March 23, 2017 § 3 Comments
Israel’s relationship with Russia is in some ways its most important and also its most dangerous. While the U.S.-Israel relationship is the only one that is vital to guaranteeing Israel’s fundamental security, the relationship with Russia has a larger impact on the daily threats that Israel faces given the Russian role in the Syrian civil war. Prime Minister Netanyahu has ably managed ties with Moscow, with his trip to Russia to meet with President Putin two weeks ago the fifth in the past year, but the reality is that despite Israel’s best efforts, tension with Russia is bound to escalate. Israel and Russia’s redlines with regard to the outcome in Syria are in fundamental conflict, and papering over the differences is becoming increasingly harder to do.
Russia-Israel ties under Netanyahu and Putin have reached a historical apex for the two countries, partly because of the rapport between the two men and partly because of larger structural factors. From Israel’s perspective, closer ties with Russia make for good domestic politics. Over 10% of Israel’s population hails from the former Soviet Union, and Russian Jews maintain cultural and economic links to their former homeland. Soviet Jews have risen to the top of the government, with Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein the most recent examples. Russia is also seen as a strong ally in Israel’s battle against terrorism as Russia has its own homegrown terrorist threat, and the Kremlin has also historically been inclined not to harshly criticize Israeli settlement policies despite its support of a Palestinian state.
But it is due to defense concerns on both sides that the relationship has deepened and become more important. One of the few advantages that Georgia had in its five-day war with Russia in 2008 over South Ossetia was its Israeli drones, which were far superior to the domestically-produced models flown by Russia and a fact that did not escape Moscow’s attention. It led Russia to subsequently make four purchases of Israeli drones, a seemingly ordinary transaction made remarkable by the fact that it was the first time Russia had ever bought arms from a foreign country. As Russia has increased its military activity in Syria and its near-abroad, its desire for Israeli military technology has only grown, and thus its relationship with Israel has become more important.
On the Israeli side, Russia’s involvement in Syria directly impacts Israel and makes closer relations a necessity. For the Israeli government, Russia’s heavy presence in Syria has been a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that Israel has been able to repeatedly strike Iranian arms convoys destined for Hizballah without Russian interference despite flying hundreds of sorties through Russian-controlled territory, since Jerusalem and Moscow have worked out a deal preserving Israel’s ability to strike these targets and have coordinated to a near-perfect level. Were Israel trying to operate in Iranian-controlled territory rather than Russian, things would be far messier. The fact that Russia purposely turns a blind eye to Israeli strikes on these weapons shipments – despite the extraordinary fact that Israel is oftentimes blowing up weapons that Russia itself has supplied to Iran – also limits the fallout, as it makes it difficult for Iran to retaliate against Israel in response. The curse, however, is that in having to rely on Russia’s good graces, the Israeli military is operating at the mercy of a larger power and must also limit itself to the parameters of what it has agreed upon with Moscow, rather than being able to target Iranian fighters in Syria to whatever larger extent it wishes. Russia’s ownership of the Syrian civil war provides Israel with a greater degree of freedom but also a greater degree of restriction.
While the relationship has remained on track up until now, it has been destined to unravel from the day that Russia entered Syria, and indeed the first loose threads are now beginning to show. No matter how good the coordination mechanism between the two sides, the fundamental conflict at the heart of Israeli-Russian views on Syria is that Israel’s redline is the establishment of a permanent Iranian presence in Syria and Russia’s redline is the elimination of a permanent Iranian presence in Syria. At the outset of the Syrian civil war, Israeli government and military opinion was split as to whether it would be better for Bashar al-Assad to remain in power or better for him to be toppled. That debate has decisively shifted toward the latter as Assad has solidified his rule over western Syria with a serious assist from Iran, leading not only to a more robust Hizballah presence in Syria but Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps soldiers as well. As the Israeli defense and intelligence establishment came to a near-consensus on the dangers of Assad’s continued tenure given his ever larger reliance on Iran and his further cementing as an Iranian proxy, Russia made it clear that it will not abandon Assad and that its own core interest in Syria is keeping him – and the Iranian influence that is bound up with him as a necessary byproduct – right where he is. Israel cannot abide Assad staying and Russia cannot abide him going.
