Housing Minister Zeev Elkin, a native Russian speaker who accompanied Benjamin Netanyahu on his trips to Russia before breaking up with the former prime minister, told a briefing to Israeli reporters on Friday that the meeting was “one of the warmest and most intimate of this decade. – and that the two men also discussed “personal matters” like leadership.
The meeting lasted more than two hours, as the leaders strolled through the gardens of Putin Bocharov Ruchey’s residence in Sochi and entered inside to chat over a drink.
The interest of the Bennett-Lapid government in emphasizing the personal connection is clear. Netanyahu’s camp has long claimed that Israel and Russia are able to handle dangerous tensions only because of the relationship between the former prime minister and Putin.
But the Russian side also sought to present a narrative of continuity with the new Israeli government, with Putin praising the “fairly commercial and confident relationship” he had had with Netanyahu and expressing his hope that they continue with Bennett.
The heat emanating from both sides certainly indicates a desire for a constructive dialogue on difficult issues, but Israel’s optimism should be tempered by the fact that Russia supports Jerusalem’s most bitter opponents, and will continue to do so. during Bennett’s tenure.
General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, delivers a speech during a military parade marking the 36th anniversary of the Iraq invasion of Iran in 1980, in front of the shrine of the deceased Revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini, just outside of Tehran, Iran, on September 21, 2016 (AP Photo / Ebrahim Noroozi)
A leading player in the region
“There is clearly a desire for continuity,” said Jonathan Spyer, director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.
At the same time, according to Ksenia Svetlova, Middle East expert at the Mitvim Institute, maintaining an open dialogue with Israel is part of the Kremlin’s broader regional strategy, which includes a partnership with countries like the Iran and Syria.
“Russia is playing in a number of theaters in the Middle East,” she told The Times of Israel. “He sees himself as a leading player who can pull the strings, and for that he needs positive relationships with all parties. “
There is no better illustration of Russia’s approach to the region and to Israel than the visit to Moscow through The Iranian Army Chief of Staff as Bennett’s trip approaches.
Just days before Bennett and Putin had a friendly chat on the shores of the Black Sea, Iranian Chief of Staff Mohammad Hossein Baqeri was in Moscow to dramatically expand Russian arms sales to Tehran.
“The conclusion of arms deals and their implementation in the near future will significantly deepen our relations,” said the Iranian military leader, after meeting with the Russian defense minister and the head of state – major.
“When Elkin or Bennett say that Putin is attentive to Israel’s security needs, how exactly does that attention align with the supply of advanced weapons, advanced systems and more to Iran? asked Svetlova. “I wouldn’t give too much importance to the heat or the length of the game. I would pay more attention to Russia’s strategy.
While supporting Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria and developing deep operational ties with Hezbollah in the battle-torn country, Russia sees a fundamental interest in continuing cooperation with Israel, the only democratic state ally of the United States. with which she maintains such positive links. .
A major component of Israeli-Russian cooperation is the Syria De-Confliction Mechanism, through which the Israel Defense Forces briefed Russian commanders at the Hmeimim Air Base on the Syrian coast shortly before carrying out airstrikes in the country.
Russia is well aware that Israel’s “interwar campaign” for years against Iranian entrenchment in Syria complicates its own cooperation with Damascus and Tehran, and its attempts to rebuild Syria.
“There also seems to be a clear desire to coexist with Israel and to ensure that these projects do not collide with each other,” Spyer said. “This comes from a Russian acceptance of the view that Israel’s actions do not fundamentally challenge the Russian project. “
Putin also acknowledges that the Israeli airstrikes are directed against Iran, not Russia, and are not particularly directed against Assad either.
There is a kind of convergence of interests in Syria, argued Efraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. “They also don’t want Iran to get too strong in Syria. “
Moscow also recognizes Israel’s military advantage in the region and has no desire to fight with one of the most powerful air forces in the world when it has only minimal forces in Syria.
Yet there are important Russian voices pushing a harder line against Israeli operations in Syria. In recent months, senior Russian defense officials have been increasingly critical of the IDF campaign, and the defense establishment is reportedly advocating for Russia to push Jerusalem further.
“Putin and the foreign minister see Israel’s activity quite differently,” Svetlova said. “They think they have to have a good relationship with most or all of the players and give everyone what they want. They understand that Israel cannot accept an expansion of Iranian influence in Syria.
Since Russia publicly blamed Israel for the Syrian Army which shot down one of its Il-20 military jets in 2018, a new mechanism has been put in place in which the Russians have more warning time. Although Moscow continues to push for longer notice, the system is working quite well.
Moreover, the good cop, bad cop routine between Putin and the military should also continue, reminding Israel not to push the limits too far and to continue to show its gratitude to the Russian president for his cooperative approach. If Putin didn’t want the deconfliction over Syria to continue, it would suddenly stop.
While the Russian-Israeli relationship in Syria will continue to be useful for both sides, neither are Bennett and Putin about to make any surprise revelations about the 2015 nuclear deal between the P5 + 1 and Tehran or on talks in Vienna to restore this.
“We shouldn’t be under any illusions that we can coordinate with them on Iran’s nuclear program,” Inbar said. “They see Iran as an anti-American force that weakens the American position in the region. “
The tenor of public statements from Russian officials on Israeli attacks in Syria, especially civilians, will be an important indication of the state of the relationship. For now, Israel can expect tactical cooperation with Russia to continue in Syria, while Russia remains a strategic partner for some of Israel’s most dangerous enemies.