Russia Expert: Netanyahu-Putin Relations Reflect Moscow’s Push for Regional Influence, Jerusalem’s Need for Alternative to America (INTERVIEW)
What distinguishes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s current trip to Moscow from his previous three parleys with the Russian president is that this one will focus on the Palestinians and the future of Syria, Mideast and Russia expert Zvi Magen told The Algemeiner on Monday, explaining that the Kremlin wants increased influence in the region, and that Jerusalem needs an alternative to the United States as a guarantor of its interests.
Speaking about the widely reported two-and-a-half-day visit with Vladimir Putin and other officials that Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, embarked on mere hours earlier, Magen – a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv — repeatedly stressed that “what we are seeing is realpolitik in action.”
The complexity of the situation is obvious, Magen said, pointing to the strange bedfellows created in the wake of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly referred to as the Iran nuclear deal. Indeed, in its aftermath, Putin – whose country is a signatory to the deal — has been taking the initiative to gain power and influence in the Middle East. Siding with Syrian President Bashar Assad against rebel forces fighting for his overthrow during the so-far five-year civil war, Putin began to dispatch military materiel and forces to the country in September, and created an alliance with Iran – Israel’s sworn enemy. Iran’s Lebanon-based proxy, the terrorist group Hezbollah, too, has been fighting with Assad’s troops in Syria, a country bordering Israel, all of whose forces in the war are enemies of the Jewish state.
As a result, explained Magen – who served as Israel’s ambassador to Ukraine in 1993 and to Russia in 1998, as well as heading Nativ, the Liaison Bureau of the Prime Minister’s Office, which maintained contact with Jews in the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War from 1999 to 2005 – “Israel had to protect its own interests, and Russia was key to doing this.”
These interests include making sure that sophisticated weapons do not fall into the hands of Hezbollah, some of whose leading operatives Israel has reportedly assassinated over the past few months. To enable freedom of movement over the skies of Syria for the Israel Air force, Netanyahu appealed to Putin, and the two agreed to coordinate air sorties, to prevent unwitting Russian casualties.
“During their last meeting, Netanyahu and Putin discussed ongoing cooperation over Israel’s sovereignty in the Golan Heights,” said Magen, referring to an April tete-a-tete between the two leaders, when Netanyahu reiterated his “appreciation” for Putin’s “heartfelt hospitality and the ongoing connection between us. I came here with one main goal — to strengthen the security coordination between us so as to avoid mishaps, misunderstandings, and unnecessary confrontations.”
This week, Netanyahu’s trip is being touted as one whose purpose is to mark the 25th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Israel and Russia. “And that is part of it,” said Magen, “as is Putin’s desire to retain a cultural connection with the many Russians who live in Israel today. But his interest in being a major player where resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is concerned is core to his realpolitik, which is why it has good reason to welcome Netanyahu.”
Russia, said Magen, “is in trouble. It thought it would be able to ‘sell’ the Americans and Europeans all kinds of regional achievements. Meanwhile, Israel has its own issue with the United States, and flaunting its increased ties with Moscow is a way of saying, ‘America, where have you been? Ok, if you’re not doing your part, I have to do it alone, with the help of Russia.’”
Another shared interest, according to Magen, has to do with neither side’s desire for Iran to become a regional hegemon. In addition, he said, Russia has put forth its vision for Syria – dividing the country into Swiss-like cantons, creating a federal government with autonomous provinces.
In a symbolic gesture of strengthening ties, Russia announced last week that it would return to Israel a tank that Syrian forces captured in 1982 during the Battle of Sultan Yacoub in the First Lebanon War.