Pragmatism Guides Israel-Russia Ties, but Netanyahu Should Be Wary

Pragmatism Guides Israel-Russia Ties, but Netanyahu Should Be Wary
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov review an honor guard, Moscow, June 6, 2016 (AP photo by Ivan Sekretarev).

Russia might be doing all it can to secure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s grip on power in Syria, but that hasn’t dissuaded Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from pursuing robust ties with Moscow. Last week, he and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev met in Jerusalem to mark the 25th anniversary of Russia-Israel ties. They capped off the occasion by signing a series of bilateral agreements on agriculture, technology and construction.

Medvedev’s visit comes after a good year for Israel-Russia ties, described by The Washington Post as a “budding bromance.” Since September 2015, Netanyahu has met with Russian President Vladimir Putin three times; during that same period, the Israeli prime minister met with U.S. President Barack Obama just once. While the animus between Netanyahu and Obama is hardly a secret, the deepening of ties between Israel and Russia coincides with Moscow’s growing involvement in the Middle East, most notably in Syria.

Warm relations predate Russia’s Syria intervention, though Israel-Russia ties haven’t been historically rosy. While the former Soviet Union supported Israel’s creation in 1948, it shifted toward supporting Arab countries during the Cold War and backed Egypt and Syria in both the 1967 and 1973 wars, even threatening to intervene directly on their side against Israel. Ties were tepid after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but when Putin came into power in 2000, he saw a key security partner in Israel and moved quickly to improve ties. In 2005, he became the first Russian president to visit Israel, and in 2008, he gave the Israeli prime minister advance warning of his plans to attack Georgia. In 2014, when Israel came under heavy international criticism for its military operation against Hamas in Gaza, which resulted in extensive civilian casualties, Putin was among the few world leaders to vocally support it.

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