Opinion: A tale of two meetings – Netanyahu, Putin and Trump 

Israel is uniquely positioned to strike a deal with Russia regarding Iran’s future involvement in Syria. 

By: Daniel Krygier, World Israel News

Hours after Israel reportedly downed a Syrian drone, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. On the agenda was once again Iran as well as Israeli and Russian interests in Syria.

It was their ninth meeting since Russia entered militarily into the Syrian war in September 2015. The meeting took place just days ahead of Putin’s scheduled talk with President Donald Trump in Helsinki, Finland.

Over the past three years, Russian and Israeli interests have increasingly converged.

In 2015, Israel sought to improve its ties with Russia while facing a hostile Obama administration that undermined Israel’s security.

By contrast, Israel is strongly supported by a friendly Trump administration. Trump has also increasingly adopted Israel’s key positions on Iran. He left the Iran nuclear deal and supports Israel’s demand that Iran leave Syria.

Israel’s security has been greatly strengthened by Netanyahu’s excellent relations with both Trump and Putin.

Strained US-Russian ties have also transformed the Jewish state into a potential mediator between Washington and Moscow. This has changed the dynamic of Russian-Israeli relations.

In the past, Jerusalem needed Russian understanding for Israel’s security needs in Syria. Today, Putin increasingly values Israel as a key to improving Moscow’s relations with Washington.

This explains why Moscow has given Netanyahu a high-profile red-carpet treatment. Russia’s fragile economy is threatened by Western sanctions because of Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea and its invasion and occupation of eastern Ukraine. Diplomatically, Russia is also increasingly isolated in the Western world.

Israel’s main challenge: Iran

What does all this mean for Israel and its future security?

Israel’s main challenge was and remains Iran. While Iran and Russia both support the Assad regime, relations between Moscow and Tehran have recently deteriorated. Iran’s and Russia’s interests in Syria are also increasingly at odds with each other.

Like Israel, Russia wants stability in Syria. By contrast, Iran sees Syria as an imperial asset and a front base for attacks on the Jewish state. By appearing with Netanyahu in high-profile meetings, Putin is telling Iran that Moscow will not stand in the way of Israeli military operations against Iran and its allies in Syria.

In a few days, Putin will meet with his US counterpart in Helsinki. By displaying close ties with Israel merely days before that crucial meeting, Putin hopes to improve Russia’s relations with Washington as well.

Former US President Barack Obama essentially allowed Russia to do whatever it wanted in Syria. By contrast, Trump has intervened in Syria and supports Israel’s position that Iran must leave the territory.

Russia has already expressed its dissatisfaction with Iran’s presence in Assad’s war-torn country. Moscow could eventually abandon its cooperation with Iran if it benefits Russian interests.

US senator Lindsey Graham recently warned Israel not to trust that Moscow will remove Iran from Syria. However, the situation could be different if Putin were presented with tangible benefits for Moscow.

Sunni-Israeli alliance plays crucial role

The emerging Sunni-Israeli alliance plays a crucial role in this context. Saudi, Emirati and Israeli officials have reportedly privately urged Trump to strike a grand bargain with Putin.

If carried out properly, it could be a win-win deal for both sides. Washington would consider ending its sanctions against Russia over Ukraine in return for Russia pushing Iran out of Syria.

Israel is today uniquely positioned to further enhance its future security through a combination of diplomacy, military means and trade. By acting as a bridge between Washington and Moscow, Israel can eventually defuse the Iranian threat on its borders.