Over the years, on and off, the Soviet Union/Russia has sought to maintain good relations both with the Jewish state and with Arab states. Today’s main Russian interest is strengthening its hold in the Middle East and boosting the restoration of its superpower status, while avoiding excessive confrontation with the West. Russia can be expected to take Israeli interests into account only to the degree that this jives with core Russian interests.
This is the second article in a special series of studies by JISS experts to mark Israel’s 70th anniversary. The series examines Israel’s diplomatic and defense achievements in grand strategic perspective.
On Israel’s 70th anniversary, it is useful to evaluate the country’s relationships in the international arena. Among the countries with which Israel has maintained relations since its creation, one of the most important—for better or for worse—has been the Soviet Union, and subsequently Russia, its successor state. This relationship has been multi-dimensional, subject to ups and downs, and sensitive to developments not only in the Middle East but also in broader geopolitical settings. Soviet/Russian interests and involvement in the Middle East have been reflected to varying degrees in the regional constraints that Israel has faced during the various periods of its history. Therefore, an examination of Israel’s relations with the Soviet Union/Russia against the historical background of these interests can enhance our understanding of Russia’s behavior in contexts that affect Israel in the present, and can also offer a hint of likely trends in the future.
Israeli-Soviet Relations – Historical Background
Prior to Israel’s independence, the USSR was consistently a positive and supportive player from the viewpoint of the new Zionist entity. In 1947, the Soviet representative at the UN, Andrei Gromyko, declared the support of his country for the Partition Plan and following its approval the USSR supported the acceptance of Israel as a member of the UN. On May 17th 1948, three days after the declaration of independence, the Soviet Union recognized the State of Israel. At the same time, shipments of weapons were sent from the Soviet Union to Israel by way of Czechoslovakia. This support, from Israel’s point of view, can be attributed to Russian interests in the Middle East and in the global setting, namely the attempt by the Soviets to attract Israel into the Eastern Bloc and to reduce the influence of Britain in the region. The Soviets hoped that Israel would be receptive to this approach in view of the USSR’s role in defeating the Nazis in the Second World War.
Following the War of Independence and the development of the Cold War, there was a public debate in Israel over whether the country should align itself with the West or should seek to strengthen its orientation toward the Eastern Bloc. The ruling Mapai party led by David Ben Gurion (in contrast to the Leftist Mapam party) chose to openly identify with the West, which could be seen in its public support for the Korean War, among other examples.
At the same time, the Soviet Union and the countries under its influence were characterized by anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli processes and propaganda, the most prominent examples of which were the Prague Trials in Czechoslovakia which began in November 1952 and the Doctors’ Plot in January 1953. In Prague, government officials—most of them Jewish—were convicted of being American agents and were sentenced to death. In the USSR, nine Jewish doctors were accused of a conspiracy to harm senior government officials.
In Israel, these events led to feelings of hostility toward the USSR and public anger, which reached its peak with the completion of the Prague Trials. These feelings were symbolized by a grenade thrown at the Czech embassy in Tel Aviv and an attack on the Soviet embassy in Israel on February 9, 1953. As a result of the attack, the USSR cut off diplomatic relations with Israel. The decision was accepted by the government in Israel with concern as to the possible implications for both Israel and the Jews of the USSR.
The deterioration in relations between Israel and the USSR up until the cutoff in 1953 can be attributed to the growing public alignment of Israel with the West and to the Soviet perception of Israel’s efforts to enable Soviet Jews to make aliyah as meddling in the Soviet Union’s internal affairs. This was accompanied by expressions of support for Zionism among Soviet Jews and Soviet concern about the domestic implications of that support.
Following Stalin’s death in March 1953, and the new spirit that Khrushchev, his successor, tried to introduce, the attitude of the Soviet government toward the issue of the Jews and relations with Israel became somewhat more positive. The government released a declaration that the Doctors’ Trial had been a fabrication and the prisoners were released. In July of that year, following a series of contacts, a renewal of diplomatic relations between the USSR and Israel was declared. Nonetheless, the Soviet position on Arab issues in international forums during that period clearly showed its bias against Israel. Thus, for example, the USSR prevented a condemnation of Egypt for restrictions it had placed on movement to and from Israel through the Suez Canal. Apart from its overall interest in recruiting support for the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War, the USSR was directly compensated for its policies by the signing of a Czech-Egyptian arms deal, which established the USSR as a major arms supplier in the Middle East.
The mirroring and implications of the Cold War in the Middle East made the implications of supporting Israel and the accompanying cost of distancing itself from the Arab countries very clear to the USSR. In this context, US activities in the region were reflected in the creation of the Bagdad Pact, which included, among others, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Turkey. This step was perceived in the USSR as a danger because the NATO alliance would position itself on its southern border. From the USSR’s perspective, this understanding led it to take some major steps to ensure its status in the region. Many of them were clearly anti-Israeli, such as the sale of arms to Egypt. The fruits of this policy can be seen in Egyptian President Nasser’s interest in strengthened relations with the USSR while in Iraq an anti-Israeli, anti-Western and pro-Soviet regime came to power.
In subsequent years, Russian policy remained unchanged and continued to be based on Russia’s interest to support the Arab states. As a result, the attack on Egypt during the Sinai Campaign was perceived by the USSR as a direct threat to its own interests, due to, among other things, the humiliation that accompanied the destruction of Soviet weapons by forces using mainly French arsenal. As a result, the USSR came out explicitly on the side of Egypt and Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Bulganin sent a message to Ben Gurion calling on Britain, France and Israel to withdraw immediately from Sinai.
