‘A complex diplomatic entanglement’

Historian Mark LeVine looks at the history of Russian-Israeli relations.

Binyamin Netanyahu has made his first official visit to Russia since taking office a year ago [GETTY]

Earlier this week, Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, visited Moscow in his first official trip to Russia since taking office a year ago.

During the visit, Netanyahu urged Russia to support calls for new sanctions against Iran over its nuclear programme, highlighting the key role Russia plays in the nuclear standoff.

Here, historian Mark LeVine looks at the history of Russian-Israeli relations.

The Israeli-Russian relationship is one of the most complex and intriguing diplomatic entanglements in international politics. Its roots lie at the heart of Zionism as a practical settlement enterprise rather than a merely utopian idea.

Indeed, without events in Russia, it is hard to imagine Israel having come to be.

The movement’s founders, men such as Theodor Herzl and Chaim Weizmann, came out of a German and French speaking milieu; their focus in the movements first years were on cementing the idea of reestablishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine/Eretz Yisrael, securing its political support from the major European powers, and if possible, the Ottoman Sultan, and establishing plantation-style colonies financed by wealthy Jews that employed largely Palestinian labour.

These policies, which can loosely be termed “political Zionism,” did not succeed in creating conditions suitable for large scale immigration.

At the same time, however, events in Russia helped prompt the first major wave of Jewish immigration to Palestine, known as the “Second Aliya”, which lasted from 1904 to 1914 and saw 40,000 Jews emigrate from Russian-speaking lands to Palestine.

Socialist ideology

Building on the work of “pioneering” organisations such as the “Biluim” and “Hovevei Tzion” of the late 19th century, this wave of immigration was caused by an upsurge in pogroms against Jews across Russia at the turn of the century.

This violence coincided, crucially, with the spread of socialist and even Bolshevik ideas across Russia, which attracted a large number of Jews because of its promise of equality and an improvement in their often miserable living conditions.

Within a decade of their arrival in Palestine, the “practical Zionism” of the Russian-born leaders of the Second Aliyah, including the founding prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion – born in Warsaw, which was then part of Russia – had effectively taken over the Zionist movement from within.

They were helped by a doubling of the number of Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants who arrived during the next, or third wave of immigration that lasted from 1919 to 1923.

Their socialist ideology, focus on agricultural labour and close settlement of the land through the “conquest” of land and labour, created the guiding framework for Jewish colonisation of Palestine under British rule, establishing the territorial, social, economic and political foundations for Jewish sovereignty.

Shedding diaspora identity

But if many of the movement’s leaders came from Russia and Russian-speaking territories, their migration to Palestine marked an abrupt end of their identification with their previous homelands.

The basic ideology of Zionism considered aliyah to be a negation of diaspora identities in favour of the creation of a “new Jew”.

Life in Russia was seen as part of a past that needed to be left behind. Immigrants were supposed to learn and speak exclusively Hebrew as quickly as possible and otherwise shed their previous cultural characteristics, at least outwardly, in favour of the official Zionist ideology.

Russia itself ceased to exist, having been replaced by the Soviet Union after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

Preoccupied with jump-starting its own industrialisation and with controlling the complex political geography of the still young Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the Soviet Union did not have much direct involvement in Palestine during the three decades of British rule there.

Officially, however, it adopted an anti-Zionist ideology, seeing Zionism’s nationalist grounding as opposed to the global and anti-nationalist ethos of Communism.

However, the Soviet Union played a pivotal role in the creation of the state of Israel, voting in favour of the 1947 Partition Resolution and being the first country to officially recognise the new Jewish state.

The strongly socialist ideology of Israel’s government made it a natural ally for the Soviet Union despite the official anti-Zionist policies of Stalin. He believed that its rise would help spell the end of British power in the Middle East.

But any potential strategic alignment was scuttled by the time of the Suez crisis in 1956, which saw Israel ally with Great Britain and France against Egypt and the
beginning of large scale military sales and support for Israel’s main enemies, such as Egypt, Syria and later Iraq, by Warsaw Pact countries.

Official opposition

Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, left, with Netanyahu [EPA]

Among the official anti-Israeli policies of the Soviet Union and its satellite states in Eastern Europe was patronage of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and other Palestinian resistance groups, support for the 1975 ‘Zionism is Racism’ resolution at the United Nations, and the repression of Soviet Jewry, which ironically led to the next wave of Russian Jewish immigration.

Indeed, Moscow and the Warsaw Pact countries supported the Arab states in all their wars against Israel – in 1956, 1967 and 1973 – and during the Israeli occupation of Lebanon that began in 1982.

Moscow’s massive arms sales and assistance to Egypt and Syria were crucial in allowing them to recover from the defeat of 1967. It also provided protection to these states by letting Israel know that it would directly intervene against Israel if attempted to capture an Arab capital such as Cairo or Damascus.

At the same time, the benefits of Soviet patronage were not viewed by all its allies as worth the costs; thus Egypt’s Anwar Sadat used the strategic gains of the 1973 war to switch allegiance from the Soviet to the US side in the Cold War. This move greatly reduced Moscow’s influence across the region, limiting it to Syria, Northern Yemen, Libya, Iraq, and Palestinian resistance groups.

