Scorned by Obama, Israel forges ties with Russia

Tension in Israel’s relationship with the Obama administration compelled Jerusalem to forge ties elsewhere, sometimes to the benefit of the Jewish state.

Dr. Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and director of the Center for Energy, Natural Resources and Geopolitics, analyzed Israel’s growing relationship with Russia and other countries in a December 20th conference call with the Endowment for Middle East Truth.

“With President [Barack] Obama and the left wing of the Democratic Party turning against Israel, Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu has made a great effort to build better relationships with Russia, India, African countries and others,” Cohen said.

As support for his thesis, Cohen points to Netanyahu’s recent visits to Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan and the prime minister’s attempts in general to illustrate Israel’s ability to find allies in unexpected corners of the globe, including some majority-Muslim countries.

Israel’s growing relationship with Russia is “complicated, but clearly a tremendous improvement over relations between the Jewish state and the old Soviet Union,” Cohen noted.

“One the one hand, Russia has allied itself with enemies of Israel such as Iran and the Syrian regime of [Bashar] Assad, and the Russians consistently vote against Israel at the United Nations and other international forums,” he said. But at the same time, Cohen pointed out, “Russia and Israel have significant trade relations, tourism and medical ties, with thousands of Russians going to Israel every year for medical treatment and teams of Israeli doctors visiting Russia to share their expertise and advice.”

One important practical benefit of Israel’s relationship with Russia, Cohen told JNS.org in a subsequent interview, is that the Russians have refrained from activating their anti-aircraft batteries in Syria when Israel has bombed weapons convoys traveling from Syria to Hezbollah bases in Lebanon. “The Russians have not interfered even though the casualties of the Israeli strikes included an Iranian general,” Cohen said.

Russia continues to support the Palestinian cause, “but at nowhere near the levels of backing that were provided by the old Soviet regime,” Cohen said. “In those days, the USSR was the main supporter and funder of Palestinian terrorism, as well as providing diplomatic and political support.”

By contrast, he said Russia today “does not actively support Hamas or other Palestinian terrorist groups,” and most of Russia’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause is expressed through votes at the United Nations. “This is a very significant change,” Cohen told JNS.org. “[Russian President Vladimir] Putin is not going out of his way to push Israel toward accepting a Palestinian state. He has much bigger fish to fry in the Middle East.”

While cautioning that the Russians are somewhat unpredictable and changing circumstances could alter Moscow’s strategy, Cohen emphasized that Russia’s main interest in the Middle East is to expand its regional influence.

It was the Obama administration’s approach to Israel that forced the Jewish state to look for ways to fill the vacuum by developing new relationships, Cohen believes. “Israel has had to look elsewhere for allies, even temporary ones,” he said.

As for U.S. policy under President-elect Donald Trump, Cohen said that in the short run, “the Trump administration will undoubtedly focus on the threat from ISIS (Islamic State) rather than have a confrontation with Russia.” Once Islamic State is defeated, Trump will need to address larger strategic issues in the Middle East, and he is likely to find that Putin “is a really tough customer,” Cohen said.

By: Rafael Medoff/JNS.org and World Israel News staff