18.11.2007
Russia and Israel: A Romance Aborted?
№4 2007 October/December
Alek D. Epstein

Alek Epstein is a lecturer at the Open University of Israel, the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Institute of Asian and African Studies at the Moscow State University, an expert at the Moscow Institute of the Middle East. He has a Doctorate in History.



 

Fifteen
years have elapsed since the resumption of diplomatic relations
between the Soviet Union/Russia and Israel, which were terminated
in 1967. At this time, we can state with certainty that many hopes
have failed to materialize. The period of the ambassadorship of
Alexander Bovin, the first post-Soviet Russian ambassador to
Israel, was perhaps the golden age in bilateral relations, although
Bovin himself estimated the situation far more critically. “Over my
five and a half years in Israel, I didn’t implement a single large
Israeli-Russian project,” he said.

 

Bovin’s
diplomatic mission in Israel ended in May 1997. Since then,
economic cooperation has become more diverse, but the political
sphere is dominated by rather disturbing tendencies. 

From 1967
through 1991, Israeli-Russian relations hinged on two external
factors. First, the Soviet Union felt strong pressure from Arab
countries that were de facto Soviet allies – despite the fact that
Moscow never set up military-political unions with any of them –
and opposed a restoration of diplomatic relations with the Zionist
state. At the same time, there was an influential factor of Russian
Jews who left for Israel. From Jerusalem’s point of view, an
opportunity for Soviet Jews to emigrate from the Soviet Union in
absence of diplomatic relations between the two countries
(1967-1980) was more preferable than having these relations
together with a ban on the Jews’ emigration to Israel (in 1948-1952
and 1954-1967). Israel demanded that Soviet Jews have the
opportunity to emigrate, and over time – especially after the
adoption of the still effective and very notorious Jackson-Vanik
amendment – this demand became a convenient tool for the Americans
in their anti-Soviet policies. The Soviet Jews were thus placed in
the epicenter of the U.S.S.R.-U.S. standoff.

 

Representation of the interests of all Jews regardless of the
country of their residence has always been a kind of raison d’etre
for Israel. At the same time, the Soviet Union viewed itself as the
state for the workers of the world and a center for the global
fight against capitalism and imperialism. Moscow regarded Israel as
an ally of the forces that it was fighting. The Soviet expansionist
ideology could not sit back and watch an expansionist Israeli
ideology. While the Soviet Union sought to rescue Palestine and the
entire Middle East from the “international Zionism’s nationalistic
madness” (since Zionism was viewed as “blue-star racism at the
service of anti-Communism”), Israeli leaders set themselves the
task of saving Soviet Jews from “the bondage of the Red
Pharaoh.”

 

Restrictions on Jewish emigration were lifted in the late
1980s, and it was expected that bilateral relations would be
heading for an idyllic future. But this did not happen. Moreover,
the current state of the Russian-Israeli relationship looks even
more discouraging than in the previous years.

 

The set of
existing controversies can be reduced to six major problems, three
of which have importance for Israel, another two for Russia, while
the last is of concern for both countries.

 

PROBLEM
1:
ON THE SAME SIDE OF THE
BARRICADES?

 

The
Israelis cannot understand or accept the fact that Russia did not
list Hizbollah and Hamas as terrorist organizations, and even gave
high-level receptions to delegations of Hamas leaders in March 2006
and early March 2007. Both delegations were led by Khaled Mashal
[the head of Hamas Political Bureau – Ed.], who has a reputation as
a bitter foe of Israel.

The
Israelis reacted to those visits quite strongly. The Israelis
reasoned that if Russia claims it doesn’t speak to terrorists but
destroys them instead, why should it invite the leadership of one
of the most odious and bloody terrorist organizations in the world
for talks?

 

It is
highly improbable that Russian diplomats, to say nothing of the
secret services, do not know about the true nature of Hamas and its
connections with Chechen militants. Of course, one may speculate
about Moscow’s policy of double standards in its fight against
terrorism (purporting, for example, that it eliminated Djokhar
Dudayev and Aslan Maskhadov, but invites Khaled Mashal and Ismail
Haniyeh as if they were respectable statesmen). Unfortunately,
however, all countries, including the U.S. and Israel itself,
espouse policies of this sort. Suffice it to recall that in spite
of numerous terrorist attacks committed by the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’
Brigades, the Fatah party, which controls those brigades, has not
been added to the list of terrorist organizations to
date.

