Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands during their meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Russia, September 21, 2015. REUTERS/Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Pool
Love him or hate him, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military intervention in Syria unquestionably upended Middle Eastern politics. Putin supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, established several military bases in Syria, created a defacto Russian-Shi’ite axis, confronted Turkey and forced the West to re-engage with him.
While all the region’s major players feel the influence of Russia’s military campaign, one country overlooked by commentators analyzing Russia’s Syrian campaign is Israel. Israel’s interests vis-à-vis Russia run wide and deep and are impossible for Israel to ignore.
The history of the Israeli-Russian relationship is complicated, to say the least. The Soviet Union supported the creation of Israel in 1948, but then tilted towards the Arab world in the early 1960s and even threatened to attack Israel in both the 1967 Six Day War and 1973 Yom Kippur War.
With the emergence of Putin, though, Israel found the closest thing to a friend it’s ever had in Moscow. Israel and Russia share a common fear of terrorism, and in 2014 Putin was one of the few world leaders to support Israel’s Operation Protective Edge against Hamas, saying “I support Israel’s battle that is intended to keep its citizens protected.” In 2005, Putin became the first Russian president to ever visit Israel, visiting the Western Wall — Judaism’s holiest site — as well as Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, where Putin observed a moment of silence. The Russian president even reportedly purchased an apartment in Tel Aviv for his then- 84-year-old Jewish German teacher. Putin returned to Israel in 2012 as the guest of honor at a state dinner and to inaugurate a monument to the Red Army soldiers who defeated Hitler in World War Two
Despite these positive feelings, Russian national interests remain Putin’s priority, and as Russia modernizes its military and steps to the fore in the Middle East, Moscow possesses significant capabilities to either help or hinder key Israeli interests.
First, although Israel remains determined to avoid entangling itself in Syria’s intractable war, there is one “red line” Israel remains determined to enforce: it will not allow the transfer of advanced weapons from Iran or Syria to archenemy Hezbollah. The Israeli Air Force has not hesitated to enforce this policy, striking weapons convoys in Syria destined for Hezbollah numerous times since the start of the Syrian war.
As a result, Russia’s deployment of advanced surface-to-air S-400 missiles is of grave concern to Israel. With a radius of 250 miles and the ability to target up to 36 aircraft simultaneously, the S-400 is a potential game changer. One senior Israeli officer went so far as to describe it as a potential “nightmare.” In the event of a serious deterioration in the Israeli-Russian relationship, the S-400 could greatly complicate the Israeli Air Force’s ability to strike weapons shipments en route to Hezbollah through Syria. Israel therefore needs assurances from Russia that the S- 400s will not impinge the freedom of movement Israeli jets possess over Syrian airspace
As a result of these concerns — as well as the general desire to avoid accidental clashes with the Russian military — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Moscow to meet Putin as soon as the depth of Russia’s military commitment to Syria became clear. After this meeting — as well as a subsequent conversation with Putin in Paris on the sidelines of the Climate Conference — Netanyahu believed Putin respected Israel’s Hezbollah red line.
Six weeks later, though, the picture appears murkier. According to a recent report, Russia is transferring weapons directly to Hezbollah, since Moscow views Hezbollah as a more effective fighting force than the Syrian army. If the report is accurate — and it’s not yet clear it is — two questions emerge: Is Russia transferring the same types of weapons to Hezbollah that Hezbollah has already acquired from Iran, or are they more advanced? And would Russia permit Hezbollah to use these weapons against Israel as well as the Syrian rebels? Either way, Netanyahu must remain on good terms with Putin to ensure Moscow takes Israeli concerns about Hezbollah into account going forward.
The Israelis also fret about Russia’s supply of weaponry to Iran. After initially signing a deal with Iran in 2007 to supply S-300 anti-aircraft missiles, Russia turned around and cancelled the deal — under pressure from the West, and at least partly out of respect for Israel’s security concerns. After heeding Israeli concerns for nearly a decade though, after the conclusion of the recent P5+1’s nuclear agreement with Iran, Russia announced its intention to finally deliver the S-300s it had promised. A former head of Israel’s missile defense program noted that “there will be a dramatic change in [Iran’s] capability, and it does not create a reasonable environment for any operation of our air force.” Israel now seeks to use its positive relationship with Putin to limit further spillover effects from Moscow’s decision, in particular to ensure that Iran’s S-300s never reach Hezbollah.