This situation was manageable so long as Israel was content to confine its actions in Syria to striking Hizballah and breaking up any efforts to supply it with advanced game-changing weaponry, such as S-300 anti-aircraft missiles. But with intelligence that Iran is now beginning to establish permanent bases in Syria, the Israeli calculus has understandably changed. Russia’s, however, has not. It was notable that in the aftermath of the Netanyahu-Putin summit two weeks ago where Netanyahu raised his concerns about preventing an Iranian military presence on Israel’s northern border, neither side indicated that it was particularly satisfied with the outcome of the discussion. Furthermore, one week later the Israeli ambassador to Russia was summoned to explain an Israeli strike that hit close to a Russian military position, introducing a new level of tension into the relationship, and Israel had to bat down the Assad government’s claim that Russia had informed Israel that it could no longer fly missions in Russian-controlled Syrian airspace.
It is an enormous accomplishment of Netanyahu’s diplomacy that the situation with Russia has proceeded so smoothly until now, particularly when juxtaposed against the backdrop of downed planes and economic sanctions that have marked the Russia-Turkey relationship over Syria. But Israel is now entering an untenable situation, in which it will have to choose between risking open conflict with Russia – something that both sides will be desperate to avoid – or sitting on its hands as Iran digs in across from IDF positions on the Golan and plants missile batteries on Syrian territory for the purposes of targeting Israeli cities and towns. Israel was right to worry about Iranian ambitions in the region, but it is the Russian relationship with Iran over Syria rather than the American relationship with Iran over the nuclear deal that will prove to be the thornier dilemma to navigate.
May 30, 2013 § Leave a comment
A year ago I wrote about the way in which Israeli domestic politics was coloring its foreign policy toward Russia on account of Israel’s large Russian population – over 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union now live in Israel, making up somewhere between 10-15% of the total population – and noted that the government was doing its best to cozy up to Putin on account of the domestic political benefits despite the fact that there were obvious foreign policy pitfalls for Israel in pursuing such a strategy. In light of the violence in Syria, it is time to revisit this issue. The topic has taken on greater urgency now that Bashar al-Assad has claimed that Russia has already sent a shipment of S-300 surface-to-air missile batteries to Syria. Earlier this week, Defense Minister Bogie Ya’alon had warned Russia not to arm the Assad regime with these missiles, considered to be a significant upgrade to existing Syrian air defense capabilities, and said that if the shipment of weapons left for Syria, Israel would “know how to act.” While Russia had postponed the initial shipment of missiles at Israel’s request, all signs point to further Israeli requests to delay delivering the SAM batteries being likely to fall on deaf ears. Russia’s interest in propping up the Assad regime has only grown, and the increasing calls for Western intervention and hints of U.S. plans for a no-fly zone in Syria have only seemed to strengthen Russian resolve as it turns the fight in Syria into a proxy battle against the West.
As Jordan Hirsch and Sam Kleiner smartly argued a couple of weeks ago, the chaos in Syria is in some ways restoring a Cold War dynamic between the U.S. and Israel that is focused on Israel as a proxy and strategic ally against a larger adversary, which in this case is Iran. However, the past couple of weeks have added a twist to this observation, which is that in some ways we are actually returning to the original Cold War dynamic of the U.S. against Russia and Israel caught in the middle. While the relationship between Israel and Russia has been strong, full of state visits and Israeli officials fawning over their Russian counterparts, the situation in Syria has put the brakes on what was in many ways a friendship built on a mirage. Israeli politicians have wanted to reap the low-hanging political fruit of being seen as having close ties with Russia, but Russia never gave Israel any indication of being willing to budge on its support for Iran or its backing of Assad. In fact, fostering a close relationship with Russia might have actually backfired, as when Israel hit Syrian military sites in Damascus earlier in May, it infuriated the Russian government, which was taken by surprise by the Israeli raid. Close ties between Jerusalem and Moscow may have created an expectation in Russia’s mind of notification by Israel, or perhaps some level of leeway on Russian priorities that Israel is unwilling to give.
