Foreign policy
Russia - World

Russian-Israeli relations in 2023

Vladimir (Ze’ev) Hanin sums up the year in Russian-Israeli relations

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Photo: Scanpix

Three days before the end of 2022, Israel’s current government was sworn in, led for the sixth time in his political career by the leader of the center-right Likud party, Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu. Likud and its allies from the three Jewish religious parties managed to win a majority in the November 2022 Knesset elections, promising to drastically reduce the cost of living and the country’s internal security — something the ruling coalition has clearly failed to do over the past year.

This made it all the more important for the incumbent Prime Minister’s team to compensate for the loss of image with achievements in other areas. Foreign policy seemed to be the most obvious choice. The main hopes in this regard were pinned on the conclusion of the US-brokered negotiations on the establishment of official diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which have been underway for more than three years (in practice, this would also mean the normalization of relations with those countries of the Saudi bloc that are still outside the framework of the 2022−21 Abraham Accords). The Arab-Israeli conflict, which has lasted more than a century, could have been considered to be over, which, according to popular Israeli opinion, would have gone down in history as Netanyahu’s most important political achievement and his main legacy.

The Joe Biden administration, whose active lobbying has made this project viable to begin with, was extremely irritated by the legal reform promoted by the Netanyahu government. The initiators of the reform believed that it was designed to «correct the distortions of judicial activism», while its opponents saw it as an attempt at an anti-democratic political coup à la Poland or Hungary. The crisis was not resolved until nine months later. In September, Biden and Netanyahu met at the UN General Assembly in New York and agreed on Netanyahu’s official visit to Washington D.C. to resolve their differences and discuss ways to develop relations within the Jerusalem-Washington-Riyadh triangle.

Yet between the beginning and end of this nine-month period of «unstable relations» between the two leaders, Netanyahu made a series of official state visits and undertook a number of other high-profile diplomatic demarches. He worked hard to demonstrate that he remained a member of the club of the world’s most influential leaders, despite what the Prime Minister’s Office insisted was a temporary cooling of relations with the US administration.

Netanyahu and Putin: the end of a beautiful friendship?

Russia remained one of the vectors of Netanyahu’s activity in this regard as the Israeli Prime Minister believed that the deepening of relations with the Russian Federation was one of his most important achievements. Indeed, the past decade has been marked by a rapid growth in mutual trade, as well as financial, economic, technological, scientific, cultural, humanitarian and other forms of cooperation — even if its scale has lagged behind the real potential of both countries. But Netanyahu clearly attached no less importance to his personal relationship with Putin, which he saw as an important political asset, among other things. From the time he returned to office in 2009 until he went into opposition in the summer of 2021, Netanyahu met with Putin about two dozen times (three times in Jerusalem, and also in Moscow and in Sochi), twice as often as with the US presidents. It was believed that a kind of «open line» of direct communication between the two leaders was an important tool for resolving the possible misunderstandings and smoothing the rough edges in Israel-Russia relations.

That is why, after the victory of Likud and its allies in the yet another unscheduled Knesset elections in November 2022, many expected a change of vector in Israel-Russia relations, which had clearly been going downhill since the outbreak of Russia’s war with Ukraine. Such hopes (or fears) were based on the fact that, while in opposition from July 2021 to December 2022, Netanyahu had sharply criticized then-Prime Minister Naftali Benet and his successor in July 2022, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, claiming that it was the latter who, by supporting Ukraine and condemning Russian aggression, had allegedly destroyed «the measured, balanced and responsible relationship with Russia built over the years» and endangered «Israel’s vital interests.» These included the «security coordination between the IDF and the Russian army in the skies over Syria», which Netanyahu argued was «a cornerstone of Israel’s national security.»

Netanyahu’s first telephone conversation with Putin since his election victory, a week before the new Israeli government was sworn in, was also seen as a return to the old line. According to official press releases, the two sides expressed «mutual confidence that Russian-Israeli relations will continue to develop steadily and contacts at various levels will continue.»

However, following the return of Likud and its allies to power as a result of early elections in November 2022, there have been no significant changes in Israel-Russia relations.

