Fyodor Lukyanov is Editor-in-Chief of Russia in Global Affairs, Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, and Research Director of the Valdai International Discussion Club.
Resume: The only issue that seriously divides Russia and Israel is Iran and its nuclear program.
The morning after Israel voted, the leading Russian newspaper Kommersant reported that the elections had turned out as expected: the rightists showed impressive results, giving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu more room to maneuver. The rest of the world, however, was talking about the rightists' amazingly poor performance and the difficult position Netanyahu now finds himself in.
The explanation is simple. The press time for Russia’s print newspapers is earlier than for publications in other countries, and due to the time difference, election results from other countries usually come in too late and have to be published the next day. Since every single forecast expected Netanyahu and Lieberman to win a convincing victory, the journalists at Kommersant decided to scoop their colleagues around the world rather than delay publication. The resulting embarrassment was rather symbolic.
Russian attitudes toward Israeli politics are quite unique. On the one hand, the Soviet tradition, which remains strong, tends toward solidarity with the Arab world, particularly the Palestinian people. This school of thought is also influential in Russian diplomatic circles, in which the guru — the Russian equivalent of Henry Kissinger — is Yevgeny Primakov, a veteran of big-time Middle-East politics. The view that Israel is inherently aggressive toward its neighbors is widespread in the right-wing media, whose representatives play a prominent role in the public debate. Russia’s Muslims generally have a negative view of Israel, and they accuse the government of following a policy of accommodation toward the Jewish state. The Muslim community does not significantly influence Russian foreign policy, but its influence is likely to grow. Among both conservatives and Muslims, there is a widely held belief that the state of Israel, through its “emissaries,” exerts significant influence on Russian policy. Liberal commentators, who are just as numerous as conservatives in the public arena, tend to justify Israel’s actions, whatever they may be, seeing the nation as a victim of historical circumstances.
At the same time, given the psychology of the Russian regime under Vladimir Putin, the Russian leadership views Israel as its most kindred spirit. The rise of Putin to the position of Russia’s “boss” began in 1999 with the war in the Caucasus, when the decisive prime minister took a hard line against the separatists and Islamic radicals in Chechnya, and was indifferent to both the international reaction and the protests within the country. He modeled his actions on Israel, which has always declared that softness or flexibility toward terrorists can only lead to an escalation of the violence. The same approach was taken after the year 2000 when terrorists seized the theater in Moscow and the school in Beslan. Putin categorically rejected negotiations.
The thaw in relations with Israel, which had been severed in 1967 because of the Six-Day War, began with an episode in 1988. In southern Russia, a group of bandits seized a bus carrying school children and demanded an airplane to fly to Israel, which at that time still did not have diplomatic relations with Moscow and was on “the other side” in the Cold War. To the terrorists’ surprise, despite their declarations regarding their political motivation in seizing the bus, the Israeli authorities immediately returned them to the Soviet government. This incident significantly accelerated the process of restoring relations between the countries.
The positioning of the two countries with respect each other is another factor. Given its historical tradition, Russia tends to see the outside world as hostile and dangerous. It is deeply convinced that Russia can ultimately rely only on itself and its own strength. A similar psychology characterizes Israel. Many will think that for tiny Israel, located in very unfriendly surroundings, this view of the world is even more natural than for a giant nuclear power like Russia — but perception is a partially irrational phenomenon. What matters is not what you are, but how you feel; vulnerability is more a psychological than a material concept. Many people in Russia envy and respect Israel’s dedication to the idea of self sufficiency and distrust toward others.
In this sense, Kommersant’s premature declaration of victory for the far right was typical. In Russia, people secretly hope the right-wing radicals will dominate in Israel. This would vindicate the point of view of both those who sympathize with the Jewish state and those who have a very negative opinion of it.
Among Russian Jews, it is difficult to find any “doves” who support the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, except on the left, but very few of them have any interest in foreign affairs. The same trend prevails among Russian-speaking voters in Israel and the United States, where former Soviet and Russian Jews often have political views that could not be farther to the right.
Russian leaders value the ability of their Israeli counterparts to understand the harsh strategic logic of “it’s nothing personal, it’s just business.” But there is also the sense that there are red lines that must not be crossed. During the war in southern Lebanon in 2006, when Israeli special forces showed their Russian colleagues the markings on Russian shells that had been supplied to Syria and then transferred to Hezbollah, Moscow investigated and temporarily suspended its deal with Syria. On the eve of the war between Russia and Georgia, Moscow informally warned Israel that active military cooperation with Tbilisi could backfire, and Israel curtailed its involvement. It is understood in Russia and Israel that there are times when security and strategic interests are more important than transitory advantages.
The Arab Spring, and the civil war in Syria in particular, have created a paradoxical situation. Russia’s relationships with the majority of Arab governments has worsened due to its support for the Assad regime, while its relationship with Israel has remained stable. As tensions grow between Putin’s Russia and both the US and Europe, Israel remains a country that can help Russia modernize, especially since a large number of Israel’s intellectuals are former citizens of the USSR or Russia.
But Israel is a highly complex and diverse society in which there is room for everyone, from the most reactionary traditionalists and religious dogmatists to extremely liberal secular forces. Somehow, they all live together in one country, although the search for balance within the scope of a common identity never ceases. Russia faces the same task today: it needs to develop a common identity to replace the thoroughly depleted Soviet identity. As strange as it sounds, Russia and Israel have much in common. Attempts to reconcile orthodoxy with modern development, the contradiction between the tradition of government patronage and the realities of the global market, and the tension between nationalism and growing multiculturalism — all this is taking place as the familiar world around them crumbles.
The only issue that seriously divides Russia and Israel is Iran and its nuclear program. Russia thinks a nuclear Iran is unpleasant but not fatal, while Israel sees it as an existential threat. Many signs indicate that the situation involving Tehran is coming to a head, one way or another. The Middle East has a reputation that everything happens according to a recurring pattern until something finally shatters that framework. As Petr Stegniy, a leading expert on regional policy and a prominent Russian diplomat, notes: “In the Middle-East process, breakthrough ideas have usually seemed to come out of nowhere, very unexpectedly, at least to the general public.” Iran and Israel are in such a profound deadlock that this type of unexpected move is simply essential, and Russia is potentially in a favorable position to make this happen.