 

More
importantly, the Israelis, together with the Americans, had been
counting on Fatah to win the Palestinian election. A Fatah victory
was viewed as a favorable option, although facts prove that these
militants have been responsible for many large-scale terrorist
attacks of the past few years: the death of 11 people in the
Jerusalem district of Beit Israel on March 2, 2002; 22 people
killed at Tel-Aviv’s Central Bus Station on January 5, 2003; and 11
people killed when bus No. 19 was bombed in Jerusalem on January
29, 2004. And what about Fatah leaders’ popularity in the
Palestinian territories? Number one on the list of candidates for
the Palestinian Legislative Council is Marwan Barghouti, a man
serving five life terms in an Israeli jail on charges of organizing
several terrorist attacks. However, no one demands to boycott
Fatah. On the contrary, Israeli leaders support political dialog
and commercial relations with the organization.

 

The
anti-Russian campaign that erupted in the Israeli and U.S. mass
media in February and March 2006 was unjustified in many ways. For
instance, Zeev Schiff, an influential political and defense
commentator, wrote in the leading newspaper Ha’aretz (published in
Hebrew) on February 12, 2006, that by inviting Hamas leaders to
Moscow Russia buried the Road Map peace plan. Is this not a graphic
manifestation of the Orwellian mentality?

 

Schiff is
obviously right in arguing that the Road Map, first published on
April 30, 2003, spells out that peaceful coexistence between the
two neighboring states, Israel and Palestine, will provide a
solution to the Middle East problem. The solution can be reached
only if terror and violence come to a complete stop (and this, in
turn, can only result from energetic antiterrorist measures on the
part of the Palestinian National Authority). He also correctly
claims that Russia knows perfectly well about Hamas’ vehement
objections to this turn of events. Hamas has no good feelings about
the Road Map, and has no plans to act under its
provisions.

 

This,
however, should not lead to the conclusion that by holding meetings
with Hamas leaders the Russians decided to contradict the Road
Map.

 

It is not
Russian diplomacy that should take the blame for the problems of
the Road Map, which incidentally was valid only from 2003 through
to 2005. This document itself abounds in controversies. It states,
in particular: “As early as possible […] and in the context of open
debate and transparent candidate selection/electoral campaign based
on a free, multi-party process, Palestinians hold free, open, and
fair elections.” Well, the elections held in Palestine meet these
requirements, so should Russia shoulder the blame for Hamas’
victory?

 

Earlier,
in spring 2004, the author of this article wrote in a book
published by the Moscow-based Institute of Middle East Studies:
“Can one at all be sure that Hizbollah or Islamic Jihad will not
win a free Palestinian election? […] The authors of the Road Map
proceed from the assumption that liberals necessarily win where
free elections are held. But someone with knowledge about the
sentiments in the Palestinian territories can claim with confidence
that liberal parties and movements seeking a peace settlement will
not have success at the present time. Any effort to impose the
Western mentality on a society with a totally different political
culture… is a dramatic mistake.”

 

Alas, the
mistake was made and now a parliament, the majority of which has
always been calling for the destruction of the State of Israel, is
situated just 45 minutes’ drive from Jerusalem. It was not Russia
that brought Hamas to power. The party’s victory became possible
thanks to the very same Road Map, the commitment to which Israeli
and the U.S. officials try to reaffirm by any means, fair or foul
(the latter is much likelier). Today, it is important to determine
how to make the Hamas leadership realize that Israel is here to
stay.

 

Had the
Russian leaders, who maintain a rather intensive political dialog
with the Israeli government, succeeded at transforming the
mentality of Hamas leaders – similar to the transformation of the
Fatah movement under the rule of Yasser Arafat, it would have been
the greatest contribution to the Road Map rehabilitation.
Unfortunately, the Russians failed to do that.

