Self-Serving Israel Agenda
April 13, 2017
On April 6, the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry announced  that Moscow  formally
recognized West Jerusalem as Israel ’s
capital. In the declaration, Russia first reaffirmed its commitment to UN
principles of an eventual Israeli-Palestinian settlement and said it saw East
Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state. “At the same time,”
the statement read, “we must state that in this context we view West Jerusalem
as the capital of Israel.” Although Israel continues to view Jerusalem in its
entirety as the country’s capital, no country today maintains an embassy in
the city. El Salvador and Costa Rica moved their embassies to Tel Aviv a decade
ago (they were the last to do so). And despite the declaration, Russia is reportedly  not
yet considering moving its embassy.
Moscow’s statement, which Israeli Foreign Ministry
spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said Israel is “studying,” nevertheless marks a
major change. Russia is now the only country in the world that recognizes any
part of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, although in recent months there had
been discussions  within
U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration about whether to move the U.S.
embassy to Jerusalem.
There are many reasons that can explain Russia’s move.
For one, the timing distracts from international condemnation of Russia’s
continued support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The announcement came
two days after Assad unleashed the worst chemical weapons attack against his
people in years, but before the U.S. air strike in response to said attack.
Still, Russian President Vladimir
Putin  is likely pursuing a larger and more self-serving
PUTIN’S RENEWED REGIONAL ENGAGEMENT
When Putin officially assumed power in May 2000, he sought
to increase Russia’s role in the Middle East after his predecessor, Boris
Yeltsin, had largely abandoned the region in order to concentrate on domestic
affairs. The Soviet Union’s approach to the Middle East was ideological, but
Putin’s was purely pragmatic. He was willing to work with anyone in the region
so long as it fit Russia’s interests—as Putin defined them. In turn, the
Russian president sought to improve Russia’s relations with Israel. Putin
repeatedly drew parallels between Russia’s struggle with Sunni Islamist
extremism and Israel’s own terrorist struggle. He also sought to improve trade
relations with Israel. Between Putin’s ascent to power in 2000 and 2014,
bilateral trade at least tripled, to over $3 billion. In addition, over a
million Russian immigrants call Israel home, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey
Lavrov often talks about Russia’s “compatriots” in the country. An
agreement  comes into force this year in which Russia will pay
$83 million in pensions to former Soviet citizens now living in Israel—even as
it has no
money  to adjust pensions for inflation for Russian citizens.
Broadly speaking, Putin sought to limit U.S. influence in
the Middle East and to work with everyone in the region, whether traditional
friend or foe. Improving ties with another country in the region, and a close
U.S. ally at that, helped accomplish this goal in his zero-sum worldview.
Furthermore, improved ties with Israel (and Sunni powers) would shield Putin
from accusations of being pro-Shiite.
Perhaps as a consequence of Putin’s outreach, Israel was
one of the few countries (ironically, Iran was another) that didn’t criticize
Putin over his actions in Chechnya, while most others condemned Moscow’s human
rights violations that helped turn what originally began as a secular separatist
struggle into an Islamist extremist one. Israel was also among the first
countries to offer Moscow support in September 2004 after a group of armed
Chechen and Ingush terrorists seized a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, bringing
18 children and their parents on a three-week healing trip to Israel. While
other countries also condemned the heinous terrorist act, many inside Russia,
especially relatives of the hostages, criticized  the
Russian government’s botched
rescue  attempt, which led  to
the deaths of 380 of the hostages, 186 them children. (Putin would subsequently
use Beslan as a justification for Russia’s democratic backslide.)
In April 2005, Putin became the first Kremlin leader to visit  Israel.
This trip came as Russia began to pursue a generally more aggressive foreign
policy in the wake of color revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and elsewhere in
the post-Soviet space and the Middle East for which Putin blamed the West. In
recent years, he capitalized on a seeming U.S. retreat from the Middle East and
deteriorating relations with traditional allies, including Israel. In June 2012,
for example, Putin visited Israel a second time, nine months before then U.S.
