year assigned it a 6 for political rights and a 5 for civil liberties (with 7 being the worst score a state can achieve). In short, Israel is trying to tighten its relationship with a deeply illiberal state, and one with which it foten disagrees on matters of foreign policy. In doing so, it risks damaging its relationship with other democracies and European states that do not look kindly upon Russian intransigence. Israel often evinces a view that any friend is a good one, but cozying up to Russia is not going to advance Israel’s international standing or leave it feeling less isolated. This is a classic example of losing sight of what is strategically prudent in the long term in favor of short term tactical political gain. Israel does not have to publicly repudiate Russia or Putin or lead the Mitt Romney vanguard that views Russia as the top geopolitical threat in the world today, but it also does not need to spend its time trying to be Russia’s best friend. Israel should work to keep its relationship with Russia as non-acrimonious as it can while holding Russia at arm’s length.