The entire situation demonstrates the strategic quandary in which Israel finds itself due to its relatively small stature. Israel is not enough of a heavyweight to do much of anything to change the direction of Russian foreign policy, and its threats are not credible when dealing with a country the size and strength of Russia. Israel has spent years cultivating Putin and other Russian leaders, and Avigdor Lieberman played up his Russian connection while serving as foreign minister to an unprecedented degree, but when push comes to shove, all of this falls by the wayside in the face of larger Russian geostrategic priorities. Keeping Assad as an ally and maintaining the Russian naval base in Tartus, and in the big picture frustrating Western efforts to get Assad to exit power, is just worth much more to Moscow than anything Israel can offer and any benefits that accrue to Russia as a result of closer ties with Israel. Furthermore, Russia even has good cause to start intimidating Israel if it believes that Israeli natural gas exports – if they ever happen, which is a big if – might in any way cut into Russian market share in Europe. Israel just does not measure up when it comes to ordering Russian priorities, and Israel is learning this the hard way in the context of the Syrian morass.
There is another element at play here, which is how Israeli domestic politics require Israel to tread carefully in its dealings with Russia. As I noted a year ago, the Russian population in Israel feels a strong pull and sense of nostalgia toward its previous home even as its connection there wanes, much like American Jews feel strongly about Israel and Irish-Americans feel strongly about Ireland. Were the U.S. ever to have tense relations with Ireland, it would actually raise a serious problem in Congress and make for an extremely tricky political environment. Domestic politics affects every move the Israeli government makes, and if the connection between the large population of Russian origin and Israel’s foreign policy maneuvering has not already been taken into account by the more insightful politicians, I’d be surprised. Note that Israel has not yet directly threatened Russia, but has instead made veiled threats toward Syria on the issue of missile shipments, which is a counterintuitive move when you consider the supply chain here and that the party that needs to be prevented from moving is Moscow rather than Damascus. Part of that is, as I noted above, that Israel just does not have the heft to make any credible threats against Russia, but I think part of it is also the domestic political angle of trying not to pick a public fight with the Russian government any more than is absolutely necessary. Whatever the outcomes of the spat over the S-300 missile batteries, it will be very difficult going forward for Israel to pretend that its relationship with Russia is as cozy as it has portrayed in the past.
October 30, 2012 § 3 Comments
I’m writing this post at 10:30 on Monday night as a hurricane rages outside my house, and since I somehow inexplicably have power (and really Pepco? I lose power when there is a little drizzle, but you manage to keep it going during a freaking hurricane??) I am going to keep it short and sweet before it goes out. Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu moved one step closer to merging today as the Likud Central Committee voted to move forward with the union. This is going to be the first post of many analyzing whether this move makes sense, and according to the initial polls, the answer is not necessarily. The Channel 10 poll has Likud Beiteinu winning 35 seats, down from their current combined 42, and the Channel 2 poll has LB treading water at 42 seats. The point of this merger was to create a party greater than the sum of its parts, and while we have months to go before the actual vote, so far Bibi Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman do not appear to be moving toward accomplishing that goal.
Why might this be? I think a big part of the answer so far has to do with Yisrael Beiteinu’s base. When the news of the deal broke on Thursday, I wrote the following:
Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, though, are not necessarily better off. Likud is now alternating with Yisrael Beiteinu for the first 42 party slots, which obviously waters down Likud, and the rank and file have got to be furious about this. As for YB, the party’s focus on Russian voters is not going to be as laser-like as it once was, and while it will likely get some more attention for its initiatives at the outset, the independent concerns that YB had are eventually going to be subsumed by the larger Likud project and constituency.
If you look at YB voters, they appear to have some real concerns. The Panels poll conducted for Channel 99 has LB winning 35 seats, and the poll asked 2009 YB voters how they were planning on voting in this election with results that should worry Netanyahu. Only 59% of 2009 YB voters indicated that they are planning on voting for the new LB party in 2013, and an enormous 22% said they were not sure. That 22% is the key to this election, since my strong hunch is that those are the voters who cast their ballot in the past for YB because they counted on Lieberman to represent their interests as Russian olim. It is no longer assured that Likud Beiteinu will perform that same function, and that’s one of the reasons why this merger was, to my mind, a strange and risky move for Netanyahu. He needs to keep all of those Russian voters and then pick up some extra voters along the way, but by banding with Lieberman not only does he risk losing some of the Russian voters, he also risks losing some of his own considerable Mizrachi base within Likud since they are wary of Lieberman and the Russians. Netanyahu now has to do a very precarious dance in convincing both of these camps to hang around, and moves signaling one group that they are still valued are precisely the types of signals bound to turn off the other. How Netanyahu and the new LB party deal with this over the next few months will be very interesting indeed.
More to come when there isn’t an old man outside my window loading pairs of animals into an ark..
