Shimon Peres made his first visit to Russia this week since assuming Israel’s presidency in 2007. Out of a four-hour discussion with Dmitry Medvedev held in Sochi on the Black Sea came several diplomatic announcements. As with Foreign Minister Lieberman’s visit in June, this one concluded with a boilerplate affirmation of both parties’ desire to strengthen relations.
Medvedev averred, moreover, that Russia “would like to upgrade its strategic relations with the State of Israel to the same level as our relations with Germany, France and Italy.” He also said Russia “wanted to actively assist in opening direct negotiations between Israel and Syria”—the next step sought by Israel after its foreign ministry on August 12 proclaimed the Turkish-mediated proximity talks with Syria defunct. (The U.S. Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, spent June and July trying to bring about direct Israel-Syria talks but has not procured an agreement from Syria yet.)
Peres, for his part, announced that he secured a promise from Medvedev to review Russia’s pending sale to Iran of the S-300 air-defense system. Previous similar requests from Lieberman and Netanyahu produced noncommittal responses from Moscow, and the Kremlin has declined to comment on Peres’s statement this week. Less noticed in the U.S. media was a joint statement issued by Peres and Medvedev that implicitly linked “denial” of the Soviet Union’s role in defeating Nazi Germany with denial of the Holocaust. “We express our deep indignation at attempts to deny the great contribution that the Russian people and other peoples of the Soviet Union brought to the victory over Nazi Germany and also to deny the Holocaust of European Jews,” their statement said.
This apparently minor diplomatic communication follows a move by the European members of the OSCE in early July to proclaim the same remembrance day (August 23) for the victims of Stalinism and Nazism. This proposal, politically freighted for both Russia and Eastern Europeans, was passed overwhelmingly by the OSCE Parliament after Russia walked out on the deliberations. The endorsement from Israel’s president of the Soviet Union’s non-complicity with Nazi Germany is clearly a moral prize of some significance for Russia.
Acknowledging the character of Stalinism is not, of course, the same thing as denying the role of the USSR in defeating Nazi Germany. But it strains no ethical boundaries for Israel to focus on endorsing a commemoration of that role and to offer the diplomatic gesture Russia seeks. More significant is the fact that Shimon Peres was in Russia wielding such bargaining chips in the first place. As with Russian-born Avigdor Lieberman, Peres’s birth in what is now Belarus (then Poland) has been touted as an advantage in negotiating with Russia, which has been a growing priority for Israel. The Jewish state has put its official imprimatur on political comparisons that invoke the Holocaust. Doing so here argues a growing desire in Jerusalem to bargain for hard commitments from Russia and an emerging view of Russia as a key security player in the Middle East.
Given the Obama administration’s intensive cultivation of Arab leaders as its approach to formulating a yet-to-be-unveiled Middle East peace plan, Israel’s initiatives with Russia serve to keep some increasingly significant options open. Peres, Netanyahu, Lieberman, and Ehud Barak will have no illusions about Moscow’s trustworthiness. But necessity for Israel may be opening a strategic window for Russia that the U.S. will wish had remained shut.