Russia and Israel: Towards a pragmatic partnership
05.03.2020, Israel and the World
In the first two months of 2020, the Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have already met twice, with the meetings taking place within a week of each other. While the Russian leader was in Israel to attend events related to commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp, Netanyahu visited Moscow en-route from Washington where US President Donald J. Trump announced his plan for a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. The Prime Minister noted that his previously unannounced visit on January 30 was a sign of mutual trust between the two sides, as Russia was his first stop the day after the American plan was unveiled, ahead of his return to Israel.
In recent years, there has been a marked uptick in the bilateral visits at the highest level between the two countries. In fact, the Israeli leader has visited Moscow eleven times in his fourth term in office, including the January 2020 meeting, while Putin has visited Tel Aviv twice between 2012 and 2020.
Two key developments took place during Netanyahu’s visit to Moscow. The first was the release of Israeli national Naama Issachar, who was pardoned by the Russian president in a goodwill gesture, after having been held in Russia since April 2019 on drug charges. The case had been closely followed in Israel and her release was seen as a positive sign for the bilateral relationship, as well as a win for Netanyahu ahead of the March general elections. The second was the discussion on Trump’s Middle East peace plan.
Russia has criticized the US plan, instead calling for direct negotiations between Israel and Palestine and international support for the process. It has argued that all the competing factions must be on the negotiating table for any progress on the peace process.
Russia, which maintains regular contacts with all the Palestinian factions, including Hamas, has been interested in playing the role of a power broker. In fact, Putin’s visit to Israel on January 23 this year was followed by a visit to Palestine, where he met Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, discussing the anticipated US peace plan besides bilateral issues. Palestine wants Russia to play a larger role in the peace process, as the trust deficit with the US has grown after US recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and decided to relocate its embassy from Tel Aviv. In fact, after the US announcement to the effect in 2017, Moscow remained critical of the move and held on to its position of East Jerusalem being the capital of a future Palestinian state.
Since the announcement of the Trump plan, President Mahmoud Abbas has declared that the Palestinian Authority is cutting all ties with US and Israel. He also affirmed that Palestinians would refrain from engaging in a US-led peace process and would rather prefer a multilateral one.
As far as Moscow’s role in the peace process is concerned, there is a view that its close relationship with other Arab states could help in breaking the stalemate as it is on good terms with all the stakeholders and they believe Moscow could lead an amicable settlement of the dispute with a bipartisan approach. Meanwhile, as a member of the Middle East quartet and UNSC, Russia has tried to play its part by attempting to hold Israel-Palestine talks, but without much success.
Apart from a resurgence in the political relationship, Russia and Israel have also decided to improve their economic ties. As of now, the volume of trade remains modest. Russian exports to Israel were at USD 1.9 billion in 2018. It exports a number of products to Israel including crude petroleum, precious metals and stones, food products, chemical products etc. Russian imports from Israel stood at USD 764 million in 2018 with products such as electrical machinery and equipment, edible vegetables, pesticides, plastics etc. There exists a potential to further increase trade between the two countries.
Regionally, apart from Turkey, whose trade with Russia stands at $16.5 billion, Moscow has a relatively low level of trade partnership with the Middle East. Negotiations for the free-trade agreement between Israel and the Eurasian Economic Union are on, with the sixth round of talks scheduled for March 2020. Israel and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) may sign a free trade agreement as early as in 2021, which is expected to boost the volume of trade between the states.
In 2015, Russia and Israel signed a military cooperation pact, to step up military and technological cooperation. Moscow also purchased a package of drones from Israel for USD 300 million. The presence of a large Russian diaspora in Israel has helped forge a special bond, with more than 17% of Israel’s population being Russian-speakers. President Putin made a statement
last year that Russia believes Israel to be a ‘Russian-Speaking Country.’ Russia views them as ‘sootechestvenniki’ or compatriots. Last year, Moscow also announced pension to 4500 Red Army veterans living in Israel for their military service. The diaspora is also considered to have significant political influence in Israeli politics. With a potential to have an effect on 15 to 17 seats in the Knesset, they are an important constituency for all parties.
In an overcrowded Middle East, the relationship between Moscow and Jerusalem has been centered on ‘co-operation’ especially in the Syrian civil war. Russia’s rising clout as an influential actor in the region cannot be underestimated, with Russia aiming to get back to “the top of global politics” through its foreign policy interventions. The gradual US retrenchment has allowed Russia to step in and fill the vacuum as a regional power broker even though US still remains a pre-eminent player in the region. Moscow wants to convey the message to the Middle East states that it is a reliable ally that believes in multilateral engagement to resolve disputes. Given its proximity to the region, Russia remains concerned about instability in the Middle East and its impact on national security.
The Syrian civil war has created an opportunity for Russia to be viewed as a trusted player in the region. Even as Russia has established its military presence in Syria, Israel finds it critical to counter the challenges posed by Iran and other non-state actors in Syria. It expects Russia to help in containing Iran’s military presence especially on the Israeli-Syrian border. The two sides have tried to avoid a zero-sum game in the region while keeping the diplomatic and information channels open. Back in 2015, in the wake of Russian intervention in Syria, the two sides established a hotline between the respective militaries to avoid any potential clash in the region. This was helpful in de-escalating the situation in the aftermath of an incident in 2018 involving the crash of IL-20 aircraft, avoiding a diplomatic fallout. The co-operation between the two has helped both the states to accomplish their raison d'etre in a war-ravaged Syria.
In this context, Israel remains an important regional actor for Russia. The two countries have strategic interests that glues them together, especially in the Middle East. As a result, despite their differences on Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah among others, they have pursued closer ties. Even in Syria, the two sides try not to step on each other’s toes.
Having presented itself as a reliable player in the region, Russia has engaged with both Israel and Iran, marking a highlight of Putin’s foreign policy maneuvers. Russia has been able to accomplish this by following a pragmatic policy that does not engage in alliance relationships. Israel too has wanted to diversify its foreign partnerships and has broadened its reach while remaining committed to its alliance with the US.
Looking at the trend of the past few years, the Israel-Russia relationship does not look fragile. The post-Soviet period has seen a steady development of ties and it has passed the test of time despite the complexities involved. Russia and Israel are most likely to continue their entente based on their pragmatic policies. Incrementalism adopted by both Russia and Israel in their foreign policy approach is yielding the desired results, making the Russia-Israel relationship a classic example of ‘realpolitik’.