Will Israel and Russia forge closer ties under Netanyahu?

Ukraine has expressed its disappointment in signals that the new Israeli government may establish closer ties with Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow, Russia January 30, 2020. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/Pool
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, had close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, during his previous period in office [File: Maxim Shemetov/Pool (Reuters)]

Israel’s new government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has primarily made headlines domestically, and for its policies towards Palestinians, since coming into power late last year.

But on foreign policy, particularly regarding Russia’s war in Ukraine, some argue that Israel’s most right-wing government yet is inclined to deviate from its predecessor’s path.

Take the new foreign minister’s first public speech, 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 administration 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 the Ukrainians, with the ambassador to Israel saying that the phone call was evidence Israel was changing course under Netanyahu.

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

“This government is less concerned about ideological sympathies. They are not invested in seeing democracy trump dictatorship, nor would they be necessarily happy to see international sanctions succeed, as they might fear a precedent,” Rynhold added, alluding to a global grassroots movement pushing for sanctions against Israel itself for its continued occupation of Palestinian territory.

It now appears as though the new Israeli government is trying to send more positive signals to Russia while continuing its own long-lasting foreign policy doctrines.

“Israel has two core national security interests regarding Russia and Ukraine which are consensual in Israel: The maintenance of good relations with the United States in a general sense, and Russian acceptance of Israel’s freedom to operate militarily against Iranian forces, rocket launching sites and arms smuggling in Syria,” Rynhold noted.

“This requires active coordination with Russia in order to avoid a clash between Russian and Israeli forces. The current and previous governments have sought to balance these objectives,” he added.

Harder to balance

Israel’s relationship with Russia has become increasingly complicated, even difficult, due to the war.

“Prior to the war, Israel’s foreign policy concerning the two countries entailed relations in many fields and was always seeking to get stronger,” said Yonatan Freeman, international relations expert at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“Both countries still have large Jewish populations, and hundreds of thousands of Israelis have family connections to those still living there. Moreover, there has been strong trade in the fields of agriculture, tourism links and even the high-tech industry.”

Besides those factors, Israel and Russia also coordinate on security matters related to Syria.

Israel has therefore, even before the arrival of Netanyahu’s government, walked a tightrope since the beginning of the war in Ukraine.

On the one hand, it considers itself part of the Western camp and, for that reason, was pressured to reject and condemn Russia’s war and alleged crimes. On the other, it has categorically refused to take a clear stand and has declined every request to deliver weapons to Ukraine.

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

Kyiv expressed its frustration in December when Israel did not receive an invitation to Ukraine’s solidarity conference in Paris.

Israel is always likely to be careful when it comes to Russia, regardless of the prime minister in charge.

But some experts say it has done far more than is publicly known.

“As the war has continued, Israel has taken increased action, mainly behind the scenes, to join or consider some of the financial constraints placed on Russia by the West,” Freeman said. “In addition, Israel has increased the aid it has given Ukraine, even recently providing electric generators and treating injured Ukrainian soldiers in Israel.

“According to some reports, Israel may be possibly assisting Ukraine in knowhow on how to intercept, using electronic means, Iranian drones, and well as allowing Israeli territory to be used as a transit point for shipments to Ukraine by others, or its airspace for which reconnaissance aircraft of sorts, by others, can fly through to get to the war-zone.”

Iran a priority

The new government’s primary concern remains Iran.

Here, Israel is dependent on Russian support, as Israel’s air raids in Syria must be coordinated with the Kremlin.

However, a new dynamic has arguably emerged as a result of the Ukraine war, which might be forcing Israel to change its approach towards Russia.

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

The US, meanwhile, accuses Russia of supplying weapons to Iran and says Moscow and Tehran are moving towards a full defence partnership, which could directly threaten Israel.

While that would naturally make Israel wary of Russia, it is also conceivable that Israel’s government sees a chance of being a mediator and perhaps ending the war, especially if pressure mounts in Western countries to scale back expensive support for Ukraine.

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

Netanyahu was considered close to Putin during his previous period in power and announced in October that he would offer to mediate between Russia and Ukraine if he won the elections.

“Indeed, Netanyahu has historically viewed close relations with Putin as useful to his image as a strong leader with global influence. The current government may hope that it can dissuade Russia from further cooperation with Iran on precision missiles by leaning away from Ukraine a little more,” Rynhold said.

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

“However, given the growing tensions in relations with the Biden administration on various fronts, I very much doubt we will see any significant rapprochement with Russia,” Rynhold said.

“The new foreign minister is not likely to have much influence on the important aspects of Israeli foreign policy, which the PM himself will run in coordination with the minister for strategic affairs, Ron Dermer.”

Source: Al Jazeera