Why Is Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu Warming to Russia's Vladimir Putin?

Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) welcomes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting at the Kremlin, Moscow June 7. Maxim Shipenkov/Pool/Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were all smiles when they shook hands for the fourth time in a year Tuesday.

Netanyahu is in Moscow for the third time since fall 2015 to mark the 25th anniversary of Russia and Israel's diplomatic relationship. It is therefore all the more surprising that the two men are meeting in such amicable circumstances.

Far from being traditional bedfellows, the Kremlin and Tel Aviv did not even maintain direct channels with one another until a quarter of a century ago. The Soviet Union perceived Israel as a U.S.-backed state and even motioned that the U.N. equate Zionism to racism in 1975. Israel, meanwhile, perceived Moscow as a backer of regional foes such as Syria and Egypt.

Now the situation has changed greatly. Israeli newspaper Haaretz declared that "ties between Israel and Russia have never been better" on the eve of the meeting. Putin and Netanyahu have quite a few reasons to get along and it is not out of the question that the two leaders will find plenty more occasions to touch base in future. Here is why.

Putin and Netanyahu want to avoid clashes in Syria

Both countries have military operations above war-torn Syria. Miscommunication appeared to result in the downing of a Russian jet by Turkey in November 2015, which Turkey alleges was in its airspace. Stephen Sestanovich from the Council for Foreign Relations thinks this is a crucial reason to keep strong communication channels open.

"This relationship between the two countries is nothing mysterious. Russia elbowed itself into the region last year," he says. "The Israelis are interested in minimizing the risk of clashes with their military operations in the region. Look at what happened with Turkey shooting down the Russian jet. The Israelis don't want that to happen to their jets."

Netanyahu feels Russia can help negotiate with Iran

"For Tel Aviv, relations with Moscow provide a means of influencing the behavior of Syria and Iran, Russia's regional partners," Daragh McDowell, principal analyst, Europe and Central Asia at Verisk Maplecroft, says.

While the U.S. was once a strong guarantor for Israeli security from Iran, Netanyahu has been strongly opposed to the Obama administration's nuclear deal with Tehran, which allows the use of non-weaponized nuclear energy.

Russia, meanwhile, is an arms supplier to Iran, currently delivering an S-300 missile system to the Islamic Republic. Israel will hope it can use a close relationship with Russia to stop Iran-backed militants from accessing new arms.

"Israel has largely resigned itself to the transfer of the S-300 missile system to Iran, and places a higher value on Russia's ability to dissuade Tehran from transferring arms and other materiel to proxy forces such as Hezbollah," McDowell says.

Putin needs support in Syria

Russia's ongoing military intervention in Syria has seen Moscow solidify its presence, as it now permanently operates an airfield and an upgraded naval base in Tartous. If Russia is committed to a long-term presence in the Middle East via Syria, Israel is a strategic ally.

"Co-operation with Israel brings a greater knowledge of regional actors, particularly in the field of counter-terrorism," McDowell says.

Israel's sophisticated military intelligence on its neighbor Syria and others would be a great asset to Moscow. What is more, both countries have a stake in the situation in Syria and greater cooperation and leniency ensures situations such as Turkey's decision to shoot down a Russian jet do not repeat themselves.

Netanyahu wants to keep the Golan Heights

During his visit to Moscow in April, the Israeli leader was clear that he does not plan on scaling back Israeli control of the Golan Heights region, describing control of the territory as "a red line". Although formally part of Syria, the Heights have been under Israeli control since 1967.

Russia is the Syrian government's strongest ally and a close relationship with the Kremlin certainly strengthens Netanyahu's hand should Israel seek international recognition of its control over the region.

Putin can reduce U.S. standing in the Middle East

Russia was unsuccessful in attracting Western regional partners such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia to back the pro-Assad front in Syria. However, a partnership with U.S.-ally Israel improves his country's credentials as a diplomatic power at the expense of the U.S.

"Russia and Israel have been collaborating more on security matters for some time now, even though the U.S. remains Israel's primary security partner," McDowell says. "For Russia, developing ties with Israel is an important part of its overall effort to gain and maintain an enduring strategic foothold in the Middle East while also reducing U.S. influence in the region."

Netanyahu looks to strengthen pro-Russian vote

Outside the former Soviet Union, Israel has the world's third largest Russian-speaking community. While anti-Semitism was a systemic problem in many parts of the Soviet Union, and continues to be an issue in former communist countries, Putin has tried to model himself as a friend to the Russian Jewish community. This could help the Israeli government's reelection chances, McDowell says.

"On a more fundamental level, the shift in relations has been driven by the growing community of post-Soviet Jewish immigrants into Israel," he says. "The Yisrael Beiteinu party of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has made Russophone Israelis a principal base of support and they are an increasingly influential electoral block."

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