 

What
seemed really blasphemous – even from the point of view of a
secular man – is that Patriarch Alexii II received the militants in
March 2006, thus legitimizing them not only in the political realm,
but in the spiritual and religious ones as well.

 

As for the
motives underlying the second trip by the Hamas delegation to
Moscow, even Russia’s best friends among the Israelis could not
understand it. While in the first trip it was still possible to
hope that Russian diplomacy was capable of tempering the Islamic
radicals’ unappeasable stance on Israel, nobody entertained such
hopes in March 2007. Diplomats in Moscow explained President
Putin’s consent to meet with Hamas officials with the public
declaration that Hamas was prepared to recognize the agreements
with Israel first signed by the Palestine Liberation Organization
and then by the Palestinian National Authority. Khaled Mashal and
his associates preferred to excuse themselves from a meeting with
Putin. Eventually, both visits not only did nothing to push the
Middle East talks forward but simply worsened Russian-Israeli
relations.

 

Moscow
hoped to gain some dividends by befriending all parties involved in
the Middle East conflict. For example, immediately following talks
with Khaled Mashal, Russian leaders received Avigdor Lieberman, one
of the most irreconcilable Israeli politicians. This move triggered
a new wave of criticism in Israel, however, and Lieberman was
targeted, too (for his ostensible role of a fig leaf for Russian
diplomacy). As Israeli observer Mark Galesnik wrote, “Lieberman
traveled to Moscow and announced to the whole world from there that
Russia and Israel are standing on the same side of the barricades.
This, most obviously, is the minister’s main strategic achievement,
since not even a trace of any other achievements exists. His
triumph, though, was slightly spoiled by the fact that the chair he
was sitting on while publicly announcing his accomplishments had
just been warmed by the behind of Hamas’s head… Khaled Mashal, who
declared almost the same things from Moscow just a day before.
Remarkably, the day after Lieberman’s speech, reports came from the
barricades that some ultra-advanced Russian weaponry was being sold
to Syria… Lieberman’s visit to Moscow legitimized connections
between the Kremlin and Hamas and, additionally, optimized
Russian-Syrian ties. As for Israel, the trip gloriously crowned a
one-hundred-day-old discomfiture named the ‘new national
strategy’.”

 

PROBLEM
2:
WHO SHOULD RUSSIA SELL
WEAPONS TO?

 

Jerusalem
has a highly derogatory view of Russia’s cooperation with Iran and
Syria, the two most anti-Israeli countries, in the field of defense
technologies. The Israelis do not trust Russia when it says it is
pursuing exclusively financial considerations by selling advanced
antiaircraft defenses, jets and other armaments. Suffice it to
recall Russia’s recent military supply contract with Syria – worth
$1 billion – signed about the same time that Moscow declared it was
writing off Syria’s debt of $9 billion. If Russia were really
interested in just money, it would not seem to be a prudent venture
to promise new supplies to a country that had not yet paid for the
previous ones.

 

Israel
regards Russia’s cooperation with Syria and Iran as an indicator of
the Kremlin’s willingness to regain the previously lost status of a
great power in the Middle East. It hopes to achieve this, Israel
believes, by replaying a system of relationships that existed
before Gorbachev’s perestroika. “And what do you want from them?
All of them grew out of Primakov’s greatcoat,” say the Israelis as
they allude to a book that Primakov entitled, Confidential. Middle
East in the Limelight and Behind the Scenes and published in August
2006. Primakov wrote that the Israeli operation against Hezbollah
(in the same month) was “a bloody war that Israeli war-mongers led
in Lebanon.”

 

Meanwhile,
Russia’s assistance to Iran’s unfolding nuclear program, and its
efforts to block U.S. attempts to drive Teheran into international
isolation, is interpreted by many as a bold testimony to the
Russian leadership’s anti-Israeli policies.

 

In the
meantime, Russia is not the only country supplying weaponry to
ill-willed regimes. Such actions are typical of Israel itself (to
say nothing of its best friend, the U.S.), and this makes it
difficult to understand why others demand that Russia be “a greater
Christian than the Pope.”

