Will Israel and Russia forge closer ties under Netanyahu?


Since taking office late last year, Israel’s new government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has made headlines primarily at home and for its policies toward the Palestinians.

But on foreign policy, particularly with regard to Russia’s war in Ukraine, some argue that Israel’s right-wing government has so far tended to deviate from its predecessor’s path.

Take the first public speech by the new foreign minister on January 2.

Among other things, Eli Cohen said the new government would “talk less” when it came to Russia and Ukraine, implying that the government would avoid taking public positions on the conflict.

Cohen also spoke to his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov before speaking to Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, a decision that upset Ukrainians, with the ambassador to Israel saying the call was evidence that Israel was changing course under Netanyahu .

“The difference between the two governments is that the previous administration was 100 percent ideologically sympathetic to Ukraine and tried to support Ukraine as much as possible without completely alienating the Russians,” said Jonathan Rynhold, head of political studies at Bar-Ilan University. . told Al Jazeera.

“This government is less concerned about ideological sympathies. They are not out to see democracy trump dictatorship, nor would they necessarily be happy if international sanctions succeed, as they may fear setting a precedent,” Rynhold added, referring to a global grassroots movement that pushes for sanctions against Israel itself because of Israel’s continued occupation. Palestinian territory.

It now appears that the new Israeli government is trying to send more positive signals to Russia while continuing its own longstanding foreign policy doctrines.

“Israel has two central national security interests with regard to Russia and Ukraine, which are agreed upon in Israel: the maintenance of good relations with the United States in general, and Russia’s acceptance of Israel’s freedom to act militarily against Iranian military forces, missile launch sites and weapons. smuggling into Syria,” Rynhold noted.

“This requires active coordination with Russia to avoid a clash between Russian and Israeli forces. Current and previous governments have tried to balance these objectives,” he added.

Harder to balance

Israel’s relationship with Russia has become increasingly complicated, even more difficult, because of the war.

“Prior to the war, Israel’s foreign policy toward the two countries encompassed relations in many areas and was always seeking reinforcement,” said Yonatan Freeman, an international relations expert at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“Both countries still have large Jewish populations and hundreds of thousands of Israelis have family ties to those who still live there. In addition, there has been strong trade in agriculture, tourism and even the high-tech industry.”

In addition to these factors, Israel and Russia also coordinate security issues related to Syria.

Therefore, even before the arrival of Netanyahu’s government, Israel has been walking on a tightrope since the beginning of the war in Ukraine.

On the one hand, it sees itself as part of the Western camp and has therefore been pressured to reject and condemn Russia’s war and alleged crimes. On the other hand, it has categorically refused to take a clear position and has rejected any request to supply arms to Ukraine.

Unlike Europe or its main ally, the United States, Israel only provides humanitarian aid, as well as some defensive equipment such as helmets and protective vests.

Kiev expressed frustration in December when Israel was denied an invitation to the Ukrainian Solidarity Conference in Paris.

Israel will probably always be cautious when it comes to Russia, regardless of the prime minister in charge.

But some experts say it has done much more than is commonly known.

“As the war continues, Israel has taken more action, mainly behind the scenes, to align with or accommodate the financial constraints the West is placing on Russia,” Freeman said. “Furthermore, Israel has increased the aid it has given to Ukraine, even recently supplying electrical generators and treating injured Ukrainian soldiers in Israel.

“According to some reports, Israel may be assisting Ukraine with know-how on how to intercept, using electronic means, Iranian drones, and allow Israeli territory to be used as a transit point for shipments to Ukraine by others, or its airspace for where reconnaissance aircraft from others continue flying to get into the war zone.”

Iran a priority

The new government’s primary concern remains Iran.

Here, Israel depends on Russian support, as Israel’s airstrikes in Syria must be coordinated with the Kremlin.

However, a new dynamic has arguably emerged as a result of the war in Ukraine, which could force Israel to change its approach to Russia.

Russia has received support from Iran in the form of attack drones.

Meanwhile, the US accuses Russia of supplying arms to Iran and says Moscow and Tehran are moving towards a full defense partnership, which could directly threaten Israel.

While that would of course make Israel wary of Russia, it is also conceivable that the Israeli government sees an opportunity to act as a mediator and perhaps end the war, especially if pressure in Western countries mounts to cut expensive aid to Ukraine. to screw back.

“I think it is not only in Israel’s interest to maintain respectful relations with Russia for as long as possible, but it is also in the great interest of the West and the US for Israel to do so,” Freeman argued. “The reason is … the expectation that Israel can now play an even more important mediating role between the West and Russia, as Netanyahu has even more experience than Israel’s previous prime ministers in talks with Putin, and is respected by Russia.”

Considered close to Putin during his previous stint in power, Netanyahu announced in October that he would offer to mediate between Russia and Ukraine if he won the election.

Indeed, Netanyahu has historically seen close relations with Putin as helpful to his image as a strong leader with global influence. The current administration may be hoping to discourage Russia from further cooperation with Iran on precision missiles by leaning a little more away from Ukraine,” Rynhold said.

The Russian president called Netanyahu in December and congratulated him on the election victory and the formation of a government.

“Given the growing tensions in relations with the Biden administration on several fronts, I highly doubt we will see any significant rapprochement with Russia,” Rynhold said.

“The new foreign minister is unlikely to have much influence on important aspects of Israeli foreign policy, which the prime minister himself will direct in coordination with strategic affairs minister Ron Dermer.”

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