Not surprisingly, under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union softened its policies both towards the Arab-Israeli conflict and its internal Jewish culture.

This was symbolised by the Soviet participation in the opening of the 1991 Madrid peace conference, resumption of diplomatic ties with Israel and the lifting of emigration bans on Soviet Jews, which led to a massive wave of immigration with more than 1,000,000 citizens of the former Soviet Union immigrating to Israel.

Ties to homeland

After the Soviet Union disbanded in 1991, Russia was surrounded by 14 new neighbours. Crucially, six of the new states directly bordered the Middle East and most of them had to address issues of Islamic revivalism after seven decades in which Islam was officially suppressed under Soviet rule.

Radical Islam became a concern that would link Russia and Israel during the subsequent two decades.

The newly established Russian Federation adopted a much more neutral, and in some cases pro-Israel set of policies than were the norm during the Soviet Union.

Unlike previous waves of immigration, the 1990s wave was much less ideologically motivated, and indeed, included a significant number of non-Jews.

This new wave has retained greater ties to its homeland and language than previous waves, which has naturally strengthened the overall relationship between the two countries.

‘Status quo’

In the last two decades Russia has become a “status quo” power more interested in stability than any change that might threaten its economic and strategic interests in the Middle East and Central Asia.

For its part, since Ariel Sharon’s election in 2001, Israel has sought to improve relations with Moscow as a major foreign policy goal as part of a gradual diversification of trade and diplomatic links away from an exclusive reliance on the US for support.

Russia and Israel are also both members of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The current Israeli-Russian relationship is determined by several conditions. First among them is Israel’s all-important relationship with the US, which precludes its forging too close a strategic partnership with Russia.

But within this broad level of constraint, Israel has had a significant freedom of action with regard to its relationship with international competitors such as Russia or China.

In the Russian case the two strongest ties are, first, the large number of Russians living in Israel, who unlike previous generations of immigrants from the Soviet Union, or from Muslim countries, have maintained continuing ties to their country of

Israel’s ‘Russians’

Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s foreign minister, is popular among Russian Israelis [EPA]

“The Russians” are among the most important social and political blocs in Israel and have powerfully shaped Israeli politics towards a more extreme, nationalist agenda.

More broadly, Russia has acted to support, or at least not frustrate US and European/Nato polices and strategic goals in the Middle East, including vis-a-vis the Israeli-Palestinian and larger Israeli-Arab conflicts.

At the same time, Moscow has maintained good relations with Arab states that were once in the Soviet orbit, particularly those with larger oil and gas reserves or who remain good customers for its arms industries.

Turkey has also been a country of strategic importance to Russia, and the triangular relationship with Israel is a crucial component in maintaining the strategic status quo in the region.

Diplomatically, Russia’s most prominent role in the Middle East is through its participation in the “Quartet” composed as well of the US, the European Union and the United Nations.

Established in Madrid in 2002 to address the escalating Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Quartet laid out a “road map” for peace which included the creation of an independent Palestinian state living side by side with Israel and broader regional security.

A good example of the balancing act attempted by Russia has been its talks with Hamas in 2006, which angered Israel – at least officially – but was justified as part of its efforts as a member of the Quartet.

Shared threats, policies

Similarly ambiguous is Russia’s relationship with Iran, to whom Russia has provided key support for its nuclear industry and sells weapons. Russia also still sells weapons to Syria, and Russian-made weapons often make their way to Hezbollah and Hamas.

Yet Russia also purchases Israeli-made weapons, and the two countries share a similar outlook towards Muslim resistance groups attempting to evict them from territories they occupy.

The Russian government has also been supportive of efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and has not acted to frustrate or block US/Nato interests in the region except where they actively challenge its preeminent position vis-a-vis the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia.

Moreover, Russia’s harsh crack-down on independence movements in Chechnya have naturally aligned it with Israel’s hard-line policies towards Palestinians, ensuring that Moscow’s criticisms of Israeli actions in the Occupied Territories have often been more muted than those of the European Union.

Indeed, the most obvious impetus to good relations is the common threat of resistance and terror from Muslims living under the control of the two countries – the West Bank and Gaza for Israel, Chechnya for Russia.

Although rarely in the public eye, the security and intelligence relationships are quite robust, and are furthered by Israel’s active economic and security presence throughout the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union.

Trade partners

A final and often under-appreciated aspect of the Israel-Russia relationship concerns trade, which has expanded from only $12mn in 1991 to almost $3bn in 2008, making Russia one of Israel’s most important trading partners.

The relatively high level of trade has ensured that neither country would engage in policies that directly challenged or threatened core interests of the other side and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has recently called for greater cooperation in the agricultural and high tech sectors in a meeting with his Israeli counterpart, Binyamin Netanyahu.

Putin explained: “Israel is our long-time partner in the Middle East, and we hold regular talks on the Mideast settlement.”

This description of partnership towards maintaining the status quo well sums up the bilateral relationship between Israel and Russia, and in doing so, makes clear that Russia can not be counted on to play a creative or active role in bringing about Israeli-Palestinian peace in the near term.

Mark LeVine is currently visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University, Sweden. His books include Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera

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