With the consolidation of anti-Israeli regimes and the revolution in Syria in 1966, it became increasingly clear to the USSR that in order to achieve a stronger hold in the region by means of the Arab states, it would require the USSR to distance itself even further from Israel and all that is implied. Therefore, the USSR continued to supply arms to Egypt until the Six Day War and to publicly support the Arabs. Following Israel’s victory, the USSR brought pressure to bear on Israel to withdraw from the territories it had captured and even cut off relations with Israel a second time, while continuing to arm the Arab states.
During this period, the USSR, which sought to further solidify its presence in the Middle East, also feared that the Israeli-Arab conflict would escalate and drag it and the US into greater involvement. As a result, and despite the dramatic step of cutting off relations with Israel, the USSR worked to achieve calm and put pressure on Nasser to recognize Israel and negotiate with it. In addition, Soviet security personnel sent to Egypt and Syria controlled the use of Soviet weaponry and did not allow an attack on Israel.
During the War of Attrition, Israel carried out bombing raids deep inside Egypt using American weapons. Fearing Nasser’s downfall and his replacement by a regime hostile to the USSR, Nasser’s request for assistance was answered by the USSR. Military advisors, officers and professional soldiers were sent from the USSR to Egypt, in addition to arms shipments that included anti-aircraft missiles and MiG 21s. Nonetheless, the USSR put pressure on Egypt to accept the ceasefire that was being proposed by the US. After the war, the USSR acted, once again, to avoid being dragged into a superpower conflict. When Sadat came to power and pro-Western elements gained strength, the USSR rushed to sign a friendship agreement with Egypt, which included military and economic cooperation (although when Moscow refused in July 1972 to provide weapons that Sadat had requested in order to deploy them on the front with Israel, it expelled thousands of Soviet military advisors).
During the Yom Kippur War, the USSR openly supported the Arabs, which included arms shipments to Syria and Egypt, and it even put the Red Army on alert and declared that it was liable to send forces to the Middle East. Following the war and Sadat’s turn toward the US, the relationship between Egypt and the USSR weakened. The two countries continued to maintain relations but the USSR now shifted its attention to Syria, which became the main Soviet foothold in the Middle East. At the same time, contacts continued between the USSR and Israel. Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet foreign minister, met with Abba Eban in December 1973 in the US and conveyed a message to him that the renewal of formal relations between the countries is dependent on dialog between Israel and the Palestinians.
The Soviet approach to the Palestinian movement over the years has been exclusively intended to serve Russian interests. The Palestinian terror activity in the late 1960s was not something favored by the Soviet Union, primarily due to the potential for escalation to a regional conflict that would involve the superpowers. The USSR—and later Russia—joined in the call for a negotiated settlement and was even involved in a number of initiatives to end the conflict. One of its motives was the desire to maintain Russian interests in the Middle East while again, avoiding deterioration into a superpower conflict. This was also related to the international prestige that came with mediating conflicts. With regard to the Palestinian issue, it was the US that took a leading role in the negotiating processes that began in the 1970s between Israel and the Arabs, while the USSR focused on developing its relations with the Arab states on a number of issues, including the attempt to find a solution to the question of Palestinian self-determination.
Among the various initiatives was the USSR’s agreement following the Six Day War to a regional arrangement that included mutual recognition and Resolution 242, and its proposal in early 1968, on the basis of that resolution, that Israel would withdraw from the occupied territories and would resolve the refugee issue. Subsequently, at the end of that same year, the USSR proposed an initiative based on direct negotiations between Israel and the Arabs. In 1969, the USSR again proposed direct negotiations, withdrawal on their completion and the settlement of the refugees in Arab countries, which would include the payment of compensation. None of these initiatives made any progress. Once the USSR understood that the PLO is drawing closer to China, which the USSR perceived as a competitor at that time, and that reinforcing the relationship with the PLO meant the strengthening of its influence in the Middle East, it was decided to invite Yasser Arafat, the PLO’s leader, for a highly publicized visit in 1970. In October 1976, the USSR and the US jointly called for the end of the conflict which included recognition of the Palestinian right to self-determination. Israel reacted with anger and the proposal was rejected out of hand. In 1983, the USSR proposed the Brezhnev Plan for the creation of a Palestinian state, but the Palestinian response included reservations which essentially torpedoed the proposal. During the 1970s and 1980s, the USSR strengthened its relations with the Arab states not only by means of military assistance but also by signing friendship agreements with Egypt, Iraq and Syria. This was done in an effort to strengthen its influence in these countries and its position vis-a-vis the US, which during that period was a major factor in the determination of Soviet policy in the Middle East.
The Camp David Agreement established the US as the unchallenged mediator in the region, though it also distanced Arab countries who were disappointed that it did not help the Palestinians achieve an independent state. Countries such as conservative Saudi Arabia and radical Syria both tilted even further in the direction of the USSR, which was quick to accept any Arab entity into its camp following the Egyptian alignment with the US in the negotiating process with Israel. At the beginning of the 1980s, the USSR feared the downfall of the sympathetic Baath regime in Iraq. Therefore, it renewed its arms shipments to the Iraqis in 1982, in an effort to pull Iraq into its orbit (as opposed to that of the US), after previously providing assistance to Iran. At the beginning of the 1980s, the Palestinian organizations in Lebanon began massive acquisition of Soviet arms. However, and despite the close relations with Syria and the Soviet support for its leadership, the USSR did not supply Syria with arms during the First Lebanon War and did not push to end the fighting when the PLO suffered a crushing defeat in Lebanon. As a result, the Arab side blamed it for the Syrian defeat. At the end of the fighting, the USSR resumed sending arms and military advisers to Syria.
