By Yehonathan Tommer
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s secret visit to Moscow on September 7 sparked a wave of speculation in the Israeli media. When rumours of the trip circulated a few days later, Netanyahu’s advisers confirmed that the prime minister’s unscheduled trip was part of an ongoing dialogue with Russian officials to dissuade them from supplying strategic arms to the Middle East. The secret and sudden nature of the trip – following up an official visit by Israeli President Shimon Peres in mid-August – led to the publication of numerous rumours, reports and debate about the spark for the urgent meeting and what was discussed.
It is certainly true that Russia’s relationship with Israel today is a far cry from the Cold War hostility displayed by the former Soviet Union. Thawed relations have progressively normalised since the Soviet collapse 20 years ago and subsequent mass Jewish immigration to Israel. Two decades of diplomatic relations have evolved into a comprehensive dialogue at the highest state levels, marked by top ranking government exchanges and close cooperation in the fields of aerospace, nano, bio and medical technology, agricultural development, resources and tourism.
The diplomatic dialogue is “very fruitful and very intensive,” according to a senior Israeli foreign ministry official. “The President, Prime Minister and Foreign Minister are key figures in the exchange of ideas which raise all the expected issues and political questions affecting relations between the two states,” he said.
The good civilian bilateral relationship, however, has not produced converging strategic interests. Israel sharply differs with Russian positions on key Middle East issues – especially with respect to Iran’s nuclear program and possible international sanctions on Iran; and the supply of strategic weapons to Iran and Syria, and their transfer to the Hamas and Hezbollah terrorist organisations.
Another difference is Moscow’s hope to host an international peace conference on the Middle East – designed to challenge American leadership and restore Moscow’s profoundly eroded influence in the Arab world. Israeli leaders and senior officials have categorically vetoed Israel’s participation in any Russian-sponsored peace conference, “anywhere in the world,” if Hamas and Hezbollah are present, America is absent and if Russia’s role is not clearly restricted.
No amount of the “sincere and open dialogue,” described by Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman following a June 3 meeting in Moscow with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, has bridged their differences. Lieberman, a former Soviet immigrant and strong advocate of closer ties, confirmed that the two countries found “little common ground on the situation in Lebanon, Sudan, Iraq and other pressing issues.”
Sharp differences over Iran’s nuclear program, missile sales
Israel has persistently alerted the international community to Iran’s undeclared nuclear agenda and repeatedly called for tough and urgent international sanctions against Iran by the United Nations Security Council to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability.
The Russians, who helped build the nuclear reactor at Bushehr, apparently see Iran as an inevitable nuclear power whose interests will have to be accommodated. They have said the process is irreversible and expressed doubt that Iran has an undeclared nuclear weapons program. In principle, Moscow opposes an Iranian nuclear weapons capability which would spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and even Jordan. But it continues to reject international sanctions which would damage its lucrative arms trade, isolate Iran and encourage it to acquire nuclear weapons in self defence.
Russia’s position appears now to be changing, says Yaacov Livney who heads the Euro-Asia desk at Israel’s Foreign Ministry. “Moscow increasingly realises, along with the Americans, the Europeans, Israel and the rest of the world, that Iran’s international behaviour is dishonest.” It has a “growing understanding of the dangers of an Iranian nuclear threat,” he says, and can hopefully be persuaded to support a United Nations Security Council decision for tougher sanctions. “Until now this understanding has been insufficiently translated into action in the Security Council but we hope this too, will change.”
Russian missile sales to Iran are equally contentious. Israel wants the sales “stopped altogether”. The Russians hedge, reassuring they will not sell weapons “that can violate the delicate balance in the Middle East,” and would reconsider future sales.
Shimon Peres said a pledge was given to him at a meeting with his Russian presidential counterpart at Dmitry Medvedev’s Black Sea summer resort on Aug. 19. The Russians denied such a promise. Days later, Medvedev sent a message to Jerusalem agreeing to hold secret discussions at the level of expert officials, according to Haaretz. The paper reported that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s secret Moscow meeting had primarily involved urging Russian defence experts in Moscow to cancel Russia’s proposed sale of S-300 advanced long range anti-aircraft missiles to Teheran – which would strongly bolster Iran’s air defences around its nuclear installations.
Central Asian power politics
Russia has a vital interest in engaging Iran, which it views as a major regional player, to counter balance China’s growing interests in central Asia, says Dr. Nugzar Ter-Oganov a Russian specialist at Tel Aviv University’s Centre for Iranian Studies. Iran and Russia are geopolitical rivals with competing interests in selling Caspian Sea crude oil and natural gas to India and other countries. Stabilising its southern flank with Iran bordering on Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkey can also help to reduce friction and avoid potential Islamic incitement inside the Russian Federation, says Dr. Ter-Oganov.
The Russians further believe that they can enhance their world standing through constructive dialogue with Iran, even if this aggravates tensions with the United States and the European Union in central Europe and the Middle East, writes former Israeli diplomat Zvi Magen in a recent article published by Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.
Magen forecasts that Russia is likely to support Teheran’s nuclear program while “intelligently neutralising international attempts at containment.”
Israel hopes to persuade Russia’s leaders that their appeasement of Iranian nuclear ambitions endangers Russian interests and world stability and to throw their support behind tougher international sanctions in the Security Council.
The Israeli President also was upbeat about Medvedev’s reported intention to upgrade Russia’s strategic relationship with Israel “to the same level with Germany, France and Italy.”
However, Hebrew University specialist Amnon Sela doubts that Moscow and Jerusalem have a genuine strategic axis, “unless secret military intelligence agreements were signed and not published.” Former prime minister Ariel Sharon tried to forge one to counter balance Israel’s dependence on the United States. But when Sharon demanded that their agreement to cooperate in the war against international terrorism should define their mutual obligations and actions, the Russians baulked and matters ground to a halt.
Israel’s intimate strategic relationship with the United States is unrivalled and Washington would be certain to veto a comparable and unlikely Israeli relationship with Russia, Sela says. “Israel and Russia have no common foe. Unlike Israel and the United States, Moscow has disagreed with them on every aspect of the Iranian nuclear threat.”
The baffling hijacking in mid July of the Arctic Sea, a Maltese vessel with a Russian crew sailing under a Finnish flag stimulated theories of a plot involving the Israeli Mossad, possibly cooperating with Russian military intelligence, to intercept the vessel. It is alleged that the vessel, supposedly carrying timber, was actually carrying a concealed shipment of smuggled Russian S-300 anti-aircraft and X-500 anti-naval missiles for the Middle East,
Ron Ben Yishai, military commentator at Israel’s largest circulation daily, Yediot Ahronot, pretty convincingly refuted this conspiracy, suggesting that the most likely explanation is that Russian intelligence agents themselves hijacked and then released the Arctic Sea in a complex operation directed against illicit Russian arms smugglers working out of the Russian military enclave in Kaliningrad.
None of the governments involved commented. Yet some commentators speculated that Peres was cleverly invited to Russia on Aug. 19, the day after the Arctic Sea had been released, to personally thank President Medvedev for preventing the missiles from reaching their destination.