 

PROBLEM
3:
DISILLUSIONMENT AND
EMBARRASSMENT

 

It is hard
to say what irritated the Israeli government and society more
during the war against Lebanon: Hezbollah delivering strikes at
Israeli territory with Russian-made armaments, or Russian officials
turning a blind eye to this obvious fact. Prime Minister Ehud
Olmert’s visit to Moscow two months after the end of combat
operations did not eliminate the contradictions.

 

Fifteen
years ago, many people in Israel felt sincere joy as relations were
restored with Russia, a country whose historical territory is a
birthplace of the majority of Israel’s founding fathers. Yet during
the second Lebanese war, the pendulum of public sentiment swung to
the opposite side, as disillusionment and embarrassment took the
place of happiness. Remarkably, such sentiments clearly contrast
with the admiration that the majority of Israelis feel toward the
U.S.

 

The
problem is that Russia had nothing to do with Hezbollah’s
provocation against Israel – an attack against an Israeli outpost
on July 12, 2006, which was responsible for the death of eight
soldiers of Israeli Defense Forces. Another two soldiers were taken
captive, and virtually nothing is known about their fate even now.
The incident spilled over into the Israeli-Lebanese war. Nor can
anyone blame Russia for Israel’s eventual inability to win the war,
contrary to all expectations. Nor does Moscow have any guilt for
the Israeli political leadership’s decision to end the hostilities
at a time when none of the goals declared by Prime Minister Olmert
were reached. The captured soldiers remained in captivity,
Hezbollah was not disarmed, and the threat to Israel’s northern
borders continued unabated.

 

It is true
that Hezbollah fought with the aid of Russian weaponry, but what
should we make of this? The Arab armies were equipped with Soviet
weapons both during the Six-Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War
in 1973 – yet were defeated all the same.

 

PROBLEM
4:
ALL THE EGGS IN ONE
BASKET

 

David
Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister (1948-1953) and Defense
Minister (1955-1963), and Moshe Sharett, the first Foreign Minister
(1948-1956) and the second Prime Minister (1954-1955), understood
perfectly well how important it was for a small country surrounded
by enemies to maneuver between superpowers while keeping the eggs
in different baskets at the same time. In September 1952, Israel
and Germany, which was guilty of the deaths of millions of Jews,
signed an agreement on reparations for looted and confiscated
Jewish property. Even though Britain actively blocked the rise of
an independent Jewish state in Palestine, and impeded the
immigration of Jews there during the Holocaust, it was with London
(and Paris) that Israel signed a pact on joint combat operations
against Egypt during the Suez crisis of 1956. Although Ben-Gurion
never sided with supporters of the Stalinist model of ‘barrack-room
socialism,’ the Soviet Union became the first country to recognize
the State of Israel in 1948. Meanwhile, Soviet weaponry (which the
Israelis received via Czechoslovakia) helped the country win the
Independence War of 1948 and 1949.

 

Over the
last several decades, Israel has been pursuing a one-sided and
imbalanced foreign policy. Whatever the actions taken by
Washington, the U.S. is perceived as Israel’s only genuine partner.
Meanwhile, it is Israel’s “best friends” that have been keeping
Israeli agent Jonathan Pollard in prison for over twenty years. The
U.S. never recognized Jerusalem (even its western part) as the
capital of Israel, and never agreed to consider the Golan Heights
as a part of Israel. The U.S. never made a statement to support
Israel’s right to refuse to readmit Palestinian refugees or their
descendants on its territory. Yet the Israelis continue crying –
perhaps louder than anyone else in the world – “God bless America,
America and no other country!”

 

Such an
approach toward the U.S. predestines the ‘I don’t-give-a-damn’
attitude toward Russia in the majority of the Israeli
establishment. The truth, however, is that Russia remains a nuclear
power and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, not to
mention its status of a guarantor of global energy security. Russia
is the home to the world’s third largest Jewish community (this
factor has always played a special role in bilateral
relations).