Finally, Israel’s third major interest vis-à-vis the Kremlin is the approximately 200,000 Jews remaining in Russia. Indeed, Putin’s positive feelings towards Israel are echoed by what some describe as Putin’s philosemitism, or affinity for the Jewish faith. Domestically, Putin counts numerous Jewish businessmen and officials as friends, and acknowledges the positive influence of Jews on him during his childhood. Putin also supported the founding of the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow, even donating his own money; stated his “fierce opposition to any manifestation of anti-Semitism and xenophobia”; ensured the return of many synagogues to Russian Jews previously seized by the Soviets and just initiated a law against anti-Semitic Biblical commentary.
Despite Putin’s positive disposition towards Russian Jews, given the history of antiSemitism in Russia, Israeli leaders surely understand that a serious deterioration in the Moscow-Israel relationship could hurt the status of the country’s relatively small Jewish population. This offers Israel yet another reason to maintain good relations with the Kremlin.
Israeli foreign policy related to the Ukraine crisis reflects Israel’s desire to avoid alienating Putin. After Russia annexed Crimea, Israel abstained from voting on a United Nations resolution condemning Russian actions — which in UN-speak is actually equivalent to voting against it. Afterwards, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman issued the blandest of statements, saying that “our basic position is that we hope Russia and Ukraine will find a way as quickly as possible to normalize relations, and find a way to talks, and to solve all the problems peacefully.”
The U.S. State Department issued a statement noting it was “surprised Israel did not join the vast majority of countries that vowed to support Ukraine’s territorial integrity in the UN.” Despite American criticism, shortly thereafter Israel also agreed on the installation of a special encrypted communications line between Netanyahu’s and Putin’s offices. Given the United States’ strong opposition to Putin’s move on Crimea, Israel’s willingness to defy its closest ally indicates the extent to which Israeli leaders seek to maintain a good relationship with Putin.
With the Russian Bear now firmly ensconced on its northern border, expect Israel’s leaders to continue paying close attention to the man in the Kremlin.
Israel–Russia relations From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Israel–Russia relations refers to the bilateral foreign relations between the two countries, Israel and Russia.
Russia has an embassy in Tel Aviv and a consulate in Haifa. Israel has an embassy in Moscow and a consulate-general (to open) in Yekaterinburg. Russia is a member of the Quartet on the Middle East. For many years, Israel was a sanctuary for many Russian Jews. This was especially the case during the Aliyah in the 70s and the Aliyah in the 1990s.
Israel is also part Russophone and considered the only part Russophone country outside the Former Soviet Union. Russian is now the third most widely spoken first language in Israel, (after Hebrew and Arabic), and has the third largest number of Russian speakers outside of former Soviet countries, and the highest as a proportion of the total population.
The Soviet period
From late 1944, Joseph Stalin adopted a pro-Zionist foreign policy, apparently believing that the new country would be socialist and would speed the decline of British influence in the Middle East.
Accordingly, in November 1947, the Soviet Union, together with the other Soviet bloc countries voted in favor of the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine, which paved the way for the creation of the State of Israel. On May 17, 1948, three days after Israel declared its independence, the Soviet Union officially granted de jure recognition of Israel, becoming only the second country to recognise the Jewish state (preceded only by the United States’ de facto recognition) and the first country to grant Israel de jure recognition. Israeli ambassador to the Soviet Union Golda Meir surrounded by crowd of 50,000 Jews near Moscow Choral Synagogue on the first day of Rosh Hashanah in 1948.
Golda Meir was appointed Israel’s minister plenipotentiary to the Soviet Union, with her term beginning on 2 September 1948 and ending in March, 1949. During her brief stint in the USSR, Meir attended Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services at the Moscow Choral Synagogue.
In addition to the diplomatic support, arms from Czechoslovakia, part of the Soviet bloc, were crucial to Israel in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. During the war, the Soviet Union supported Israel when it was attacked by Arab countries that opposed the 1947 United Nations General Assembly resolution for the partition of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state.
