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November 2, 2015 7:35 am

Israel and Putin’s Russia — a Tenuous Relationship

avatar by Isi Leibler

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Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during a meeting in Moscow. Photo: GPO.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during a meeting in Moscow. Photo: GPO.

For over 30 years, my principal public occupation in the global Jewish arena was to promote the struggle for liberation of Soviet Jewry. This brought me into direct contact with Soviet ministers, officials and apparatchiks, enabling me to appreciate firsthand the obsessive antisemitism underlying the Kremlin’s policy toward Israel and the Jews.

This contrasts starkly with current Russian President Vladimir Putin’s positive attitude to Jews in general, despite the fact that he was a former officer of the Soviet secret police agency, the KGB, a body notorious for its antisemitism. This is even more extraordinary, taking into account the fact that Putin today exploits nationalism as a major element to rally public support. And it was Russian nationalism, from the time of the czars and heavily reinforced by the Soviets, that has operated in tandem with a feral antisemitism.

There are no rational explanations for Putin’s extraordinary attitude toward Jews, which some have gone as far as to describe as being motivated by philo-Semitism. Some say he was influenced as a youngster by his Jewish German teacher, Mina Yuditskaya, now living in Israel, whom he invited for a social chat to the King David Hotel during his last visit. He may also be highly sophisticated and pragmatic, and having seen the outcome of Soviet antisemitism, may have come to a realization that Jewish support would represent an asset at many levels.

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Putin has ruthlessly suppressed violent antisemitism. He has gone out of his way to attend Jewish functions, such as the opening of a Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow, to which he contributed $50 million of state funds and even symbolically personally donated a month’s salary. He also attended Hanukkah celebrations and conveyed warm messages of praise and goodwill to Jews on the advent of the Jewish New Year — utterly unprecedented, especially from a nationalist Russian leader.

It is also astonishing that, despite his strategic involvement and alliance with the Syrians and Iranians, Putin has determinedly kept the channels to Israel open, making a point to personally visit Israel and in June 2012, Israel was the first country he visited after his election. He frequently speaks warmly about the Jewish state, expressing pride that it contains the largest diaspora of former Russian citizens. At the Western Wall, accompanied by Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar, he donned a kippah, which would undoubtedly have made his Bolshevik predecessors turn in their graves. He also seemed quite indifferent to the rage this created among his Arab allies.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has deftly steered a delicate diplomatic balancing act, seeking to retain a good relationship with the Russians without antagonizing the Americans in relation to both Ukraine and Georgia. No Israeli minister has criticized Putin, despite his alliance with Syria and Iran.

Indeed, until recently, Netanyahu managed to persuade Putin to postpone providing the Syrians with the S-300 air defense system, whose deployment would make it far more difficult for Israel to penetrate Syrian air space in the event of a military confrontation.

However, due to US President Barack Obama’s incredible mismanagement, Putin’s major geopolitical breakthrough has transformed Russia overnight into a dominant power in the Middle East with greater influence in the region than even at its peak during the Cold War. Even Egypt has been alienated by US support for the Muslim Brotherhood to such an extent that it too has moved closer to the Russian camp.

The US has effectively enabled an economically weak Russia to seal an alliance with the Shiites, purportedly to combat ISIS but in reality concentrating on rescuing Assad, who, despite massive support from Iran and Hezbollah, was close to collapse.

Putin mocked the Americans for trying to promote “democracy” and in so doing created the vacuum that was rapidly filled by ISIS. At the UN General Assembly, Putin, speaking about Western support for the so-called Arab Spring, said, “Do you realize what you have done? … Instead of the triumph of democracy and progress, we got violence, poverty and social disaster – and nobody cares a bit about human rights, including the right to life.”

In contrast to a bumbling Obama, he emerged as a shrewd and tough strategist who can be relied upon to stand by his allies and confront his enemies.

As a consequence, the situation has become immensely more complicated for Israel and there are logical grounds for concern that Russia’s ongoing confrontation with the US will override Putin’s emotional philo-Semitism. His recent meeting in which he expressed solidarity with Assad in Moscow was hardly reassuring.

But the situation remains far from black and white. Immediately after announcing Russia’s intervention, Putin agreed to a three-hour summit meeting with Netanyahu, who flew to Moscow where parameters were drawn in order to minimize any possible military overlap and try to protect some of Israel’s security concerns. Coordination has been maintained at the very highest military levels between both countries, with Russia operating a direct hotline with Yossi Cohen, Israel’s national security adviser, informing him in advance of Russia bombing targets in Syria.

Furthermore, according to Ehud Ya’ari of Channel 2, the Russians have allocated a future role for Israel in their area of influence by offering to buy a substantial chunk of Israel’s newly discovered gas fields and provide military guarantees against Hezbollah attacks on the offshore locations. It is also proposing to export this gas to Europe.

But Israel remains the meat in the sandwich. It must walk on eggshells to avoid alienating the US Congress, which is bitterly opposed to Putin’s global expansionism.

Some predict that Putin is merely taking advantage of establishing Russia as a Mediterranean Great Power. He is most unlikely to involve his ground forces after its ordeal in Afghanistan. Realizing that a complete victory is not in the cards, Putin may secure Assad, settle on a divided Syria and leverage Assad’s retirement in return for U.S. concessions such as easing sanctions relating to Ukraine.

Profoundly conscious of the Iranian regime’s messianic aspirations to wipe Israel off the face of the planet, optimists consider the possibility that the Russians will inhibit the Iranians from directly attacking Israel. They argue that Shiite fundamentalists like the Iranians also pose long-term threats to the Kremlin with Russia’s growing and increasingly aggressive Muslim minority which is also being affected by ISIS — a large proportion of whose fighters originate from Russia and former Soviet countries.

The Netanyahu government is to be commended for its efforts to isolate itself from the conflict. But the situation is volatile and could unravel in the course of intensified superpower confrontations in this region. Israel is also cognizant of potential confrontations with the Russians should they continue to intervene when Iranians seek to transfer advanced missiles to Hezbollah.

However, it is a consolation that all things being even, Putin would prefer not to confront Israel and does not aspire to bring about its destruction, as did the Bolsheviks. However, that could change if Putin were to conclude that Israel represents a major barrier to his objective of creating a new Middle East.

It remains somewhat surrealistic for me to juxtapose Putin’s positive attitude with my experiences with Soviet antisemites. Neither I nor any of the refuseniks would have remotely dreamed that, living in Israel, we would witness the visit of a former KGB officer as president of Russia who displays friendship rather than malevolence to the Jewish people. We must pray that this will not be swept aside by realpolitik.

Isi Leibler may be contacted at ileibler@leibler.com

This article was originally published by Israel Hayom and The Jerusalem Post.

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