When Gorbachev came to power in 1985, he sought to restore the close relations with Egypt and to that end erased an Egyptian military debt of $3 billion. He also helped Arafat strengthen his position among the Palestinians in an attempt to position the USSR as a potential mediator with influence over and for the Palestinians. In contrast to his predecessors, Gorbachev also tried to develop a more positive dialog with Israel and to push for negotiations with the Arabs that would be led by the Soviets. At the same time, he improved relations with Egypt and Jordan, which he hoped would induce the US to make more forceful demands on Israel. As a result of this pressure, Jordan declared that it would support an international conference with the participation of the USSR, rather than direct negotiations with Israel with no Soviet involvement, as was preferred by the US and Israel.
During this period, Israel enjoyed American backing and relative freedom from any Soviet constraints on its activities and positions. With the collapse of the USSR, and particularly when Vladimir Putin came to power, Israel was increasingly forced to take into account Russian positions and the resulting limitations.
Israeli-Russian Relations and the Palestinian Issue
Following the collapse of the USSR, Russia’s approach to the Palestinian issue was based on principles similar to those of the Soviet empire that preceded it. Over the years, Russian actions exhibited greater balance between the sides, which was in line with Russia’s objectives during that period. This policy was the result of a mix of domestic and regional considerations, as well as considerations of international prestige related to its desire to regain superpower status.
From a domestic viewpoint, this meant the containment of threats and challenges to the Russian regime. Russia has long feared the spread and consolidation of radical Islam in its territory, with emphasis on the movements that Russia considers to be expressions of Wahabi Islam, though they include some which are not, such as Hizbut Tahrir. Since the 1990s, radical Islamic groups were active in the Caucasus region, and particularly in Chechnya. They were joined by organizations affiliated with al Qaida and ISIS and the Russians have been concerned since then that the terrorists are undergoing radical Islamic indoctrination in the Middle East. This radicalism is being exported to the rest of the world and Russia and its environs are not immune. Another domestic issue is the Muslim population in Russia, which is estimated to exceed 10 percent of Russia’s 144 million inhabitants. This fact is taken into account by the Russian regime when it considers its steps in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict, with the goal of avoiding unrest among this minority. For purposes of comparison, the Jews in Russia number only about 180 thousand.
From the Middle East and international perspectives, Russian policy on the Palestinian issue and relations with the various Palestinian organizations are directly related to its interests in the Middle East and its desire to achieve the status of a superpower that mediates in regional negotiations. In recent years, Russia has again proposed an international conference in Moscow to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with the participation of all the involved parties. In order to become more relevant, Russia has also taken several symbolic steps. Russia was the first country to recognize the Hamas government in Gaza and received Hamas representatives for an official visit to Moscow. Many viewed this as a change in policy in favor of the Palestinians following the declaration in 2000 by Ivanov, the Chairman of Russia’s National Security Council, that the situation faced by Israel in the Second Intifada—which was led by the Hamas—is no different than that faced by Russia in Chechnya. Essentially, this was a calculated step that aligned with Russian strategic objectives and did not represent a major change in relations with Israel and the US.
The Russians have continued over the years to maintain open dialog with Hamas. According to the Russians, their goal is to bring Hamas closer to a political dialog and to support for the PLO and an Arab peace initiative. After Hamas came to power, Russia expressed openness to the organization, with the declared goal—according to their declarations—of integrating it within a peace dialog and negotiations. In contrast to the other members of the Quartet, it did not view Hamas’ demands as a condition for dialog and even refused to define it as a terror organization. Russia sought to act as an intermediary between Hamas and the Fatah movement. The attitude toward Hamas is characteristic of the Russian approach to the issue of international recognition of an elected leadership and is also related to the abovementioned internal considerations. This attitude is not the result of any particular sympathy for the organization but rather the Russian fear of a change in leadership by external intervention. The Russians are consistent in adopting a line that opposes the replacement of leadership by international entities out of fear that such events will become legitimate also in other regions, such as Russia itself. This approach is also manifested in the Russian reaction to regime changes in the Middle East, such as in Libya and Syria, which were achieved by external forces. Therefore, when President Bush claimed in 2002 that fighting terror and arriving at a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would require the replacement of Arafat, President Putin declared that he is the elected president and therefore should be the partner in any dialog.
While it has been important to the Russians to exhibit close relations with all the Palestinian organizations, they have made an effort over the years to position themselves as partners in dialog with Israel as well, to maintain contact with Israel and to balance its pro-Palestinian activity in the international domain with declarations and a professed understanding of Israeli interests. With the outbreak of the Second Intifada, Russia emphasized to Arafat, during his visit to Moscow in 2000, that it is interested in mediating the conflict. During the visit, President Putin even declared Russian support for the Palestinian right to self-determination. However, and despite Arafat’s request, the Russians made it clear that they would not support a Palestinian declaration of independence that is liable to raise the level of violence. In 2000—the year of the Sharm el Sheikh Conference which was not attended by Russian representatives out fear that they would be marginalized by American dominance of the event—Russia declared that it would not support a Security Council resolution for a UN peacekeeping force in the region if Israel opposes it.
In 2001, Russia nonetheless supported the resolution to send observers to Israel, Judea and Samaria and the Gaza Strip. In that same year, President Katsav visited Moscow and made a joint declaration with President Putin that they would not have contacts with terrorists. This accorded with Israel’s declared policy in those years that it would not negotiate with terrorists and the declaration of President Putin that he would not negotiate with the Chechen rebels. In 2002, Sergei Mironov, the spokesman for the Federation Council of the upper house of Parliament, cancelled a visit to the Palestinian Authority because, according to him, the terrorist acts in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Israel have the same source, particularly from the financial viewpoint. Although the Russian Foreign Ministry disavowed his statement, there is no doubt that it had been coordinated with the government.