President Barack Obama would make his first visit. Israeli Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu, for his part, traveled to Moscow more frequently than to
Washington during Obama’s presidency.
As part of Russia’s deeper involvement in the Middle
East, Putin took an interest in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. After the
collapse of Camp David II talks in July 2000, Moscow took on a larger role as a
mediator. Yasir Arafat traveled to Moscow the following month and met with Putin,
who said Russia was ready to “co-sponsor ”
the Middle East settlement. Subsequent visits and telephone conversations
between Israeli and Palestinian leaders followed over the years. “We speak for
overwhelming and just settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” Putin said  in
June 2016 when he met with Netanyahu in Moscow. In inserting himself in the
Palestinian-Israeli talks, Putin has sought to present himself as more balanced
in his approach than the United States and to present Russia as a country that
will succeed where Washington has failed. Although Putin has yet to achieve this
success, Russia has gained perceived importance as a major actor in critical
world events—a status he craves.
THE LIMITS OF RUSSIAN STRATEGY
There will always be limits to the Russia-Israel
relationship. Putin may view diplomacy as a zero-sum game, but Israeli leaders
will not downgrade relations with Washington to appease Moscow. “There is no
alternative to the United States [and] I am not looking for one,” Netanyahu told  reporters
in Moscow in June 2016. “But my policy is to look for other partnerships with
great powers such as China, India and Russia and other countries.” It is
doubtful that Putin expects to replace the United States when it comes to
Israel. Israel’s relationship with the United States is deep and enduring.
Israel also has reason to mistrust Russia. Moscow’s increasingly warm
relations with Tehran, for one, are problematic. Putin’s Syria intervention
has only reinforced Russia’s pro-Shiite
tilt  in the Middle East. Moscow also refuses to label either
Hezbollah or Hamas  as
terrorist organizations. Russian officials have at the very least looked away as
advanced weaponry from Russia has fallen into Hezbollah’s hands, and the
Kremlin hosted  Fatah
and Hamas leaders in Moscow this past January for talks to form a unity
On March 17, the Israeli air force struck several targets
in Syria to prevent advanced weapons from reaching Hezbollah. Although Israel
routinely carries out such attacks, in this particular incident the Russian
Foreign Affairs Ministry demanded that Israeli Ambassador Gary Koren
“clarify” Israel’s unilateral actions. Details about the incident are
still murky, and Netanyahu stressed that Israel will continue with its policy to
prevent attempts to transfer advanced weapons to Hezbollah. However, Lavrov warned  on
March 22 in Moscow, “We will judge by deeds and not by statements in order to
figure out if our Israeli counterparts abide by” Russian-Israeli agreements
“concerning military cooperation” in Syria. Neither Russia nor Israel seeks
a crisis in relations, but Lavrov’s comment reflects how the Kremlin tends to
view allies as subjects rather than partners.
Israel owes its existence in part to the Soviet Union and
its Cold War proxies voting in the United Nations 70 years ago in support of the
partition of Palestine and creation of the Jewish state, but the Kremlin quickly
broke off relations once it became clear that Israel stood in the Western camp.
Russia would not restore relations until 1991. Moscow’s ties to Israel have
long been complicated and multifaceted, and they remain so today. Russia may
have a geostrategic rationale for recognizing West Jerusalem as Israel’s
capital. But the move, even as it raises eyebrows, obliges Moscow to little,
especially if the Russian embassy remains in Tel Aviv.
For all his pursuit of power, Putin remains flexible and,
in the Middle East, seeks to keep his options open. His real goal may have less
to do with Israel than with the United States: the statement could very well
signal that Trump needs to deal with Putin in the Middle East, not only when it
comes to Syria and Iran but also when it comes to Israel. Trump, like nearly all
of his White House predecessors dating back to Dwight Eisenhower, has made
Middle East peace a priority for Washington. Putin’s recognition of West
Jerusalem as Israel’s capital should signal to Trump and son-in-law and senior
adviser Jared Kushner, whom Trump tasked  with
brokering a Middle East peace deal, that the Kremlin plans to play a larger role
in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Trump may play peacemaker, but he will not
be alone in the sandbox.