A major episode in the Soviet relation to the Arab–Israeli conflict was the Suez Crisis, with Egypt negotiating an arms deal with communist Czechoslovakia in September 1955, thereby ending Egypt’s reliance on Western arms. Later, other members of the Warsaw Pact also sold arms to Egypt and Syria. In practice, all sales from the Eastern Bloc were authorized by the Soviet Union, as an attempt to increase Soviet influence over the Middle East. Political relations between the two countries remained poor throughout the Cold War, with the Soviet Union helping Arab states such as Syria, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Algeria and Iraq improve their military capabilities by providing state-of-the-art weaponry and training. Paul Johnson and other historians argue that November 10, 1975 United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3379 that labelled Zionism as racism was orchestrated by the USSR. It was rescinded by the Resolution 4686 in December 1991, which coincided with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
After the Fall of Communism
The USSR resumed diplomatic relations with Israel only in 1991. The popular journalist Alexander Bovin became the first Soviet ambassador to Israel after the resumption of the relations; after the dissolution of the USSR later the same year, he continued to serve as Russia’s ambassador to Israel. The dissolution of the Soviet Union caused a very large immigration wave of Jews from Soviet states. Due to demand from the new immigrants, many Russian language newspapers appeared, and with the development of the multichannel television in Israel during the 1990s, many Russian channels started being rebroadcast in Israel. In November 2002, a new IsraeliRussian channel, Israel Plus, emerged.
On October 19, 1999, Defense Minister of China, General Chi Haotian, after meeting with Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass in Damascus, Syria, to discuss expanding military ties between Syria and China, then flew directly to Israel and met with Ehud Barak, the then Prime Minister and Defense Minister of Israel where they discussed military relations. Among the military arrangements was a $1 billion Israeli Russian sale of military aircraft to China, which were to be jointly produced by Russia and Israel. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President Vladimir Putin meeting in Israel
In 2006, Israeli troops found evidence of Russian-made Kornet-E and Metis-M anti-tank systems in Hezbollah’s possession in southern Lebanon. In 2007, in response to accusations that it was supplying terrorist groups with weapons, Russia said it was conducting inspections of Syrian weapons storage facilities to prevent the weapons from reaching unintended customers. This strained the already-deteriorating relations between Russia and Israel.
In 2006, Vladimir Zhirinovsky visiting as part of a government delegation said that he was concerned particularly about the economic situation for the more than one million Russians living in Israel, and that “Russia will never allow any kind of violence against Israel”.
Russia planned to sell advanced surface to air missiles to neighboring countries,  and condemned Israel’s actions in the Gaza War.  Russia also sent 60 tons of tent, medicines, food and other humanitarian aid to the Palestinians.
In 2011, Putin said: “Israel is, in fact, a special state to us. It is practically a Russian-speaking country. Israel is one of the few foreign countries that can be called Russian-speaking. It’s apparent that more than half of the population speaks Russian.” Putin additionally claimed that Israel could be considered part of the Russian cultural world, and contended that “songs which are considered to be national Israeli songs in Israel are in fact Russian national songs.” He further stated that he regarded Russian-speaking Israeli citizens as his compatriots and part of the ‘Russian world’.
During Operation Protective Edge in 2014, Putin stated that “I support Israel’s battle that is intended to keep its citizens protected.”
In August 2014, Russia began increasing fruit imports from Israel, after banning food imports from the EU, Norway, United States, Canada and Australia.  In October 2014, India and Israel started to export meat to Russia.
In October 2015, Israel and Russia held meetings to co-ordinate over Syria, and avoid accidentally clashing or scrambling each other’s communications while operating over the country.
Russian citizens living in Israel
Hundreds of thousands of Russian-Israeli citizens live in Israel. During Russian elections, the Russian government sets up polling stations across many Israeli cities as well as smaller towns, in order to enable the Russian citizens who are living in Israel to cast their vote. During the 2012, Russian Presidential elections, hundreds of thousands of Russian-Israelis cast their vote in Israel.
Election polls found that in the 2012 election, Mikhail Prokhorov was the most popular candidate for Russian-Israelis to vote for, with Putin coming in second place. However older Russian-Israelis were more likely to vote for Putin.
Israel hosts the most extensive Victory Day celebrations outside of the former USSR. Due to the large number of Red Army veterans who retired to Israel from FSU countries, the Russian government and military regularly send delegations to meet with the Red Army veterans associations in Israel, as well as to take part in the annual Victory Day events.
