Scorned by Obama, Israel Forged Ties With Russia, Expert Says
December 22, 2016
By Rafael Medoff
According to a leading expert on the Middle East, Russia and international security, Israel’s tense relationship with the United States over the last eight years compelled it to forge valuable ties elsewhere, including, crucially, with the former Soviet Union.
Dr. Ariel Cohen — a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank and director of the Center for Energy, Natural Resources and Geopolitics — told JNS.org, “With President [Barack] Obama and the Left-wing of the Democratic Party turning against Israel, Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu has made a great effort to build [a] better relationship with Russia,” one that remains “complicated,” but in which there has “clearly [been] a tremendous improvement” in recent years.
Mutually beneficial results of this relationship include “significant trade relations, tourism and medical ties, with thousands of Russians going to Israel every year for medical treatment and teams of Israeli doctors visiting Russia to share their expertise and advice,” Cohen said.
Additionally, though “the Russians consistently vote against Israel at the United Nations and other international forums,” Cohen said in a Dec. 20 conference call sponsored by the Endowment for Middle East Truth, the Soviets showed unflappable support for the Palestinian cause, and was the “main supporter and funder of Palestinian terrorism,” while modern-day Russia is “nowhere near” as involved in the conflict and “does not actively support Hamas or other Palestinian terrorist groups.”
“[Russian President Vladimir] Putin is not going out of his way to push Israel toward accepting a Palestinian state. He has much bigger fish to fry in the Middle East,” Cohen said. “This is a very significant change.”
Cohen added that, though Russia’s regional involvement — including allying itself with Iran and the Bashar Assad regime in Syria — conflict with the Jewish state’s interests, there have not been direct confrontations between the two. The Russians have refrained from attacking Israeli missions to bomb weapons convoys traveling from Syria to Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, and did not even interfere when casualties of Israeli strikes included an Iranian general, Cohen noted.
But, he cautioned, “Russian foreign policy is deeply cynical,” humanitarian considerations are completely irrelevant to Putin and Moscow does not balk from constructing temporary alliances of convenience.
For example, Russia’s relations with Iran are “not based on any shared values…but on their mutual hostility toward the United States,” Cohen said, and changes in regional circumstances could quickly alter Moscow’s strategy.
Cohen said he believes that Israel’s expanded international relations — which, beyond Russia, include warm ties with India, African countries and Muslim-majority nations — was forced by the Obama administration’s general distaste for foreign involvement.
“Israel became just one in a long line of traditional American allies in the Middle East whom the Obama administration distanced itself from, including the [Abdel Fattah El] Sisi regime in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states. So naturally Israel has had to look elsewhere for allies, even temporary ones,” he said.
Looking ahead to the Trump administration, Cohen said that the new President’s first focus will “undoubtedly” be on fighting the Islamic State, but that Trump will soon have learn the complexities of the Middle East landscape and that Putin “is a really tough customer.”
Israel will have to wait and watch how the next year’s events play out, Cohen said.