Russia’s proximity to the Middle East and the presence in Israel of a million-plus Jews from the former Soviet Union, including Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, make the growing warm relations between Jerusalem and Moscow a welcome occurrence for many citizens of the Jewish state.
One of those citizens is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — that is, as long as he ignores the fact that Russia is the chief backer of Israel’s arch-enemy Iran, whose nuclear ambitions are an existential threat, and supports the neighboring regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. While Israel is officially neutral in the Syrian civil war, Russia’s air presence there threatens a potential, if accidental, clash with Israeli forces.
Close ties with Israel are also good for Putin, who is trying to expand Russia’s influence in the Middle East, particularly in light of what is widely seen as America’s withdrawal as the indispensable nation in the region. So when Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced last week that Russia was willing to host Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for peace talks, it was rightly seen as Russia’s attempt to become a player in peace as well as in war.
Beyond that, it hasn’t gone unnoticed that Netanyahu has met with Putin four times in the last year, while he has met with President Barack Obama only once. And we are also informed that while Netanyahu speaks on the phone regularly with the Russian president, he mostly gets to talk with Secretary of State John Kerry when he phones the U.S. administration.
But let’s be real. As uncomfortable as it may sometimes be, it is the United States, through its military umbrella, superpower status and deep pockets, that has repeatedly given Israel what it needs to defend its existence. The two countries are reportedly wrapping up a 10-year military memorandum of understanding that will guarantee Israel some $3.7 billion a year in aid.
Netanyahu is waffling and may have made the calculation that the next president, whomever he or she is, will be more amenable to a better deal for Israel than Obama. Such a move would be dangerous. Netanyahu should sign the MOU now and move on.
There are, of course, advantages in dealing with Putin. For example, Netanyahu can expect no lectures from the Russian leader about the Palestinians or a two-state solution. Similarly he won’t be reprimanded about human rights from the Chinese, with whom Israel is developing a burgeoning economic relationship. Rather, it is Israel’s democratic allies, the United States and the European Union, where such critiques come from. But Israel should not forsake the mess of dealing with the West in favor of warming up to a strongman with questionable alliances.
The enemy of my enemy can be my friend, but the friend of my enemy should always be treated with suspicion.