Israeli community of Moscow
Moscow has the largest Israeli expatriate community in the world, with 80,000 Israeli citizens living in the city as of 2014, almost all of them native Russian-speakers.
Many Israeli 10 cultural events are hosted for the community, and many live part of the year in Israel. (To cater to the Israeli community, Israeli cultural centres are located in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Novosibirsk and Yekaterinburg.) There are 60 flights a week between Tel Aviv and Moscow.
Military collaboration In 2004, a three-way deal was signed between Israel, Russia and India: Israel supplied the $1.1 billion EL/W-2090 radar to the Indian Air Force, with the radar fitted onto the Ilyushin Il-76 platform by Russia. On 6 September 2010, Russia and Israel signed a five-year military agreement.
In April 2009, Russia purchased its first package of drones from Israel (the Bird Eye-400, eight I-View Mk150 and two Searcher Mk.2 UAVs). The deal was worth $53 million.
In a second deal, at the end of 2009, Russia purchased an additional 36 drones from Israel, in a deal worth $100 million.
In October 2010, in a third deal, Russia purchased an additional $400 million of drones from Israel Aerospace Industries. The Israeli drones are to be assembled in Russia.
The production of the Russian-Israeli drones began in 2012, with delivery to the Russian military scheduled for 2014.
In 2015, one of the drones was reportedly shot down by Ukrainian military near the city of Donetsk, Ukraine.
In September 2015, the Russian army purchased another $300 million package of drones from Israel, its fourth purchase of Israeli drones.
Russian tourism to Israel
Israel recently became a destination for Russian tourists. The city of Tel Aviv in particular is a popular destination in Russia due to its large proportion of Russian speakers, hot weather, and beaches.
According to polls, Russian tourist satisfaction after visiting Israel was found to be significantly higher than the average, compared with lower satisfaction ratings from tourists from other countries visiting Israel.
However, in 2015, Russian tourist numbers to Israel fell dramatically due to the economic crisis in Russia and the fall in the value of the ruble.
The 2015 economic crisis in Russia precipitated a crisis in Israel’s tourism industry, as many Russian tourists could no longer afford to visit Israel.
Russian Oil Supplies to Israel
As of 2014, Russia is Israel’s largest supplier of crude oil (alongside Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan).
Israel-Russia Visa-Free Agreement
In 2008, Israel and Russia signed the Visa-Free agreement, allowing mutual visa-free travel between the two countries. Immigrants from Russia and other former Soviet republics account for a significant proportion of Israel’s citizens, meaning that visits to friends and relatives in Russia are likely to be facilitated.
Customs Union Talks
Israel plans to enter a free-trade agreement with Russia. The Customs Union, bringing together Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia, and Israel have launched an exploratory committee to study the prospects for the creation of a free trade zone, the Eurasian Economic Commission (EEC – a single permanent regulatory body of the Customs Union) reported in March 2014.
Encrypted communication line
Russia and Israel have agreed to install a direct encrypted communication network, to facilitate communications between the Russian President and Israeli Prime Minister. One analyst says: “Russia feels very close to the Israeli leadership… The Russians want to speak to Israel without anyone eavesdropping.”
Scientific Collaboration Agreements
In 2011, Israel and Russia signed the Space Co-operation Agreement. The framework agreement is meant to develop joint research programs and other collaborations in areas like astrophysical and planetary research, space biology and medicine, navigational satellites and launching services and technology.
In 2013, the Israeli and Russian government signed agreements to collaborate on nuclear imaging and the development of radioactive materials for dental treatments. Although the agreement is limited to medical treatments, it could form the basis for wider collaboration for ventures between the two countries in nuclear technology. Technology incubators In the field of technology incubators, collaborative projects are being establish between the two states. Rusnano, the Russian government’s vehicle for investments in nanotechnology, has established a branch in Israel, with the aim of setting up a fund for investment in Israeli nanotechnology ventures. Similarly, Russia’s Skolkovo innovation center has established a branch in Israel, the Israel-Skolkovo Gateway/Center (IsraelSK), which involves raising private capital and government grants leveraging for Israeli and Russian start-up companies.