Netanyahu and Putin: the factor of personal relations

In the past, Netanyahu has viewed his rather warm personal relationship with Putin as a domestic political resource, among other things. Suffice it to recall, for example, that during the 2019 Knesset election campaigns, Israeli skyscrapers were adorned with giant posters with the laconic caption «liga aheret» [Hebr: «a different league”], showing Netanyahu exchanging friendly handshakes with US President Donald Trump, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The posters were intended to convince voters that they should support the Likud leader, who, unlike his «provincial political rivals,» belongs in the club of world leaders.

Many saw Prime Minister Netanyahu’s presence among only two foreign leaders (the other was Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić) at a military parade in Moscow to mark the 73rd anniversary of the victory in what Russia calls the «Great Patriotic War» within the same logic. Netanyahu even made a symbolic gesture that resonated in Israel and the world: he took part in the «Immortal Regiment» procession. Given that one of the main ideological «staples» holding together the Kremlin’s domestic and foreign policy doctrine is the victory of the Russian/Soviet people over German Nazism, Putin could not fail to appreciate this gesture. The same applies to the formal proximity of Russian and Israeli narratives about World War II, including criticism of attempts to revise its outcome and Holocaust denial.

There are those who believe that in the eyes of the Russian president, Netanyahu symbolized Israel, which was a «role model» for Putin. This vision was not exceptional: many new and old democracies of the former communist bloc countries, as well as some states of the former USSR, saw Israel as an example for themselves. For them, Israel was a country that had managed to build a full-fledged liberal democracy under conditions of permanent armed conflict, to ensure the flourishing of a high-tech economy and social sphere, to form a strong strategic alliance with the US and an optimal model of relations with the EU.

Putin’s perception of the Israeli experience was probably somewhat different. He seems to have been more drawn to Israel’s insistence on preserving its national character, the armed might of a regional superpower, its ability to resist external pressure with a strong lobby in the US, and its status as an important factor of collective identity for Jewish diaspora communities. In other words, everything that, if one where to use not so much the essence as the formal framework of the Israeli phenomenon, fitted into the «neo-imperial» vision of «ideological staples», «sovereign democracy» and the «Russian world» espoused by the ruling Russian elites. It is hard to say to what extent it is fair to assume that Netanyahu, who has been at the helm of the Israeli government longer than anyone in the country’s modern history, including the legendary David Ben-Gurion, has ever been envious at the vertical of personal power that Putin had built.

In fact, it was not so much about personal friendship as about mutual trust between the two politicians. Up to a certain point it suited both of them quite well. Although there were no significant changes in relations between Israel and Russia in the past year compared to the policy of the previous government, despite a series of crises of various scales, both countries tried to maintain a sense of «business as usual.» Thus, on September 6, 2023, for example, it was announced that Israel and Russia would sign the intergovernmental agreement in the field of cinema, the preparation of which, according to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, had taken almost 15 years to complete.

The end of friendship

The situation changed dramatically after the large-scale massacre carried out by Hamas militants in southern Israel on October 7, 2023. These events, and the IDF’s forceful response to them, became the prologue to the new Middle East war that is now underway, in which Moscow has clearly sided with the enemies of the Jewish state, albeit so far only at the declaratory level.

As the hostilities in Gaza have progressed, Russian position has become increasingly clear: Kremlin has almost openly supported Hamas, seeing it as a satellite of Iran, Russia’s current closest partner in the Middle East. This makes the current situation significantly different from, for example, the relatively balanced approach during the IDF’s «Protective Edge» in 2014 and the subsequent policy of presenting Moscow as an «impartial mediator» between all parties to the Middle East conflict.

Kremlin’s choice was symbolized by the official reception of a Hamas delegation led by Abu Marzouk, a member of the group’s «Politburo.» In addition, the Iranian deputy foreign minister, Ali Bagheri Kani took part in Hamas’ negotiations with the Russian foreign ministry leadership. Israel described all this as a «despicable and disgraceful step» and demanded that the Hamas members be expelled from the country.

