New Relationships, Not New Love

By Herb Keinon

Jerusalem Post

August 26, 2016


Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sudden hyperactivity in the Middle East is turning him into a regional Energizer Bunny.

His hands are everywhere: one day he’s reconciling with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the next he’s bombing targets in Syria from bases in Iran. One day he’s telling Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi that he wants to host Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, the next he’s talking to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about that very idea.

The Kremlin put out a two-sentence statement on Wednesday saying that Netanyahu called Putin to discuss the diplomatic process and regional issues. The Prime Minister’s Office made no mention of the call.

And this was not the first time. In fact, there is a pattern developing here. Every few weeks the Israeli public learns of a phone call their leader had with the Russian president not via a statement released by the Prime Minister’s Office, but rather because the Kremlin announced the call.

Moscow, it seems, is keen on underlying these regular contacts, while Jerusalem does not want to cast a spotlight on them. And there is a reason for both courses of action.

Russia is eager to signal to everyone that it is now a key player in the region with good ties and open communications with everyone, from the Iranians to the Israelis, the Syrians to the Egyptians.

And Jerusalem is not keen on highlighting the frequency of the calls because it does not want to create the wrong impression regarding the nature of its relationship with Moscow.

Yes, Netanyahu has met face-to-face with Putin four times since last September, contrasted with only one meeting he has had during this same period with US President Barack Obama.

And, yes, Netanyahu speaks by phone more with the Russian leader than he does with the American president.

But don’t conclude from the frequency of that personal contact that Israel is cozying up to Putin because of tense ties between Obama and Netanyahu, or that Jerusalem is casting its eyes toward a Russia looking to become more involved in the Middle East, rather than an America eager to distance itself from the troubled region.

Israel, as Netanyahu says in private meetings, is looking to form new relationships all over the world: in Africa, with as many countries as possible; in Asia, with the Chinese, Japanese and Indians; and in South America, with Argentina, Colombia and Paraguay. It is not looking to replace America with these relationships, but rather to augment its own position in the world by diversifying its relationships.

“We are diversifying our alliances,” Netanyahu said recently in a private meeting.

“Not as a replacement to our alliance with the US, but as an addition.”

Nowhere is this more true than with the relationship with Russia. Like it or not, Russia in now a very muscular force in the region, militarily involved right on Israel’s front porch in Syria.

That presence there demands constant consultation between Netanyahu and Putin to ensure that there are no “accidents” between Israeli and Russian forces.

The deconfliction mechanism set up in September to ensure that Israeli and Russian pilots do not inadvertently shoot each other down over Syrian skies needs to be maintained. Close consultation is essential.

But that type of consultation – even if held often at the very top levels – comes nowhere near the type of intimate cooperation and consultation that exists, at all levels, between Washington and Jerusalem. In fact, it doesn’t even compare.