April 12, 2012
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was generous in his praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin, expressing admiration for his "extraordinary leadership skills" and his "great" joy for Putin's return as Russia's president. "With Putin as president of Russia, the world is safer and more stable," Lieberman told Israeli television. "In Israel, we will exert all efforts to strengthen our relations with Russia. Putin is a model leader."
At first glance, it seems that Israel's exaggerated happiness over Putin's re-election is in bad taste, since most world countries denounced and criticised flagrant vote rigging in Russia's parliamentary and presidential elections. It seems that Tel Aviv's intent on appeasing Moscow and improving ties with Putin's administration is a strategic cornerstone for Binyamin Netanyahu's government, and that is why the government unabashedly declared "great joy" when Putin's office announced that the returning president will visit Israel soon.
The question is why is Israel so keen on building bridges with Russia in this visible manner? Reserve General Ron Tira, a researcher at Israel's Institute of National Security Studies, argues that the answer lies in developments that have occurred in the region since the Arab revolutions. For the first time, Israel felt the depth of its isolation in the region after ally regimes fell, and because new tensions erupted with other states that were part of its alliances in the region, such as Turkey.
Tira stated that the most threatening outcome of the Arab Spring that requires Israel to strengthen its ties with Russia is the decline in the US's stature in the region. Meanwhile, the US administration is paying more attention to other regions because of the world economic crisis.
Former Israeli diplomat Oded Eran believes that decision makers in Tel Aviv are increasingly sensing the void left behind by the US in the region after it was caught unawares by the Arab Spring, which requires Israel to seek an international power to fill the void. Danny Rothschild, director of the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the interdisciplinary Herzliya Centre -- a prominent Israeli research centre -- who previously served as director of research at military intelligence, agrees that the diminishing status of the US resulted in Israel facing unprecedented regional isolation.
"Israel has always known that the countries of the region have warmed relations with it overtly and covertly to please Washington," according to Rothschild. "Hence, when these states feel that Washington's standing has fallen, they believe it is pointless to continue to warm up to Israel." He predicted that Israel's regional isolation would increase as Arab revolutions continue and incumbent regimes in the Arab world fall, noting that any Arab government formed after democratic elections would not draw up its regional policies based on US interests, as was previously the case before the Arab Spring.
Professor Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, asserted that Israel must now seek strong allies since the decline in the US's standing means further erosion of Israel's deterrence capability. "For decades, Israel has maintained its power of deterrence against Arab states, not only because of her military power and qualitative edge, but more fundamentally for its special relationship with the US. Israel's enemies know that the US will not allow Israel to be defeated. Hence, a drop in the US's stature means a drop in Israel's power of deterrence."
Inbar reminded that Israel's security doctrine has always assumed that an alliance between Israel and superpowers is a cornerstone of Zionist "national" security. Therefore, the alliance with the US was viewed as a primary strategic asset. However, decision makers in Tel Aviv who want Moscow to fill the void left by Washington realise that until recently nothing in the relationship between Israel and Russia justifies a strategic or regional or cultural alliance. Instead, they believe there are many commonalities between the two that are suitable as a basis for building a strategic partnership.
These include the desires of both Russia and Israel to confront political Islam movements, especially Sunnis, whose role and political weight are growing in the wake of the Arab Spring. Putin fears that the rise of political Islam in eastern Arabia could influence Islamic groups active in Russia and the Balkans that threaten Russia's interests. Many decision makers in Tel Aviv were keen on mentioning that Israel's security and intelligence agencies can assist Russia in fighting Islamic movements.
Second, Israel's willingness to give Russia the latest Israeli military products in precision technology, especially the new generation of unmanned drones (Israel is the world's second largest manufacturer of these kinds of drones).
Third, decision makers in Israel know Putin's ambition to make Russian natural gas a key tool in restoring his country's role on the world stage to the days of the Soviet Union. They believe that in light of massive gas discoveries in Israel in the eastern Mediterranean, the Israel government could offer Russia a partnership in seeking new joint markets for Russian and Israeli gas.
General Israel Ziv (retired), the former director of planning in the Israeli army, said that making Israel a key and crucial partner in Russia's energy economics will in return make Russia defend Israeli interests, and help alleviate Tel Aviv's isolation since the Arab Spring. It would also raise Israel's regional standing. Ziv believes that Putin's return to the presidency is a good opportunity to build strategic relations with the Kremlin. He added that Putin is a strong leader, and under his rule Russia can play a major role in formulating the world order. This is even more of an incentive to draw closer to the Russians and convince them to establish new types of relations with Israel.
Ziv ridiculed Israel's attempts to build regional alliances with Balkan states such as Bulgaria, Greece and Cyprus in response to tensions with Turkey, describing such alliances as a show of weakness not strength.
Israeli-Russian relations deteriorated markedly during the military crackdown by Russia against Georgia five years ago, when Moscow found out that Tel Aviv had supplied Georgia with unmanned drones that helped reveal the movements of the Russian army. Israel had also allowed retired generals to train Georgian troops, which angered Putin and caused him to strengthen his ties with Iran. Tel Aviv rectified these mistakes by reaching critical secret understandings with Moscow that ended Israeli arms supplies to Georgia. In time, Russia returned the favour, as WikiLeaks revealed that Putin showed Israel the detailed capabilities of Iran's defence systems, provided to Tehran by Moscow. This would help Tel Aviv draw up plans to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities when necessary.
There is no doubt that Israel is counting on Russia to help Tel Aviv deal with the aftermath of the Arab Spring, and understands Putin's realism and pragmatism that adheres to the language of interests. Hence, decision makers in Tel Aviv are talking to him in the language he understands. However, some observers in Israel are worried that Russia's pragmatism could cause Putin to abandon Israel, if he believes Russia's interests lie in forging relations with post-revolution Arab governments. Observers warn against putting all Israel's eggs in the Russian basket, but Tel Aviv seems determined to forge ahead in closer ties with Putin.