When Ariel Sharon became Prime Minister, he praised Putin’s policy in Chechnya and added that Israel should have adopted the same policy in Lebanon. Sharon and Putin shared the fear of Islamic terror and were criticized in the West for the policies they adopted. Since their meeting in 2001, Putin has adopted a more pro-Israeli line, at least in his public statements (which is in contrast to the one-sided pro-Palestinian approach adopted by former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeni Primakov). During Sharon’s meeting with President Putin in 2003, Sharon expressed his opposition to Resolution 1515 which was put forward by the Russians and which supported the Roadmap for Peace. In that same year, Russia had supported the Security Council resolution demanding that Israel not expel Arafat. This was balanced by accompanying Russian declarations that the vote had been too hasty. During Sharon’s visit to Moscow, Putin also declared the importance that he attributed to ensuring the peace and security of immigrants from the Former Soviet Union (as will be described below), and he condemned terror. At the same time, he mentioned the positive ties Russia has with the Arab world.
In 2004, during discussions in Moscow, Palestinian representatives blamed Israel for the impasse in negotiations. The Russians did not support their position and even condemned Arafat in the context of the war against Palestinian terror. In that same year, Russia abstained in a vote in the UN General Assembly on the demand that the International Court in Hague decide on the legality of the Separation Fence. Russia’s motive again had to do with its internal perspective, since the case involved the willingness to express an external opinion on the actions of a sovereign country and the possibility of a negative precedent—from Russia’s viewpoint—with regard to its own internal policies. Nonetheless, later on in 2004, following the verdict of the International Court, Russia voted in favor of condemning the Separation Fence. After the assassination of Sheikh Yassin in 2004, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement of condemnation. At the same time, Mikhail Margelov, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, publicly responded that the act only proves that Israeli special forces are working to neutralize terrorists thereby assisting Palestinian security organizations. In that same year, the Russians also refused Palestinian requests to oppose the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and claimed that it was in accord with the Roadmap for Peace. Later on, Russia criticized the withdrawal.
During the 2000s, once Russia had understood that it would not succeed on its own in achieving a negotiated settlement in the Middle East and in an attempt to balance US dominance, it promoted international intervention by a number of entities and first and foremost the Quartet. In 2010, Russia focused on renewing contacts between the sides and taking rapid steps toward the establishment of a Palestinian state. With the failure of these efforts, Russia was not present at the meeting held that year in the US in an effort to promote the talks (which did not succeed). In subsequent years, the Russians again declared their position that a peace process can be achieved by strengthening the Quartet, which should multilaterally lead the process, and without taking steps that may hinder the achievement of a future settlement. Despite this position, Russia supported the Palestinian request in September 2011 to the UN for support and recognition of an independent Palestinian state.
In 2011, and against the background of the protests in the Middle East (known as the Arab Spring), the Russians stressed to Israel and the Palestinians the pressing need to move in the direction of a settlement by means of a peace conference in Moscow and asked that the two sides refrain from acts that are liable to hinder the renewal of negotiations. In July of that same year, the Russians tried to promote the idea of a conference in Moscow also at a meeting of the Quartet. Despite the support in principle by the Quartet members, the initiative did not bear fruit. Over the years, the Russians again raised the issue of a conference in Moscow at almost every working meeting with the Israelis, but the Israeli side lacked any motivation to respond positively to the initiative.
In April 2017, as progress was being made in discussions to move the US embassy to Jerusalem and in view of the expectations of a new track toward a settlement that would be initiated by the Trump administration, Russia made a public declaration that attracted great local attention. It emphasized its membership in the Quartet and its desire to continue working within that framework to achieve an agreement and especially to guarantee access to the holy places. More importantly, Russia announced that it recognizes West Jerusalem as the official capital of Israel and, unlike in previous declarations, did not condition this on the establishment of a Palestinian state whose capital is East Jerusalem. Accompanying this step was the announcement that again put forward the idea of Moscow as a mediator and expressed support for direct negotiations and an interest in being part of the endeavor to achieve a peace settlement. The declaration also emphasized Russia’s status as a member of the club of nations that play a leading role on this issue, based on its membership in the Quartet and the Security Council.
Military Activity and Defense Industries
In view of the difference in size between Israel and Russia, according to any measure, and the resulting multilevel leverage enjoyed by the Russian side, the military-security domain, including the military industries, stands out as a balancing factor in strategic terms. This balance is multidimensional: First, there is the dimension of Russian and Israeli military activity to protect the national security of each country. An additional dimension involves each country’s military industries and the customers to which they market their products.
In the military dimension, there is today continuous and encompassing coordination between Israeli and Russian armed forces on a number of levels, with the Russian and Israeli assistant chiefs of staff at its apex. This is a particularly positive phenomenon in view of Russia’s military activity in Syria and its explosive potential due to the close proximity to Israel. Both sides have an interest in avoiding a confrontation, even a tactical one, between Israeli and Russian forces, which might lead to an escalation between the two countries (as happened between Russia and Turkey) and even regional instability. From Israel’s viewpoint, the Russian presence in Syria creates an address to which it can turn and an entity with authority that can influence any future settlement. From Russia’s viewpoint, Israel and its military actions have a direct impact on the stability of the region and the order that Russia is seeking to establish in Syria under Assad or any other figure that it chooses to support.
As a result, the Russian announcements following the attacks on military targets that were attributed to Israel in the media relate to the need to respect Syrian sovereignty and avoid serving terrorist interests, such as those of ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra. Furthermore, these announcements usually stress the continuing military coordination. Even when Moscow voices more vociferous criticism, the explicit mention of Israel is accompanied by a sentence that stresses the continuing military coordination between Russia and Israel.
