Israel and the Middle East’s Sheriff

By: Shmuel Rosner

JERUSALEM — In 2001, shortly after he was elected prime minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon traveled to meet with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia at the Kremlin.

According to Danny Ayalon, who was an adviser to the Israeli prime minister at the time, Mr. Putin, as is the habit of world leaders, urged Mr. Sharon to hand over territory in the West Bank to the Palestinians. Mr. Sharon, as is the habit of Israeli leaders, got tired of it. Israel, he said, is a tiny place, and for it to give away territory can be dangerous. On the other hand, he said, Russia is such a large country. So it might want to consider giving back the Kurile Islands, which Russia claimed from Japan at the end of World War II. “Russia never cedes territory,” Mr. Putin supposedly retorted. “How else do you think it has gotten so big?”

Two years after that meeting, Mr. Sharon, who grew up speaking Russian, called Mr. Putin “a true friend of Israel.” His unmatched humor made it possible for him to say such things with straight face.

Mr. Putin has a similar ability to hide his true feelings. For evidence, see how he was able to string along the Obama administration over a plan for a cease-fire in Syria. For more evidence, see Russia’s recent announcement that the Kremlin plans to initiate a summit meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, in Moscow.

Mr. Netanyahu doesn’t speak Russian, yet he still seems to have found a common language with Mr. Putin, one he speaks even more fluently than Mr. Sharon. That should not be a surprise. Necessity breeds friendship. In Israel’s case, the Kremlin became a necessity for two very much related reasons: Russia’s growing presence in Middle East affairs and the simultaneous American withdrawal from the region. To put it bluntly, Israel trusts Russia’s intention to become a key player in the region more than it trusts the United States’ intention to stop that from happening.

Israel has long been a pawn in the great superpower game, and so we Israelis have occasionally suspected that the Russians have a sturdier backbone than the Americans. When it comes to foreign affairs, Russians often seem less sentimental and always seem more brutal. These aren’t necessarily virtues, but they are traits that other countries must keep in mind.

Nonetheless, not that long ago, Israel rarely questioned the United States’ basic commitment to contain Russia’s influence in the Middle East. The strategic arrangement was simple: Israel deals with the small dogs of the neighborhood, and the United States makes sure that no big dogs interfere to tip the balance against Israel.

Mr. Putin began challenging this arrangement years ago. In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia. In 2014, it invaded Crimea. And it got away with both. For Israel, this was not a sure sign that things were changing. Israel could still hope that the United States was letting Mr. Putin toy around only with those countries that had the misfortune of residing too close to Russia’s borders.

Then, in the summer of 2015, Russia sent its armed forces to Syria. And while President Obama was still contemplating his response, Mr. Netanyahu boarded a flight to Moscow to meet with the Middle East’s new sheriff. The two leaders may have disagreed in their meeting, but Mr. Netanyahu was clearly recognizing that he had to deal with the Russians. In daringly supporting President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, Mr. Putin had sent a strong signal about Russia’s intentions. And with Russian warplanes flying not far from its northern border, Israel couldn’t ignore it.

For the Russian president, intervening in Syria and inviting talks between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas are ways to demonstrate Russia’s stature and annoy the United States. What better sign is there of Russia’s import when even longtime American allies, like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel, consult with Mr. Putin? Secretary of State John Kerry tried to convene the Israeli and Palestinian leaders but failed. Mr. Putin can succeed, because he is the leader whose invitation Mr. Abbas and Mr. Netanyahu will find much harder to decline.

But that doesn’t mean that the proposal for Russia-backed peace talks is sincere.

Mr. Putin may pretend that he wants to advance peace in the Middle East, but as we have seen in recent months, an unstable region works better for him. He may pretend to want a diplomatic settlement to Syria’s civil war or to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but his allies in Syria — Iran and Hezbollah — will do everything in their power to prevent any peaceful arrangement in Syria except for total victory for the Assad government and, likewise, to prevent any peaceful arrangement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Thus, Palestinian leaders are hardly enthusiastic about Mr. Putin’s initiative. They understand that Russia’s president has little interest in the plight of a people who lack political rights. Mr. Putin has little interest in a people who are irrelevant to making Russia more powerful. Yet they know that they still might have to play along. In the ladder of Middle East concerns, the Palestinians currently occupy the bottom rung.

Mr. Netanyahu is hardly more excited about a meeting with Mr. Abbas in Moscow. His motivations are no less calculated. It is less the Palestinians that he wants to engage by having talks, and more the Russians — and with them the Egyptians and the Saudis, who are also getting closer to Russia and to Israel, and are also wary of and disillusioned with the Obama administration.

All of this means that the next American administration will face a unique challenge in the Middle East. Rather than having to maintain American influence, Washington will have to regain it. For the next president, the challenge might be even more daunting: to make the region both more trusting and more fearful of her or him than it is of Mr. Putin.

Source:  The New York Times

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