Why Netanyahu Flew to Moscow to Meet Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Russia, September 21. Netanyahu said his visit to Moscow on Monday was aimed at preventing clashes between Russian and Israeli military forces in the Middle East. Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Pool/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

What do Andrzej Duda and Benjamin Netanyahu have in common?

The answer is Russia.

Duda is president of Poland and Netanyahu is prime minister of Israel.

For Poles, Russia is a never-ending problem and has been one throughout Polish history. Watching Putin maneuver against Georgia and Ukraine, take Crimea and part of Georgia by force, and threaten NATO countries, all of Poland's traditional fears of its big neighbor are called to mind.

So the Poles rely on both their membership in NATO and their own arms buildup for national security. They have under way a multi-year arms program, increasing defense spending each year and exceeding their NATO peers in percentage terms over and over again.

Netanyahu may have thought that Russia was no worry, given simple geography and the fact that American foreign policy and military strength had kept the Russians out of the Middle East for a half century. But then along came Barack Obama, and now the Russians have made a major move in Syria.

The American reaction—thus far, one phone conversation by John Kerry and one by Ashton Carter—will not have deterred Putin, so Netanyahu on September 21 flew to Moscow to talk with the Russians.

What's the problem? After all, Russia appears determined to use force to keep Assad in power, but Israel has never had a policy of expelling Assad. That was Mr. Obama's announced policy, not Mr. Netanyahu's.

Israel problem is that in keeping Assad in office, Putin is becoming an ever more important ally of Iran and Hezbollah, who have been fighting for Assad for three years now. Indeed Assad would be long gone despite Russian arms sales if Iran and Hezbollah did not have troops on the ground (estimates are 5-6,000 from Hezbollah) doing what his own army can no longer successfully do.

So Russia is now a Hezbollah and Iranian ally and their military ties will grow as they work for the same goals on the same territory in Syria.

A Russian alliance with Iran and Hezbollah is bad enough in principle. It is worse in practice, for Israel has long had a policy of interdicting arms transfers from Iran or Syria to Hezbollah. All those Israeli bombing runs in Syria (bombing runs our own military says are just too difficult and dangerous, if not impossible, due to Syrian air defenses) are aimed at blowing up such transfers.

Will Israel be able to do that if Syria and Hezbollah have new Russian anti-aircraft weaponry, manned by Russians? Might some Russians be killed—and then what? Because the Syrian rebels and the Islamic State forces arrayed against the Assad regime have no air force—zero aircraft are at their disposal—just who is supposed to be deterred by Russian anti-aircraft batteries? The United States? Israel?

So Netanyahu has plenty to talk about with Putin. Today, for the first time since Russian forces were ordered out of Egypt by Anwar Sadat in 1972, Israel must contend with this threat. Like the Poles, Israelis must now study the military positioning and the military intentions of Putin and his generals. Like the Poles, Israel must contend with a region once understood to be under impregnable American protection, but now seen as up for grabs.

Few goals of American foreign policy have been more less contentious, more broadly understood and agreed and more successful for the last fifty years than keeping the Russians out of the Middle East. The collapse of that policy will be one of Mr. Obama's worst and most dangerous legacies.

Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations . This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations website.