Also in the case of Russian military activity in a region that it views as its sphere of influence, i.e. in the territory of the Former Soviet Union, Israel avoids automatically joining the condemnations that are voiced by the West. This can be seen in Israeli statements to the media in which there is an effort to show maximum consideration for Russia’s needs and prioritized thinking by Israel regarding its own needs and overall interests with respect to Russia. Despite the efforts of the US, the EU and others to recruit additional countries to condemn Russia and even impose sanctions on it following the events in Ukraine, Israel has reacted with restrained and limited statements and has refrained from criticizing Russian policy in the crisis. Israel has maintained this policy despite the relatively overt pressure on it from the Western countries. Another case in point is the suspected poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy, and his daughter on British soil in March of this year. After a wave of condemnations of Russia by numerous countries, Israel issued a statement condemning the act without mentioning Russia’s responsibility.
In spite of the mutual recognition of the two countries’ needs, the coordination and consideration shown by the sides, when it comes to the military industries and the sales of arms, the situation has become chronically unstable and dynamic. Russia has an economic and even strategic interest in selling advanced weaponry and nuclear capability to countries that constitute a direct threat to Israel, while Israel has an economic and strategic interest in the sale of advanced weaponry to countries that are militarily and strategically sensitive from Russia’s viewpoint. Thus, in the Second Lebanon War, for example, Hezbollah made use of weapons provided by Russia to Syria, including Kornet and Metis missiles, which managed to damage even the latest model of Israel’s Merkava tank. While Russia expressed disappointment with Israel’s response to the events that led to the war the media later reported that Russia had provided intelligence to Hezbollah during the war and that the Russian communication station on the Syrian border conveyed information to Hezbollah forces. Since those events, Israel has continued to warn Russia—at dozens of meetings and at all diplomatic levels—of the “leakage” of weapons that had been shipped to Syria or Russian weapons that make their way from Iran into the hands of Hezbollah. In light of these warnings, it is worth mentioning the reports of attacks on convoys bringing weapons to Lebanon for which no one has claimed responsibility.
Russia for its part is highly sensitive to the sale of military knowhow and advanced weapons by Israel to FSU countries, with whom Russia has complex relations. Georgia is a prime example. In 2008, during the war between Russia and Georgia, Russia accused Israel of supporting Georgia by supplying it with arms. Russia also complained that Israeli companies managed by former senior IDF officers had planned the Georgian strategy and had trained its army. Since then, Israel has shown special consideration of Russian needs in the Georgian context and is not selling any advanced weaponry to Georgia, while Russia, in recognition of Israeli cooperation and Israeli needs, has refrained from providing S300 systems to Iran and advanced ground-to-ground missiles to Syria. Moreover, in 2012, the WikiLeaks site presented a document which stated that Israel had agreed to provide Russia with the codes for the unmanned systems that were sold to Georgia, and in exchange Russia would provide Israel with the codes of a Russian system sold to the Iranians.
Iran has been at the top of Israel’s agenda in discussions with Russia. With respect to military systems, Israel demands that Russia refrain from selling military technologies to Iran that might be used against Israel or that might somehow reach Hezbollah, such as the S300 system mentioned above. Another demand which has been made consistently and firmly relates to the Iranian nuclear program. Israel is urging Russia to refrain from selling nuclear technology to Iran and that it act to constrain Iran’s nuclear program. Alongside these urgings, Israeli officials and bureaucrats have often told the Russians that Israel will take whatever measures necessary in order to stop the program, implying that military action is not ruled out. Russia responds as the Iranians do, namely with statements that the program is for civilian rather than military purposes. Thus, Russia defends Iran’s nuclear activity by claiming that every country has the right to develop a civilian nuclear program, while repeatedly conveying messages that warn of the potentially destructive consequences of an Israeli operation against the program.
The Russian refusal in this context, as in others, is not the result of an anti-Israeli position, but rather is a manifestation of Russia’s policy to promote its internal and external interests. Russia is investing major efforts in finding customers for its nuclear industry and at the same time would like to solidify its status as a mediator in the international efforts to engage with Iran. For these reasons, Russia continues to play a critical role in Iran’s nuclear development. Israeli requests made to the Russians at all levels with respect to the issue of Iran’s nuclear program and the sale of arms to Iran and Syria have been met with only partial understanding and the response has at the most been deferral rather than the cancelation of Russian programs.
Another aspect of this issue is the continuing Russian interest in acquiring advanced military technology from Israel. This is essentially a trilateral issue that is directly affected by Russian-American relations and by American sensitivities. During the previous decade, Israel almost completely cut off defense sales to China following the cancellation of deals due to American pressure. Since then, Israel has made a commitment that it would coordinate defense sales to China with the US and it is giving American needs special consideration in this context. This is the case for other countries as well, with Russia foremost among them.
As a result of the cooperation between Israel and the US and the understandings between Israel and Russia, Israeli defense companies that are interested in selling their products to Russia or to regions that the US views as sensitive face significant barriers. In 2014, Defense News estimated that Israel had lost about one billion dollars in trade with Russia by having to take into account US (and NATO) objectives in the context of the crisis in Ukraine. A large proportion of this loss was attributed to the cancellation of projects with military components. Although Israel has not completely stopped technological-military cooperation with Russia, it has limited it to non-advanced domains that are to do primarily with homeland security and it has imposed strict oversight. This is also the case in domains that are not clearly military-related, such as in the case of the Israeli-Russian framework agreement for space technology, which was signed in 2011 and has not been exploited, to a large extent, due to American sensitivities.
In recent years, Moscow has in fact been cooperative in “soft” areas of the relations between the two countries and the expectation that Israel will take this into account is no less significant than in regard to the technological-military issues. An example is the decision by Poland in 2017 not to involve Russia in the building of a museum and memorial site to the victims of the Sobibor extermination camp; Russia interpreted Israel’s silence on the matter as agreement with this policy. The result was a diplomatic crisis between the two countries and Israeli Ambassador Koren was called in to the Russian Foreign Ministry for clarification. The Russian spokesperson was even quoted as using harsh terms to describe Israel’s position, including a statement that “to allow the exclusion of Russia from the project borders on historical treason.” Israel responded that it has no objection to including Russia in the project but this did not satisfy the Russian demand that Israel present an unambiguous ultimatum on the matter to the Poles.
