Israel’s skillful balancing act between superpowers is becoming too hard to sustain. Since U.S.-Russian relations started to fray following the 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, with sanctions, diplomatic expulsions and consulate closures, Israel has worked hard not to become entangled in this confrontation.
“Then the king of Syria warred against Israel, and took counsel with his servants, saying, In such and such a place shall be my camp.”2 Kings 6:8 (KJV)
EDITOR’S NOTE: If President Trump follows through on his threat to rain down missiles on Syria, America’s biggest ally in the region Israel is going to be forced to side with them against Russia, and Russia will consequently retaliate against both the United States and Israel. Turkey, Iran and Lebanon would jump at the chance to side with Russia against their biggest enemy Israel, and in a matter of hours it could turn into a battle of Biblical proportions. And May 14th is officially now only a mere 34 days away…imagine that.
It seemed to work until now. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu maintained Israel’s strategic alliance with the U.S. while reaching crucial understandings with a resurgent Russia that has become a dominant force in his country’s backyard.
Russian President Vladimir Putin looked the other way as Israel repeatedly attacked Iranian and regime military installations in Syria. Russia also delivered on its tacit pledge to prevent the deployment of Iranian forces and their proxies in the vicinity of the Israeli-held Golan Heights.
In exchange, Israel took a much softer line on Russia than most Western countries. Those steps ranged from declining to support a U.S.-backed United Nations resolution on Crimea in 2014 to deciding not to expel Russian diplomats when over two dozen Western countries did so in response to the use of a nerve agent against a former Russian spy in the U.K. last month.
All of this is changing now that President Donald Trump (and, likely, France) is readying major strikes against the Syrian regime to punish it for its alleged use of lethal chemical weapons in the rebel-held Douma area northeast of Damascus. With Moscow warning of grave consequences if these strikes go ahead, Israel’s bilateral understandings with the Kremlin risk being swept away by a much broader clash.
“It has definitely been a goal of Israeli policy to avoid confronting Russia on a number of issues that have been a cause of friction between Russia and the West,” said Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel in 2011-2017 and currently a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
“But if we see an open conflict emerge between Russia and the U.S., I don’t think Israel could afford that luxury,” he added. “Israel’s primary alliance is of course with the United States. Israel will stand beside the United States, but this would be a particularly painful vise to be caught in.”
Despite those risks, Israeli officials support the idea of meaningful U.S. military action in Syria, in part because they want to enforce red lines against any use of chemical weapons in the Middle East—and in part because they think that such a campaign may prompt Mr. Trump to reconsider his announced desire to withdraw American forces that currently secure a large part of eastern Syria.
Such a withdrawal, in Israel’s view, would be a strategic boon to its existential foe, the Iranian regime, as well as to Russia.
“As long as the Americans are there, the Iranians are worried and restrained, and once the Americans will be out there will be a problem,” said Eyal Zisser, Syria expert at Tel Aviv University.
In a way, Israel’s current predicament with Moscow is a replay of the past. The Soviet Union helped establish Israel and was the first country to bestow on it de jure diplomatic recognition, as well as getting satellite Czechoslovakia to supply it with weapons in 1948.
But American-Soviet hostility during the Cold War pushed Moscow to sever its ties with Israel and to arm and fund Israel’s Arab enemies, most notably Syria.
It was only in 1991 that the two countries resumed diplomatic relations, an event followed by the migration of over a million Soviet Jews to Israel and the flourishing of business, tourism and cultural connections.
“The current friendly relations between Russia and Israel are a deviation from the norm,” said Maxim Suchkov, a Middle East expert at the Russian International Affairs Council, a state think tank. “The current escalation over Syria can shuffle all the cards, including the Russian-Israeli ties.”
Up until now, Mr. Netanyahu’s diplomacy resulted in Russia tolerating Israel’s military activity in Syria against Iran and Iranian proxies, within well-defined limits and using a coordination mechanism to prevent mishaps.
“There are a lot of agreements and understandings. As long as Russia has no Russians hurt in Israeli actions and Israel doesn’t threaten the stability of the Assad regime, tactical deconfliction and leadership interactions make it easier,” said reserve Brig. Gen. Assaf Orion, who served until 2015 as head of strategic planning in Israel’s General Staff.
That equation, however, would change fundamentally should U.S. (and French) military action pose a material threat to the Syrian regime’s stability—and endanger Moscow’s hard-won sway in Syria.
“Netanyahu’s many visits to Moscow were great, and I am sure that his personal relations with Putin are very warm and close,” said Ksenia Svetlova, a Russian-born Israeli lawmaker. “But that doesn’t change the fact that Russia has its own ironclad interests in Syria, and that those interests are incompatible with ours.” source