The Fragility Of Relations Between Russia & Israel
A decline in relations between Israel and Russia has been noticeable recently after a few developments that cast a shadow on both countries. These include Israel’s bombing of Damascus International Airport in June and its continued siding with the West over Ukraine, as well as its agreement with the EU to supply natural gas as an alternative to Russia.
The diplomatic relations between Israel and Russia date back to the time of the Soviet Union: with the German invasion of Russia in 1941, Joseph Stalin reversed his long-standing opposition to Zionism in order to mobilize worldwide Jewish support for the Soviet war effort.
Indeed, by 1944, he adopted a pro-zionist foreign policy hoping that a potential new Jew country would join socialist ideals and lead to the decline of British influence in the Middle East. As a consequence, the Soviet Union and its satellite states voted in November 1947 for the UN Partition Plan for Palestine, officially recognizing Israel the following year.
Nevertheless, once Israel had been established, Stalin started to favor the Arabs and launched attacks on Soviet Jews, eventually cutting off diplomatic relations with Israel in 1967 following the Six-Day War.
The Soviet Union resumed diplomatic relations with Israel on 18 October 1991 and, after its collapse on 26 December of the same year, a massive migration wave of Jews from the ex-Soviet states occurred.
In 1999, relations between the two countries further improved when the then Minister of Foreign Affairs Ariel Sharon began to court more friendly relations with Russia as a result of the large-scale immigration of Russian speakers to Israel and due to Israeli opposition to the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, as well as Israeli support for the International Monetary Fund loans to Russia.
The diplomatic relations between Israel and Russia had a substantial boost only in 2000, with the election of the more pro-Israel Vladimir Putin, and in 2001, with the election of the pro-Russian Ariel Sharon.
However, their ties were strained in 2006, when Israeli troops found evidence of Russian-made anti-tank systems in Hezbollah’s possession in southern Lebanon and following Russia’s condemnation of Israel’s actions in the Gaza War.
Their relationship rekindled after the Russian military intervention in Syria in September 2015 and the 2016 U.S. presidential election: Israel, indeed, began lobbying the United States to strike a deal with Russia over restricting the Iranian military presence in Syria in exchange for removing sanctions over Russian military action in Ukraine.
Donald Trump was reportedly a favorite candidate for both, as he is widely seen as a strong supporter of Israel yet friendly to Russia. Both countries are still being accused of meddling in the 2016 U.S. election to help Trump to power, with Putin found to have an exclusive influence on Netanyahu and Trump’s political decisions in their respective countries.
The crisis of the relations
At the beginning of March, two weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett flew in secret to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, offering his services as a mediator. He did so while keeping in touch with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky too.
Following the Bucha massacre, Israel subsequently voted for a resolution to suspend Russia from the United Nations Human Rights Council. However, even though Israeli Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman condemned “war crimes”, he declined to condemn Russia specifically.
On 12 April 2022, the Israeli government cited “regional considerations”, including the “area border with Russia over the skies of Syria and Lebanon”, for its decision not to send military aid to Ukraine or join Western sanctions on Russia.
But Israel’s attempt to maintain a balanced stance on the Ukraine crisis was short-lived: under U.S. pressure, not only did Israel vote to condemn Moscow’s invasion in the UN General Assembly but also pushed the United Arab Emirates to back the resolution.
The action further strained the ties between Russia and Israel, and the Russian reaction to the Israeli attack on the Damascus International Airport in June is proof. Moscow promptly issued a strong condemnation of the attack – the first of its kind since the start of the Israeli aggression in the Arab country in 2013 – which it described as a violation of international law.
It is evident that the tensions are not due to care for the Syrian regime’s safety, considering that Israeli aggression against it has been going on for nine years: Russia’s objection seems to be connected to Israel’s pro-Western position with regard to the Russian war in Ukraine.
Russia has actually accused Israel of supporting the “neo-Nazi regime in Kyiv”, adding that Israeli “mercenaries” are fighting against the Russian army. In fact, the news that nine Israelis have been killed fighting alongside Ukrainian forces sparked a new dispute between Russia and Israel. Although Tel Aviv did not comment on the Russian news, it is clear that this matter represents a substantial addition to the crises that have erupted between the two countries since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine.
Furthermore, a deal to supply gas to Europe via Egypt, agreed at the Eastern Mediterranean Regional Gas Forum (EMGF), might lead to another crisis with Russia. The agreement is part of the effort by Europe to get an alternative supplier and avoid violating European sanctions against Russia. In light of recent events, there is still the possibility of further escalation in the coming days.