Russia is very interested in the international narrative of the Second World War and the part it played in defeating the Nazis. Some believe that one of the reasons for this is that the war is a unifying factor been Russia and the countries that were part of the Soviet empire in the past, such as Belarus and Ukraine, and that the Russians wish to create a shared historical fate with those countries. In Israel, there is an understanding of the Russian perspective on the war. Israeli President Rivlin even mentioned to the Russians that many of the Holocaust survivors throughout the world always remember that the first soldier they met during the liberation was from the Red Army. In this spirit, Israel has initiated the creation of a memorial in Netanya to the memory of Soviet troops who fought in the Second World War. As a result, President Putin made a special effort to visit Israel in 2012, in particular to attend the memorial’s dedication ceremony. The visit resonated with former citizens of the Soviet Union and especially those who had served in the Red Army during the war.
The Russian immigrants in Israel, which Russia views as “compatriots”, are often mentioned in discussions between Russia and Israel. Russian officials refer to the importance that Moscow attributes to the presence of Russian immigrants in Israel, whom it views as representatives of the Russian people and culture, thus reinforcing the relationship between the two countries. During his visit to Moscow, President Rivlin was told by President Putin that “relations between Israel and Russia have a long history. There are more than a million and a half immigrants from the Former Soviet Union who speak the Russian language and have Russian culture and a Russian mentality. They maintain ties with friends and relatives that remain in Russia and that gives the relationship a special flavor.” As a gesture to Israel and to the world, and after a long-standing refusal, representatives of the Russian government signed a pension agreement in 2017 which guarantees that Russia will pay an old age pension to immigrants from Russia who arrived in Israel before 1993.
The Russians have also frequently stated they view themselves as responsible for the security of the Russian immigrants in Israel and that this is taken into account when they consider defense policy alternatives in the region and particularly in the context of the Iranian nuclear program. Also in the context of the conflict with the Palestinians, the Russians bring up the subject of the Russian immigrants as relevant to their involvement in the issue. In a meeting between Prime Minister Sharon and President Putin in 2003, Putin again explicitly expressed his concern about the effect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the Russian immigrants.
It is worth mentioning that there is a significant number of women living in the Palestinian Authority and Gaza who are citizens of the FSU countries. These women (whose number is estimated to be in the hundreds or the thousands) are married to Palestinian students who returned from academic studies in the FSU countries. The authorities in the FSU would offer scholarships to Arabs who were interested in studying in the Soviet Union, with the goal of strengthening its foothold in the region and also to spread Soviet culture and influence during the Cold War period. There is even a Palestinian organizations called the Organization of Graduates of Universities in Russia and the Soviet Union. According to the organization’s figures, there are in Israel proper about 4000 graduates of universities in the FSU and Russia and since 1990 about 2000 Israeli Arabs have gone to study in Russia.
With respect to its attitude toward the Jews, it is common in Russia to view the Jewish world and the State of Israel as one unit and therefore Jews outside of Israel are also perceived as influential. This is one of the main factors behind the attitude of the Russian government toward the State of Israel and the Jews left in Russia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the renewal of diplomatic relations between Israel and Russia in 1991, the attitude became common in Russia that Israel can serve as a kind of mediator between it and the West, partly because of the huge wave of immigrants that came to Israel. President Putin himself expressed a similar idea, whereby the Jews would serve as a bridge between Russia and the West.
Up until that year, Soviet Jews endured difficult conditions and persecution as a result of their desire to leave the Soviet Union and the desire of some of them to immigrate to Israel. In the late 1960s, a heroic struggle began among Soviet Jewry which was led by the “refuseniks” (Jews who had been refused the right to immigrate to Israel). This struggle gained international attention and the anger in the US, particularly among American Jews, was among the factors that led to the decision of the Soviet Union in 1988 to permit the Jews to emigrate. Jews could actually start leaving following the creation of an Israeli consular delegation in Moscow (for the first time since diplomatic relations were cut off).
In response to the Soviet policy of hindering contact between Soviet Jewry and Israel, Israel created Nativ, an organization that worked among Soviet Jewry in order to strengthen their ties to Israel and Judaism. The organizations was created in order to identify and aid Jews behind the Iron Curtain and to create a bond between them and Israel. The organization operated clandestinely during the years in which there were no diplomatic relations between the countries and Jews were not permitted to leave the Soviet Union and also during the short periods in the 1970s when Jews were temporarily permitted to leave. Currently, the organization continues to operate in FSU countries with the goal of encouraging aliyah to Israel and preserving the ties between Jews living there and the State of Israel by operating centers for Jewish/Israeli culture.
Meanwhile, it is claimed that there are agents in Israel who are pressuring immigrants to return to Russia. With the establishment of a Russian cultural center in Tel Aviv in 2007, whose function, among others, is to preserve the connection between the Russian immigrants and the Russian heritage, accusations were made that the function of the Center is actually to persuade prominent professionals to return to Russia and that it is used to gather personal information on Russian immigrants, ostensibly in order to register them for elections in Russia. Russia has fervently denied this. It claims that the Center, whose official name is the “The Federal Agency to Deal with Foreign Affairs of Former Soviet Union Immigrants and Humanitarian Matters Related to Relations with Israel”, is intended to promote activities related to Russian science, culture and language among Russian immigrants and anyone else who is interested.
