No pragmatic state develops its relations with another state at the cost of a time-tested ally . Nor does it allow any past irritants to hinder the prospects of a better relationship with any state. Israel’s approach to developing ties with Russia is a case in point.
Observers say Jerusalem has developed close cultural, economic, and military ties with Moscow in the post-cold war landscape . In 2008, Israel and Russia concluded an agreement on visa-free tourist travel for their citizens. Israel-Russia trade grew to $1 billion annually by 2005 . By 2014 , it more than tripled to approximately $3.5 billion. In 2015, Israel sold ten search drones to Russia.
Jerusalem has developed ties with Moscow while strengthening its ties with its time-tested ally Washington, with which Moscow does not see eye- to -eye on many regional and global issues . Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu , famously known as ‘Bibi’, developed ‘close personal ties’ with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Earlier, one of his famous predecessors Ariel Sharon, a Russian speaker , had formed a close personal bond with Putin. In November 2003, Sharon called Putin "a true friend of Israel."
The Bibi-Putin bonhomie helped Israel to establish with Russia a military hotline . Israel used this link to conduct many airstrikes inside Syria and target suspected arms shipments bound for Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group. This link proved very useful to the Jewish State in coordinating its air force operations over Syria and avoiding any clashes with Russia.
Significantly, Russia did not object to the Israeli operations in Syria though it has a base at Khmeimim and naval , air and other defense assets in Syria . Russia enjoys close relations with Iran too. Moscow has teamed up with Tehran to shore up Syrian President Bashar Assad's rule.
Current Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett seems to be inclined to maintaining the bonhomie Bibi had with Putin. Like Bibi, Bennett is for improving Jerusalem’s ties with Washington and Moscow both . In August, Bennet met US President Joe Biden in Washington. This was followed by his Foreign Minister Yair Lapid visiting Moscow last month.
Last week, on the invitation of President Putin, Prime Minister Bennet, accompanied by his National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata, diplomatic adviser Shimrit Meir and military secretary Maj. Gen. Avi Gil, visited Sochi , Russia. The two leaders are said to have discussed there a series of bilateral diplomatic, security and economic issues as well as regional matters, primarily Iran’s nuclear and terror activities . Bennet is also said to have updated Putin about an upcoming museum in Israel which would commemorate Jewish soldiers who fought in allied armies, primarily the Red Army, during World War II.
Jerusalem has never allowed any past irritants to impede its future ties with Russia. History bears out Russia ( formerly, the Soviet Union) had a distinctly pro-Arab orientation in the 1950s. It trained many Arab armies and supplied them arms and ammunition . In the wake of the 1967 Six Day War, the Soviet Union severed its diplomatic relations with Israel and led most of the then Eastern bloc into following it . Also, the Soviet Union voted against Israel in all international institutions.
The Jewish State has never forgotten that the same Russia fought fiercely against the Nazis during World War II. The Red Army liberated many Jews from Nazi death camps. Besides, the Soviet Union enabled the transfer of weapons from Czechoslovakia to Israel during its War of Independence. Russia also voted in favour of the establishment of the State of Israel at the United Nations in 1947 .
The observers say Israel-Russia ties are sure to grow further in future. Israeli and Russian officials are likely to continue holding meetings and telephone conversations on a regular basis and to maintain their multiple open channels of communication.
Jerusalem is fully aware that Russia continues to remain a major power in the world . It has a large nuclear arsenal. On its part, Russia sees Israel as a mighty state equipped with impressive intelligence and military capabilities. It also sees Israel as a potential tool to reach out, more effectively, to the United States, the world’s only superpower today. Needless to mention , Russia’s National Security Adviser met his American and Israeli counterparts in Israel in June 2019 .
Also, President Putin sees the Russian-origin Jews in Israel as an important diaspora to be cultivated. Around one million (15 per cent) of Israelis are made up of those who left the Soviet Union or are their descendants. They speak Russian .
(The author is a Delhi-based journalist)