Geoffrey Alderman

June 16, 2016

Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid a visit to Moscow to meet his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. This was Netanyahu’s third meeting with Putin in 10 months. Ostensibly, the latest encounter between these two was to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the resumption of diplomatic relations between their countries. But of course this joyous commemoration was merely a convenient excuse. So, too, were the media highlights of the visit: the signing of an agreement reinstating the Russian pension entitlements of around 30,000 Soviet Jews who left the USSR for Israel when the Cold War was at its height; and the handing back to Israel of an Israeli tank that had been captured by Syrian troops at the battle of Sultan Yacoub, during the 1982 Lebanon war.

Agreed, both these photo-calls possessed a symbolic importance. In Putin’s Russia, Soviet-Jewish émigrés are no longer regarded as traitors. Quite the reverse. They are respected, even honoured. It’s worth recalling in this connection that Israel’s new defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, is one of them. Lieberman was born in Moldova (then part of the USSR), and is a personal friend of Putin, whom he took care to meet frequently when he was Israeli’s foreign minister between 2009 and 2012. As for the Magach-3 tank that was once in a Moscow museum and is now being shipped back to Israel, it was one of several captured by Syrian forces during the 10 June 1982 battle, in which 30 IDF soldiers died. The entire operation was a disaster for the Jewish state, and the capture of the tanks, more or less intact, an international humiliation.

Putin’s generosity in returning the tank that a grateful Syrian regime presented to the USSR 34 years ago sends a signal: whatever Russia’s role in the Syria-Israel conflict may have been in former times, that past is dead.

However, as far as Israel is concerned the present plight of the Syrian state is very much a live issue. One of the reasons why Prince Netanyahu has made himself such a frequent supplicant at the court of King Putin is to maintain a dialogue with the man who controls the deployment of Russian military personnel whose job it is to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

These personnel are doing a first-rate job. Assad – who was irresponsibly written off by the west – is slowly winning the war against a mésalliance of rebels, to say nothing of the lunatics running “Islamic State.” Israel has a legitimate concern in ensuring that the militants of Hizbollah, in the Lebanon, do not profit from this conflict.

There is now a hotline between Jerusalem and Moscow

There is now a “hotline” between Jerusalem and Moscow to prevent Russian and Israeli war-jets from encroaching upon each other’s airspace. Putin has maintained a discreet silence about Israeli bombing raids that have destroyed, in Syria, weapons bound for Hizbollah. But should Assad and Hizbollah decide to partner in launching a major ground offensive in southern Syria, Netanyahu will want – and reportedly may already have obtained – a private assurance from Putin that this offensive will not be at Israel’s expense.

Netanyahu is warming to Putin for another reason. Neither Israel nor the Palestinians attended the “peace summit” that took place in Paris at the beginning of this month. It is easy – too easy – to dismiss this meeting of 29 foreign ministers, summoned together to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as nothing more than a French PR stunt.

In Washington DC the “lame duck” American president, Barack Obama, is looking to shape his legacy as he contemplates vacating the White House in a few months’ time. His spokespersons have made it known that should the French government table at the UN Security Council implement a Middle East resolution that Netanyahu may not like, the American veto, on which Israel has relied in the past, may not be forthcoming. But Russia also has a veto. And it’s just possible that Putin may be persuaded to exercise it.

At the end of last month, Putin made an extraordinary visit to Mount Athos, in Greece. There, surrounded by dignitaries of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, he stood on a throne that previously only Byzantine emperors had been permitted to occupy. The last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI, was killed in 1453 while unsuccessfully defending Constantinople (now Istanbul) against the Turks. In April 2016, Putin issued a stark warning to Turkey, that if its forces did not leave Syria, he would restore Istanbul to Christendom.

You can understand why Netanyahu is cosying-up to Putin, can’t you?

 

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