What was achieved when Naftali Bennett met with Vladimir Putin? – opinion

Naftali Bennett’s October summit with Vladimir Putin ran overtime. Its unscheduled duration of five hours meant that the prime minister could not return to Israel before Shabbat and was stuck in Sochi until Saturday night. Yet Bennett’s time with the Russian president at the Black Sea resort was one of the most important meetings the prime minister has had since he took office in June.
At the most fundamental level, Bennett needed to maintain Israel’s freedom of action in Syria. Since the outbreak of civil war a decade ago, and the consequent growth of Iran’s presence, the IDF has repeatedly attacked Iranian positions and those of its proxy Hezbollah. Tehran’s pretext for getting involved was to reinforce its ally Bashar Assad, but its goals were much bigger; expand its sphere of influence and ultimately transform Baathist Syria into an Iranian satellite, an advanced position from which to threaten the “Zionist regime.”

Israel decided not simply to watch the growing Iranian build-up, but to adopt an active prevention policy. The logic of Israeli strategy mirrored that of the United States in the much-studied Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when President John Kennedy declared that the mere positioning of Soviet missiles in the Western Hemisphere was an unacceptable provocation, regardless of a decision on its current use. From Jerusalem’s perspective, the deployment of the Iranians so far from their homeland, and so close to ours, was in itself illegitimate and required a robust Israeli response.

But in September 2015 a new factor emerged: the Kremlin made the decision to intervene directly in Syria with its own forces in support of Assad. The Iranians and the Russians were now fighting on the same side of the civil war, coordinating their military efforts. In these circumstances, the conclusion that Israel could still continue to attack Iranian positions without incurring the wrath of Tehran’s superpower partner could no longer be ruled out.

Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu understood that Russia’s enhanced role in Syria was a game changer. Cautiously, he made the seemingly unusual decision not to join the United States and other NATO countries in publicly criticizing the Kremlin’s decision. Instead, Netanyahu quickly flew to Moscow for a face-to-face meeting with Putin, where he successfully reached a series of understandings that safeguarded Israel’s freedom of action.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Bocharov Ruchei’s state residence in Sochi, Russia, on September 12, 2019 (credit: REUTERS / SHAMIL ZHUMATOV).

“I went to Moscow to make it clear that we should avoid a confrontation between Russian forces and Israeli forces in Syria,” Netanyahu told CNN after the summit. “I have defined my objectives. They are to protect the safety of my people and my country. Russia has different goals. But they shouldn’t collide. “

Avoiding such a clash – “disagreement” in the language of the experts – was crucial in itself, but the prime minister’s dialogue with the Russian leader had bigger implications. As the Assad regime triumphed in the internal conflict, it was vital to initiate a conversation with the Kremlin about events in Syria and the future of that war-torn country, an exchange that sought convergence between the dictates of national security. Israel and Russia’s historical interests in the Middle East (dating back to the days of the Tsars).

Such a discussion was possible because, unlike Iran, Russia is not overtly hostile towards Israel. On the contrary, Putin has declared his friendship towards the Jewish people and the Jewish state, solidarity that he emphasized during his various official visits to Jerusalem (most recently in the January 2020 commemoration on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz).

The effective dialogue between Netanyahu and Putin created a situation in which, of all the close allies of the United States, Israel became the one that had the most intimate speech with Russia. In May 2018, Netanyahu was Putin’s guest of honor at the annual Victory Day parade in Moscow (the only Western leader at the event). And while there is pressure throughout post-communist Eastern Europe for statues honoring the Red Army to be removed, Israel has been proudly erecting such monuments, as was done in Netanya. This is much more than a manifestation of Israeli realpolitik, but it reflects a genuinely heartfelt recognition of the indispensable role of the Red Army in the defeat of Nazi Germany.

Of course, Jerusalem’s distinctive ties to Moscow are not to everyone’s liking. When I served as Israel’s ambassador to London, my Baltic counterparts would express displeasure at Israel’s close engagement with the Russians. And after the March 2018 assassination attempt on Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England, the British also had reservations.

After that incident, Britain overthrew 23 Russian diplomats and asked friends around the world to do the same. About 30 countries did, and 153 Russian diplomats were expelled around the world. Other nations, reluctant to banish Russian diplomats, withdrew their ambassadors from Moscow. Israel did neither.

When British interlocutors lamented Israel’s “lack of solidarity”, I would point out that no matter how bad relations between the UK and Russia were after Salisbury, the chances of the British and Russian armies shooting at each other remained slim. . This, while the Israel Air Force’s regular night attacks on Iranian targets in Syria often occurred in the immediate vicinity of allied Russian military positions.

From Israel’s perspective, maintaining healthy lines of communication with Moscow was critical. (Japan, like Israel, an integral member of the Western alliance, also refrained from expelling Russian diplomats due to ongoing sensitive talks about the future of the disputed Kuril Islands.)

Even Benjamin Netanyahu’s critics credit him for shrewdly handling Israel’s relations with Russia. The Financial Times, which is not normally known for praising the former prime minister, expounded on the “positive” relationship between Netanyahu and Putin that “stands out on the world stage,” having “forged an unlikely alliance” the two leaders who ” it has benefited both leaders. ” militarily and survived the shifting loyalties of that (Syrian) civil war. “

Consequently, Bennett had Minister Ze’ev Elkin accompany him to Sochi. Although he was apparently invited to provide an effective translation from Hebrew into Russian, the Ukrainian-born minister’s assistance served a higher purpose. Elkin participated in Netanyahu’s numerous meetings with Putin, and Bennett was signaling through Elkin’s presence Jerusalem’s desire to maintain the understandings between Israel and Russia achieved under his predecessor.

Since the October summit there have been reports of further Israeli attacks on enemy targets throughout the Golan and in the Damascus area. This indicates that the crucial understandings between Israel and Russia reached since 2015 are still in place, and that is certainly good news for Israeli pilots flying missions over Syria.

The writer is a former adviser to the Prime Minister and is currently a Senior Visiting Fellow at INSS. Follow him @AmbassadorMarkRegev on Facebook.


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