Israel, Russia and Iran: Interests Trump All

Main Image Credit Israeli soldiers at a position on the Golan Heights near the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria after an Israeli F-16I fighter was downed by Syrian missiles. Courtesy of Xinhua/JINI

A flare-up in the skies above Israel and Syria over the weekend has put a strain on Binyamin Netanyahu’s close ties with Vladimir Putin. The clash also makes it clear that Moscow is the boss when it comes to the Middle East.

Who was the first international leader Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu phoned when an Israeli F-16I fighter jet was shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft fire early Saturday? President Donald Trump, the leader of the US, Israel’s long-time ally who is personally close to Netanyahu? Theresa May, Angela Merkel or Emmanuel Macron?

No, it was President Vladimir Putin, with whom Netanyahu has developed a close working relationship, having met the Russian leader in Moscow – most recently at the end of January – Sochi or elsewhere at least six times in the past 18 months.

In the talks on 29 January, which were also attended by Russia’s and Israel’s top intelligence officials, Netanyahu said the discussion centred on ‘various regional developments, enhanced security coordination between the [Israeli] and the Russian military forces in Syria, and a series of issues that are important – very important – for Israel’s security’.

January’s tête-à-tête was a follow on from the first meeting between the two when a framework for security coordination in Syria was set up to avoid a clash between Israeli and Russian air forces. And it seems to have worked, since there have been no reported entanglements between them in the crowded skies above Syria and Lebanon in the past two years.

As far as the decision-makers in Israel are concerned, the US has not done enough to curb Iran’s expansion in Syria

So, Putin is now Netanyahu’s go-to person when it comes to regional problems, indicating for top Israeli officials that the Trump administration has withdrawn from the field.

As Netanyahu confidant Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington and now minister in the country's cabinet office responsible for public diplomacy, put it: The US currently ‘has almost no leverage on the ground … It’s not in the game’.

In other words, as far as the decision-makers in Israel are concerned, the US has not done enough to curb Iran’s expansion in Syria, which Israel sees as a major threat. Netanyahu has repeatedly warned that it will not countenance an Iranian presence near its border or Tehran’s attempts to build precision missiles for its Hizbullah proxy in Lebanon and Syria.

The weekend’s flare-up started when an Iranian unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), launched from a Russian-controlled base in Syria, managed to cross into Israeli airspace before being shot down by an Apache helicopter.

Israel subsequently launched a massive attack on 12 targets in Syria, including Iranian-run facilities, such as the UAV’s control wagon, but lost an F-16I under heavy anti-aircraft fire. It was the first Israeli aircraft shot down in combat since the 1982 Lebanon War.

Despite Israel’s kid gloves approach to Russian involvement in Syria and elsewhere, Israel is the only US ally not to have condemned Moscow’s interference in Ukraine

Netanyahu decried the Iranian UAV’s presence as ‘brazenly violating Israeli sovereignty’, but he was very careful not to name the Russians in his statement. It is, however, worth noting that Israel itself has violated Syrian sovereignty hundreds of times over the past two years, so Netanyahu’s response could be termed what the Israelis call chutzpah.

Despite the many meetings and Israel’s kid gloves approach to Russian involvement in Syria and elsewhere – Israel is the only US ally not to have condemned Moscow’s interference in Ukraine, for instance – the Kremlin’s response to the Israeli attack was not encouraging.

After the Putin–Netanyahu phone conversation, a spokesman for the Russian president said that ‘[T]he Russian side called for any steps, which might trigger a new spiral of dangerous for all confrontation in the region, to be avoided’.

And the Russian foreign ministry was even more blunt, saying,

We consider it necessary that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria and other countries in the region be respected unconditionally. Creating threats to life and security of Russian service personnel, who are in the Syrian Arab Republic at the invitation of its legitimate government in order to assist the fight against terrorists, is absolutely unacceptable.

This is a continuation of Moscow’s public policy of taking the Arab side when it comes to diplomacy involving Israel. It still votes against Israel in the UN Security Council and is the main arms supplier to Syria and Iran.

In addition, it is worth repeating that the Iranian UAV – said to be reversed engineered from an American drone shot down over Iran in 2011 ­– which sparked the weekend’s clash was launched from a Russian-controlled base. It is inconceivable, therefore, that the Russians did not know what its mission was.

It is inconceivable that the Russians did not know what the Iranian UAV's mission was as it took off from one of its bases in Syria

Another worrying development for Netanyahu’s government is the fact that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas appears also to have cottoned on to the fact that everything Middle East-related nowadays goes through Moscow.

He met Putin in Moscow this week, and made it clear he saw Russia as a mediator with Israel, not the US. After their meeting, Putin phoned Trump to update him on the talks. ‘I just spoke with American President Trump’, Putin told Abbas. ‘Obviously, we spoke about the Israeli–Palestinian conflict’.

In an additional worrying sign for Netanyahu, Trump himself gave an interview to the Israeli Israel Hayom daily – which is extremely close to the Israeli leader – in which he said that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians were necessarily ‘looking to make peace’. This is possibly the first time that a US leader has publicly doubted Israel’s commitment to a peace deal with the Palestinians.

In response, Netanyahu blocked plans for a Bill to annex some West Bank settlements. And in a bid to placate his right-wing allies, he claimed he was in talks with the Trump administration on such a move. However, not so fast, said the Americans almost immediately, as they dismissed Netanyahu's claim that they had held talks with him over such a move.

Friends Netanyahu, Trump and Putin may be, but the Israeli leader – who is something of a history buff – might do well to remember Lord Palmerston’s adage that ‘Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests’. 

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.


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