A small proportion of the immigrants from the FSU who arrived during the 1990s chose to return to Russia (a total of about 10 percent left Israel) or they commute and maintain economic and business ties between the two countries. Russian scientists and Russian-speaking Israeli scientists constitute a platform for close Israeli-Russian scientific ties. Already in 1994 a scientific framework agreement was signed and since 2005 scientific cooperation between the countries has been encouraged through ties between the Ministry of Science and Technology and the National Fund for Basic Science in Russia, financed equally by the two countries. In the first round of the program, 27 projects were financed and a total of 67 joint projects were created in various scientific domains. An Israel-Russia Joint Committee is expected to meet during the first half of 2018 in order to further promote cooperation. The committee is meant to meet annually in order to promote economic, trade and business ties between the two countries, including the proposal of initiatives and ideas for various projects and commercial collaborations and to resolve problems of a commercial nature between the two countries. An example of such cooperation is the Program for the Joint Development of Technological Innovation between ISERD (The Israel Innovation Authority, formerly the Chief Scientist) and RUSNANO (an investment fund of $10 billion that was created by Russia).
As in the domain of science, there is fruitful cooperation between Israel and Russia in the case of Israel’s agricultural exports. As a result of the Western sanctions imposed on Russia and the drop in the price of oil—and the collapse of the ruble that accompanied it—Russia, which was a primary destination for Israeli agricultural produce (according to estimates, more than one-third of Israel’s agricultural exports are to Russia), lost a major part of its buying power and entire sectors in Israel, such as peppers which were to a large extent based on exports to Russia, were on the verge of collapse. However, as a result of the sanctions imposed on Russia following its invasion of Ukraine, there was an increase in Russia’s demand for Israeli food products whose supply from the West had been halted or restricted.
In the domain of tourism, an agreement was signed in 2008 to cancel the mutual need for a tourist visa, following a stormy public discussion of the matter. Those who were in favor hoped to see a major increase in tourism (and exemptions for those flying to and from Russia for business). Those opposed feared that it would open the door to criminal elements, especially those involved in human trafficking, who would find it easier to enter Israel. Despite the crises in the Middle East and the constraints on the Russian economy, there has been an uninterrupted increase in Russian tourism to Israel. New air routes have been established and agreements have been signed with Russian airline companies, the most recent of which is with Ural Airlines, the second largest airline in Russia which began flying to Israel last year. According to the figures of travel agencies, there was a 35 percent increase in tourism from Russia during the first quarter of 2017.
An issue between the countries that is, in theory, more in the spiritual domain relates to the Russian Orthodox Church in Israel. In fact, this is an issue to do with real estate that also has political implications from Russia’s viewpoint. Russia, or more exactly, the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, claims ownership over dozens of assets in the territory of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. (The PA already has handed over several dunams in Jericho and Bethlehem). The importance of the organization can be seen in, among other things, the senior status of the organization’s chairman, Sergei Stepashin, who is a former prime minister of Russia and who has set himself the goal of recovering these assets. The most important of them is the Russian Compound, which was sold to Israel by the Soviet government in a deal that included shipments of oranges from Israel. The issue of religion and the holy places is important to the Russian public, and President Putin has often referred to himself as the protector of Christian minorities in the Middle East. In addition, the very presence of Russian real estate in Jerusalem constitutes another symbol of the Russian foothold in the Middle East and its return to the region as a superpower. At the time of President Rivlin’s visit to Moscow, President Putin told him that “the number of Russian pilgrims that visit Israel is growing every year. We are grateful to Israel for returning to us the holy places that once were ours.”
The President’s statement was referring to Sergei’s Courtyard in Jerusalem. In July 2017, the courtyard was rededicated in an official ceremony in the Russian Compound in Jerusalem, following diplomatic talks that spread over the terms of three Israeli prime ministers. The courtyard was built by Czar Alexander III in 1890 and was named after his brother. It served as a hostel for Russian Orthodox pilgrims. In 1917, after the Revolution, the Russians gave up sovereignty over the site. As mentioned, after innumerable requests, the site was put under Russia’s responsibility in 2008. The importance of the matter to the Russians can be seen in the political level at which the matter was dealt with – starting from a promise by Prime Minister Sharon to President Putin in 2003 to return the courtyard to Russian ownership and ending with direct talks between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Putin, which included dates for vacating the courtyard. Before the final handover of the courtyard to the Russians, there was a public debate over the implications of the decision. Opponents claimed that it has no significance from the perspective of using it as leverage on the Russians and it will give the Russians a foothold in the capital city, in addition to creating an opening for further demands. Supporters felt that the handover of the courtyard will be a positive gesture in exchange for which it will be possible to make demands on Russia on other issues.
The expected reciprocity following the handover of Sergei’s Courtyard, such as, for example, the return of the Ginzburg collection to Israel, did not materialize. Israel has for many year tried to recover the collection, the second largest in the world of ancient Jewish manuscripts, which is located in Russia, but to no avail. The collection belongs to the Russian Jewish Ginzburg family which acquired the collection’s items over a period of three generations, starting in the mid-1840s. In 1917, the collection was bought from the Russians by Russian Jewish philanthropists for the National Library in Jerusalem. The shipment was delayed by the Bolshevik Revolution and subsequently the collection was seized by the Soviet regime and transferred to the Lenin Library in Moscow. Despite the repeated requests in recent decades, some by such famous Jewish figures as Albert Einstein, the Russians refused to give up the collection. After heavy pressure on the Russians, it was agreed that the collection would be scanned and digitalized in order to make it accessible to the public in Israel. This did not detract from the demand to return the collection. In 2017, a digitalization agreement was signed in Jerusalem, which was attended by Sarah Netanyahu, the wife of the Prime Minister, and senior Israeli and Russian officials. It is hard to imagine that the importance attributed in Israel to the willingness to digitalize the collection will bring the return of the collection itself any closer and it is possible that the digitalization agreement has destroyed any chance of success in this endeavor.