 

In the
past fifteen years, Israel appointed four ambassadors to Russia who
did not speak Russian and had virtually no knowledge of the
country’s politics and culture. When offers of mediating in various
areas of the Arab-Israeli peace settlement come from Russian
diplomats, many of whom are versatile and pragmatically thinking
experts with sound knowledge of the Middle East, Israeli leaders
reject them outright. On some occasions, Russian representatives
would be denied invitations to the very events in which they must
participate due to the country’s status as a co-sponsor of the
Middle East peace talks (this was the case with the Sharm al-Sheikh
summit in 2005).

 

Prime
Minister Ariel Sharon made dozens, if not hundreds, of declarations
about allegiance to the Road Map. However, in November 2003 when
the UN Security Council acted on Russia’s initiative and passed
Resolution 1515, which merely guaranteed its support to the Road
Map, Jerusalem took it as an anti-Israeli demarche.

 

If Israel
really wants a foreign policy to meet its own national interests –
one that is not pegged to American interests – it should make its
own way. It should adopt a course of building multivector relations
with various world powers, including Russia, since it will always
be a global power. Israel must establish a fruitful dialog with the
Kremlin for its own benefit. Only a serious and professional
exchange of opinions will help reach a level of mutual
understanding that will help consolidate the geopolitical position
of the Jewish state.

 

PROBLEM
5:
GETTING WHAT IS ONE’S
OWN

 

Russia has
a number of complaints against Israel, too. One of them concerns
Russian real estate in Jerusalem. While not actually denying the
legitimacy of Russia’s claims to the St. Sergius Metochion and the
building of the Russian church mission, as well as various other
facilities in Jerusalem, the Israelis continue to offer vague
promises and unbinding pledges to transfer this property to
Russia’s control. The issue has been on the agenda of almost every
meeting between Russian and Israeli leaders, yet it remains right
where it was ten years ago. The Russian side is especially
irritated by Israel’s unwillingness to heed President Putin’s
personal appeal to expedite the solution of the problem.

 

Another
problem overshadowing Moscow’s perception of Israel is that it
remains the domicile of particular individuals whose extradition
Moscow insists on – mostly businessmen linked to the YUKOS oil
corporation. One of these individuals that the Prosecutor General’s
Office of Russia would like to have back is Leonid Nevzlin, former
member of the upper house of Russian parliament, the second
president of the Russian Jewish Congress, and the closest ally of
YUKOS’ former CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

 

One cannot
say that Israel does not extradite its citizens a priori. In 2002,
it extradited the leader of Moscow’s Baumansky criminal group,
Andrei Zhuravlev. A year later, the Israelis extradited Gennady
Yagudayev, a man whom Russia placed on its federal wanted list for
a series of crimes. But as for Nevzlin, he not only received
citizenship, but also quickly rose to the president on the board of
trustees of the Diaspora Museum. Furthermore, he set up a center –
which carries his very own name – at the Jerusalem Hebrew
University, etc. This situation vexes the Russian leaders; they
view Nevzlin’s current status as proof of Israel’s disdain for
demands placed by Russian security agencies, including those via
Interpol.

 

PROBLEM
6:
HOW TO HEAR EACH
OTHER

 

Mutual
mistrust has irrevocably complicated interaction between official
agencies of the two countries. Here are just two examples of the
multitude of cases of distrust. 

 

Currently,
four Israelis who traded in diamonds and received long jail terms
are being held in a Russian jail. Two Israeli Justice Ministers
asked Moscow to pardon these individuals, but there are no signs at
the moment that the issue is proceeding anywhere.

 

In
November 2006, the Israeli side publicly refused to extend
accreditation to Dr. Alexander Kryukov, a well-known professor of
the Hebrew language and literature, whom the Russians requested to
receive as the director of a Russian Cultural Center, which was set
up under the auspices of the Foreign Ministry. The Israelis offered
no explanations for the rejection. Even though eventually the
professor did receive the necessary documents, the scandal that
dragged on for several months did no good to bilateral
relations.

 

It would be
highly advisable for the numerous Jewish organizations in Russia to
set themselves down to the task of helping the Russian Federation
and Israel to improve their relationship. The leaders of Russian
Jews who live in Russia and regularly visit Israel understand the
mentality and considerations of both the Russian and Israeli top
government officials. Hence, it is only they who can build the
bridges between the two nations