In addition to this story, there is a long list of other pro-Hamas demarches undertaken by the Russian leadership. The tone was set personally by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who compared the blockade of the Islamist terrorist entity in Gaza to the blockade of Leningrad during the Second World War (although he acknowledged that Israel was facing «an unprecedented attack, never before seen in history — not only in terms of scale, but also in the way it was carried out»). These words were followed by a series of anti-Israel diplomatic moves, including a draft resolution introduced in the UN Security Council on October 16 calling for an «immediate ceasefire» in Gaza, which not only omitted Hamas as the aggressor and cause of the war, but actually accused Israel of committing «war crimes». Add to this Russia’s veto of the US resolution of October 25 condemning Hamas and supporting Israel’s right to self-defense, and the absurd claim by Russian Permanent Representative Vassily Nebenzi at the UN General Assembly Special Session on November 2 that Israel «as an occupying power has no right to self-defense.»

Russian economic support for Hamas should also be mentioned, including extensive use of the Russian crypto-services market to launder tens of millions of dollars for the terrorist group in order to circumvent Western sanctions. Hamas’s propaganda resources also used the free DNS services of the Russian IT company Selectel (although as soon as its owners learnt about this, the services were immediately blocked) and the company VDSina. Finally, it was impossible not to notice the pronounced pro-Palestinian line taken by the Russian state media. All this is seriously at odds with the system of relations between Israel and the Russian Federation established in recent years.

After October 7, Netanyahu and Putin spoke on the phone only once, on October 16. Apparently, the conversation was rather formal in nature and in tone. It is also noteworthy, that it took place after the Russian president had spoken to the leaders of Syria, Iran, the Palestinian Authority and Egypt, whose views Putin then conveyed to the Israeli Prime Minister. It became clear that Israel’s stated aim for Operation «Iron Swords» — the destruction of the radical Islamist terrorist regime in Gaza — contradicts Russia’s current military and geopolitical interests. This has been evident in the tone and content of the Russian president’s rhetoric in recent weeks. Some key figures in Russia’s top leadership have also made similar statements, often with overt anti-Semitic overtones.

The part of the Russian population that relies on television as the main source of information and way to form «opinions» about whatever is going on in the world was quick to pick up that trend. A survey of the Russian population and discussions on Russian social networks showed a marked decline in public sympathy for Israel. The media and professional communities began to express fears about the possible revival of the seemingly long-gone Soviet anti-Zionist narratives, which, in addition to publicly expressing the USSR’s strategic positions and interests in the international arena, also served as a shell for the state-sponsored and «permissible» everyday vulgar anti-Semitism of the authorities. In the current situation, the legitimization of anti-Semitic rhetoric may provoke the transition of latent anti-Semitism, which is quite widespread in Russia, into an overt form.

In this context, observers suggest we should consider the first anti-Semitic pogrom in post-Soviet Russia in Dagestan in late October 2023, provoked by religious (Islamist) radicalism, racial and national hatred of Jews and Israel. The idea that the riots, verbal violence and vandalism against Jewish sites in Makhachkala, Nalchik and Cherkessk were provoked «from above» is hardly justified.

In recent days, there have been some signs in Russia and Israel of a desire to at least partially «revoke» the situation and reduce the level of mutual tension, which today is not favorable to either side. Thus, on December 10, Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu held their second telephone conversation since the beginning of Israel’s war with Hamas, the content of which was described differently by the Kremlin press service and the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office. According to the Russian version, the Russian President reiterated the position of rejection and condemnation of terrorism in all its manifestations, promised to continue working «to de-escalate the conflict», but at the same time noted that countering terrorist threats «should not lead to such serious consequences for the civilian population.» In turn, the Israeli press release highlighted Netanyahu’s expressed dissatisfaction with the «anti-Israeli stance» of Russian representatives on international platforms, and mentioned criticism of the «dangerous cooperation between Russia and Iran.» Netanyahu asked Moscow to put pressure on the Red Cross to allow access to Israeli hostages held by Hamas and to deliver medicine to them, while thanking Putin for his efforts to free an Israeli citizen who also holds Russian citizenship.

There is no reason yet to speak of a direct and open confrontation between Russia and Israel, but at this stage there is little left of the former «special relationship» between the two countries and their leaders.

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