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

Naftali Bennett’s October summit with Vladimir Putin worked overtime. Its unforeseen five-hour duration meant the prime minister couldn’t return to Israel until Shabbat and was stranded in Sochi until Saturday night. Yet Bennett’s time with the Russian president at the Black Sea resort has been well spent, among the most important meetings the prime minister has had since taking office in June.
At the most fundamental level, Bennett was to maintain Israel’s freedom of action in Syria. Since the outbreak of the civil war ten years ago and the resulting growth of the Iranian presence, the IDF has repeatedly targeted Iranian positions and those of its proxy Hezbollah. Tehran’s pretext for getting involved was to strengthen its ally Bashar Assad, but its objectives were much broader; expand its sphere of influence and ultimately turn Baathist Syria into an Iranian satellite, an advanced position from which to threaten the “Zionist regime”.

Israel decided not to just watch Iran’s growing build-up, but to adopt a policy of active pre-emption. The logic of Israeli strategy mirrored that of the United States during 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 their actual use. From Jerusalem’s point of view, the deployment of the Iranians so far from their homeland, and so close to ours, was in itself illegitimate, requiring a vigorous Israeli response.

But in September 2015, a new factor occurred: 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. Under these circumstances, it could no longer be taken for granted that Israel would still be able to continue to strike against Iranian positions without incurring the wrath of Tehran’s superpower partner.

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

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Bocharov Ruchei State Residence in Sochi, Russia, September 12, 2019 (REUTERS / SHAMIL ZHUMATOV)

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

Avoiding such a confrontation – “deconfliction” in the parlance of experts – was in itself crucial, 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 strike up a conversation with the Kremlin about developments in Syria and the future of this war-torn country, an exchange that sought convergence between imperatives. Israel’s national security and Russia’s historic interests in the Middle East (dating back to the time of the Czars).

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

The effective Netanyahu-Putin dialogue created a situation in which of all the allies close to America, it was Israel 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 present at the event). And while there is pressure across post-Communist Eastern Europe to remove statues honoring the Red Army, Israel proudly erected such monuments, as was done in Netanya. It is much more than a manifestation of Israeli realpolitik, but reflects a genuinely felt recognition of the indispensable role of the Red Army in the defeat of Nazi Germany.

Of course, Jerusalem’s special ties to Moscow don’t appeal to everyone. When I was Israel’s ambassador to London, my Baltic counterparts indicated their unease with Israel’s close engagement with the Russians. And after the March 2018 assassination attempt against Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England, the British also had reservations.

In the aftermath of this incident, Britain ousted 23 Russian diplomats and called on friends around the world to do the same. Nearly 30 countries have done so, with 153 Russian diplomats expelled around the world. Other nations, reluctant to ban Russian diplomats, have recalled their ambassadors from Moscow. Israel did neither.

When British interlocutors deplored Israel’s “lack of solidarity”, I would like to point out that however bad relations between the United Kingdom and Russia were after Salisbury, the chances that the British and Russian military would shoot each other remained. thin. This while regular nighttime attacks by the Israeli Air Force on Iranian targets in Syria often occurred in close proximity to allied Russian military positions.

From Israel’s point of view, it was essential to maintain healthy lines of communication with Moscow. (Japan, like Israel, a full member of the Western alliance, has also refrained from expelling Russian diplomats due to the sensitive talks underway over the future of the disputed Kuril Islands.)

Even detractors of Benjamin Netanyahu credit him with astute handling of Israel’s relations with Russia. The Financial Times, which is normally not known to praise the former prime minister, explained the “positive” Netanyahu-Putin relationship which “stands out on the world stage”, the two leaders having “forged a improbable alliance “which” benefited the two leaders. militarily and survived the shifting loyalties of this (Syrian) civil war.

As a result, Bennett had Minister Ze’ev Elkin accompany him to Sochi. Although apparently asked to provide an effective Hebrew-Russian translation, the presence of the Ukraine-born minister had a higher purpose. Elkin participated in Netanyahu’s many meetings with Putin, and Bennett signaled through Elkin’s presence Jerusalem’s desire to uphold the Israeli-Russian accords achieved under its predecessor.

Since the October summit, further Israeli strikes have been reported against enemy targets across the Golan Heights and in the Damascus area. This indicates that the essential Israeli-Russian agreements reached since 2015 remain operational, and this is undoubtedly good news for Israeli pilots flying over Syria.

The writer is a former advisor to the Prime Minister and currently a senior visiting researcher at the INSS. Follow him on @AmbassadorMarkRegev on Facebook.

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