In other cases where symbolic requests do not involve major or permanent concessions, the Russians show a willingness to support Israeli requests. For example, after repeated requests by Israel—by, among others, President Rivlin and Prime Minister Netanyahu—Russia finally made several requests to the Syrians, according to Russian representatives, for information on Eli Cohen and for the return of his bones to Israel. The Syrian answer that the current regime does not have any relevant information was received by Russia with clear dissatisfaction. Another Russian gesture to Israel can be seen in the agreement by President Putin to sign a presidential order to return to Israel the tank from the battle of Sultan Yacoub, which took place in the First Lebanon War. After the tank was captured by the Syrians, it was sent to Russia in order to analyze its abilities and subsequently it was exhibited in a museum in Moscow. Following the request made to the Russians by Prime Minister Netanyahu and Chief of the General Staff Eisenkot, the tank was returned to Israel in 2016. Another event which illustrates Russian willingness to assist Israel was in the Carmel forest fire in 2010 and the fires that took place in 2016. During these events, Russia sent firefighting planes in answer to an urgent request for assistance by Israel.
Insights and conclusions for the future
In 2016, the Israeli Ambassador in Moscow stated during his appearance before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that relations between Russia and Israel are flourishing and that there is an open line between Israel and Russia at all levels. Nonetheless and in spite of the frequent meetings and the numerous channels of communication between the two countries, misunderstandings are liable to arise that leave their mark. In some cases, this involves cultural/diplomatic differences, such as when President Medvedev visited the Palestinian Authority in 2011 and did not combine it with a visit to Israel, as a result of Israeli messages that this would be preferable. At that time, employees of Israel’s Foreign Ministry were on strike and threatened that if the visit takes place they will disrupt it. Despite the explanations and messages sent to the Russians, and the understanding expressed formally, it was felt that Moscow did not understand Israel’s behavior in the context of such a high-level visit and felt that there were likely to be hidden motives for the unwillingness to receive the President (during that visit Medvedev declared his support for the creation of a Palestinian state).
In the broader context of Israeli-Russian relations that are to do with the conflicts in the Middle East, the Russians generally refrain from support and unqualified identification with any one side in the Arab-Israeli conflict, with the goal of maintaining good relations with both. So far, this approach has been feasible. However, it is valid only when there is no conflict with Russian interests. Russia’s guiding principle today is that conflicts need to be resolved in order to avoid destabilization of the Middle East, which will affect Russian interests or bring it into direct conflict—unnecessarily—with the West. As a result, Russia has no interest in a military operation or in replacing regimes that preserve stability and with which it maintains relations that are beneficial economically or to its international standing. This is the main reason that Russia is continuing to cooperate with Iran and its nuclear program, despite Israel’s requests and threats.
Despite the repeated statements regarding the importance of the Russian immigrants in Israel to the Russian regime and the concern for their fate in the case of an Israeli operation against Iran, Russia’s behavior is not based on any identification with one side or the other. President Putin, borrowing from Czar Alexander III, has said that Russia has only two reliable allies – its artillery and its infantry. This statement reflects the basis for decisions made by Moscow. Moral identification and a shared destiny are not significant factors and decisions are made according to Russia’s immediate interests at any particular time—economic issues, issues that affect the stability of the Russian regime and the fear of radical Islam and its spread to Russia. This is subject to the strategic objective of excluding the West from the Russian sphere of influence and regions in which it has interests, such as the Middle East, and in accordance with the larger strategic goal of restoring Russia’s status as a superpower.
The relations between Russia and Israel are unique from a number of perspectives. The first is the very existence of cooperation on the one hand and Russian activity that is opposed to Israeli interests on the other. The case of Syria, where there is genuine and continuing Israeli-Russian coordination but at the same time leakage of Russian weapons, is a prime example. Israel is facing a country which is simultaneously helping to stabilize the situation but at the same time is creating a system of constraints on its activity on its own border, which is partly due to the good relations between Russia and Iran.
The relationship is also unique because Israel has little leverage over Russia, although in some ways this leverage gives it more power than other countries with a prominent international status. Israel’s identification with the West and with the US creates an unusual situation in which Russian-Israeli relations are subject to American constraints, although that also provides leverage since Russia views Israel as a bridge to the West. Dov Weinglass, former chief of staff to Prime Minister Sharon, was even quoted as saying that President Putin had on a number of occasions conveyed messages to the Americans by way of the Israeli leadership.
Such cases are made possible because of the understanding shown by the Israeli government—which should not be underrated—of Russia’s needs in relation to its status and its desire to fulfill a more significant role in the international setting. Thus, while Israel makes explicit and uncompromising demands on the Russians, which are often opposed to Russia’s immediate interests, such as in the case of Iran, Prime Minister Netanyahu, like his predecessors during the Putin era, is careful to explicitly mention the coordination with Russia and the respect for its president. The respect shown by the Israeli government for President Putin and his government reflects an understanding of the Russian need for recognition as a world superpower that is again playing a leading role in the Middle East.
As to the future, as long as it is President Putin who determines the image and spirit of the Russian regime, there is no reason to expect any major change in Russia’s attitude toward Israel. Yet, while coordination is likely to continue on all levels, future Russian decisions will serve Israeli interests only if they achieve Russian objectives. Any flexibility in Russian policy in response to Israeli demands will only be temporary and subject to continuing reexamination of Israeli cooperation.
President Putin has been quoted as saying, with respect to the US, that he believes (in view of the alliance between them during the two world wars) that there is something which objectively binds the two countries together; something that is built on common geopolitical interests alongside a component of morality. In many ways, this also correctly characterizes Russian-Israeli relations.
photo: Kremlin.ru [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons