Israeli-Russian Relations I: Scene Setter


Part I in an ongoing series assessing Russian and Israeli strategic and economic relations.


Sharp political fractions and varying strategic interests, often creating an antagonistic and obscure relationship between the two, have historically shaped relations between Moscow and Tel Aviv. Nevertheless, both countries share close historical and cultural ties as a result of tremendous Jewish migration from the former USSR as well as Russia’s role in the Middle East. In recent years, these conjunctions, paired with unsteady US-Israeli ties, have led to a noticeable improvement of relations with the Kremlin.

 

Background

After voting in favor of the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine in 1947, the Soviet Union was the first country to formally and legally recognize the State of Israel on May 17th 1948. Hoping to create a Bolshevik and pro-Soviet enclave in the British & French dominated Middle East, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was encouraged by the defining socialist Kibbutz movement to support the newborn Jewish state both diplomatically and military. Thus, communist weapon transfers were supplied to Israel via Czechoslovakia and became crucial in Israel’s war against eight invading Arab armies in 1948-1949. However, the Soviet-Israeli flirt soon ended in bitterness: the nationalist Zionism turned out to be incompatible with the Stalinist image of communist internationalism, therefore promoting anti-Semitic sentiments among the Kremlin’s leadership, increasing association of Zionism with “Western imperialism,” and fomenting waves of anti-Jewish persecution within the USSR. The anticipated Soviet-Israeli partnership crumbled, with Israel reorienting westwards towards France and the UK and the USSR favoring Arab states like Egypt and Syria in their enmities with Israel and former colonial powers. The relationship became utterly antagonistic after the Six Day War in 1967 and the strengthening of the US-Israeli partnership, a development which not only led to the permanent breakup of diplomatic relations but also made the Arab-Israeli conflict an irretrievable chapter of the Cold War. Diplomatic relations between Russia and Israel were restored in 1991 after the breakup of the Soviet Union, although ties to nations hostile to Israel, such as Syria, and anti-Israeli organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah continue to the present day.

 

Contemporary Relations

Ties between Russia and Israel have undergone a remarkable diversification since the inauguration of president Vladimir Putin in 2000. Since the beginning, an important field of cooperation has been the exchange of experience in the fight against terrorism and in asymmetric warfare, especially in light of Chechen terrorist attacks in Moscow 2002 and 2004 in Beslan. Consequently, then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon fully supported Russia in its violent conflict with Wahhabi rebels in Chechnya and aimed at cooperative anti-terror measure, such as joint training of anti-terror forces, the common development of border security technologies and the coproduction of weapon systems (especially in the field of aerial surveillance). In the last years Israeli UAV were purchased by Russia and Israeli security-technology was used in a wide range of occasions, such as the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Besides, business between both countries has increased noticeable, with around 500,000 Russian yearly tourists to Israel, a trade volume of approximately 3 billion USD in 2014 (approximately three times higher than the analogous trading value between Russia and Syria) and no limitations on imports from disputed land such as the West Bank and the Golan Heights. Facing the recent round of Western sanctions against Russia and the increasing indignation of the European Union to import Israeli products from “occupied territories”, a window for new commercial opportunities seem to open up for agricultural markets on both sides.

Furthermore, Israel today obtains around 80% of its crude oil from Russia and former USSR countries, while Russia’s Gazprom recently emerged as an important partner in both the expansion of energy-infrastructure throughout Israel and the development of production capabilities for natural gas fields. In addition, Israel plans to extend the inflow of Russian natural gas to 25% until 2025 through the construction of the Blue Stream II pipeline. Domestically, Vladimir Putin seems to be hailed for his breakage with traditionally prevalent anti-Semitism in Russia. But, quite the opposite, Putin is extremely close to the Russian branch of the ultra-orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch movement and encourages the promotion of Jewish life in Russia, a development praised by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

Still, Russia maintains both political and strategic relations with nations such as Syria and Iran, in addition to Hezbollah and Hamas - both considered terrorist organizations by Israel. Nevertheless, a one sided partisanship for Israel’s adversaries (like in the days of the Cold War) can’t be observed, and support for “international pariahs” - such as Iran - can rather be explained by economic interests and Russia’s will to play a more decisive role in the Middle East. What seems to emerge here is a “give-and-take” relationship between Tel Aviv and Moscow, in which both actors weight their next moves according to their national interests and how much support is generated for their particular adversary.