Israel-Russia: The New Borscht Belt

In the days preceding this week’s historic meeting of the BRICs — Brazil, Russia, India and China — in Russia, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was in Moscow promoting Israeli-Russian ties. Lieberman took the opportunity to point out that Russian attitudes towards Israel were better than in a lot of Western European countries where, in Liberman’s calculus, sympathy for the Palestinians in the wake of Gaza amounts to anti-Semitism.

Born in Moldova and a fluent Russian speaker, Lieberman was able to speak to Putin directly in Russian. Each pledged to develop ties further, to involve Russia in Middle East issues. Could a new Jerusalem-Moscow axis be emerging to counter the nascent Washington-Cairo-Ramallah one?

Given that Lieberman’s early educational aspirations were stunted by Soviet-era anti-Semitism, it’s a surprise to see him sidle up to Putin. But in fairness, Putin is no anti-Semite and Lieberman feels culturally more attached to Mother Russia than he does to Washington. A broader point could be made that Israel itself, with its hundreds of thousands of recent Eastern European immigrants, is, as a whole, more Borscht than Broadway. Just take a stroll along the boardwalk in an Israeli city like Ashdod, one of Liberman’s power bases, and try to find someone who isn’t speaking Russian.

What should Washington make of all this?

On one level, Lieberman is trying out his new role as foreign minister in a country where he feels at home. It’s a little bit like the prodigal son coming back to the old neighborhood to show the bullies who forced him out that he was too good to fail.

On a policy level, however, it really makes sense for Israel to broaden its diplomatic outreach, even though it is likely to raise a few eyebrows elsewhere. The Russians want Israeli technology (as evidenced by their recent purchase of Israeli anti-missile technology) and Moscow will likely find a friend in the Israeli high-tech and real-estate sectors.

On a more prosaic level, Russian organized crime would also benefit from closer ties with Israel, as a new destination to launder money and expand their franchises for drugs, prostitution and smuggling. It’s difficult to believe that the other countries in the Middle East would be quite so open to these colorful pastimes.

One of the startling revelations coming from Lieberman in Moscow was his statement that Israel had no plans in the works to bomb Iran. This is a contradiction to the recent Israeli proclamations that “all options are on the table.” Perhaps getting Lieberman to back down on Moscow’s ally Tehran was Putin’s doing. But in exchange for what?

With Washington exerting almost no leverage over Tehran, can the judo-master Putin bend the ayatollahs into shape and put Russia back into the Middle East game after decades on the sidelines?

Whatever happens between Jerusalem and Moscow can’t be good for U.S. interests. But given that U.S. support for Israel seems to be wavering, what choices does Israel have?