October 26, 2012 § 1 Comment
Building on my initial reaction yesterday to the new Likud Beiteinu party created by Bibi Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, I have one more important point to add about why I think this deal happened. It seems to me that this was about domestic politics, plain and simple. Netanyahu was nervous about polls showing Likud’s vote share slipping and Labor’s rising, and Lieberman wanted to position himself to head his former party and not have Yisrael Beiteinu suffer the fate of so many other parties like Shinui or what is about to happen to Kadima. This way the two men were able to create the perception of a strong rightwing party that will be able to withstand any challengers and give an air of inevitability to Netanyahu remaining as prime minister and Likud Beiteinu creating the next governing coalition.
Aluf Benn thinks that something else is at work though, which is the creation of a war cabinet to strike Iran. He writes, “The merger with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party will dissolve any domestic opposition to the war, since after the election, Netanyahu will be able to argue that he received a mandate from the people to act as he sees fit. Ministers and top defense officials will have a hard time arguing with him. From now on, only American opposition is liable to delay, or even prevent, a command to the Israel Air Force to take off for Iran.” He adds that Ehud Barak, Benny Begin, and Dan Meridor will be marginalized or pushed out completely and that Lieberman will push the cabinet into radical foreign policy positions that Netanyahu will no longer be able to disavow.
This analysis is plausible on its face, but I think there are a few problems with it. First, it’s not enough to just declare absent compelling evidence that every move Netanyahu makes is with the intent of striking Iran. Plenty of people said the same thing when Netanyahu made the deal with Kadima despite the fact that Mofaz had been on record as opposing a strike, and obviously the short-lived unity government did not make any moves on the Iran front. Bibi’s obsession with Iran is well documented, but he has other concerns as well, such as political survival and consolidating his position, and this seems so clearly aimed at doing just those things that I don’t see why the simplest explanation here is not the right one.
Second, looking at what Benn actually argues, I don’t think it is correct to assert de novo that this gives Netanyahu a mandate for anything. For that to occur, the new LB party has to win an unusually large number of seats and Netanyahu has to campaign specifically and primarily on the Iran issue. Netanyahu is probably counting on about 45 seats, which is roughly what you get from adding up where Likud and YB were in public opinion polls, but I think there is a significant chance that the number is less than that. Lieberman is a polarizing figure, to say the least, and he could easily scare away some Mizrachi and more religious Likud voters. It is also possible that Russian YB voters who were mainly voting for the party based on its advocacy for Russian olim will be disenchanted and feel that Lieberman has sold out their core interest in the pursuit of greater personal power. If that happens, then Netanyahu’s alleged mandate is not going to be quite as strong as Benn predicts, and I don’t quite understand why ministers and generals would have a hard time opposing him. Even if he does get 45 seats, that doesn’t seem like it will all of a sudden cow Likud members like Meridor, Begin, and Bogie Ya’alon into reversing their positions, or convince the IDF leadership that their reservations on Iran have been wrong.
Third, there is the fact that, like Mofaz before him, Lieberman is not necessarily an Iran hawk. The reports are that he originally opposed a strike and was then convinced to change his position, but it’s obviously not on the top of his agenda. Lieberman cares much more about undermining the Palestinan Authority and taking a hard line on peace process issues and territorial concessions, so if there is any foreign affairs implication from yesterday’s announcement, it is that the two state solution is now even more endangered. Lieberman is going to take many radical positions; of that I have no doubt. The question is whether those positions will have anything to do with Iran, and I’m not sure that they will. He may support a strike, but he is not going to be strongly and constantly advocating one. The math in the security cabinet does not change substantially unless Begin, Meridor, and Ya’alon are all excised. One also must consider who the rest of the coalition is going to include, since 45 seats still means that Netanyahu is going to have to rope in Shas, where Eli Yishai is opposed to a strike, or one of the center or left parties, and Tzipi Livni, Yair Lapid, and Shelley Yachimovich are certainly not guaranteed to vote the way Netanyahu wants on Iran.
In looking at yesterday’s merger, does it strengthen Netanyahu’s hand by giving him a larger number of seats? Yup, it does. But he still has to contend with opposition in Likud, opposition in the IDF, opposition from other potential coalition partners, and opposition from the public. In short, aside from making generalizations about the prime minister’s increased clout and murky electoral mandates, I don’t see how this makes a strike on Iran a foregone conclusion by any means.