After visits by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and President Shimon Peres this year, it was only a matter of time before Binyamin Netanyahu himself went to Russia. The clandestine nature of his brief jaunt to Moscow this week has naturally gotten all the media attention. Sources cited in the Russian and Israeli press have focused on Moscow’s pending sale of the S-300 air-defense system to Iran and Jerusalem’s repeated request that Medvedev and Putin reconsider it. Adding to the speculation are rumors Netanyahu was updating Russian leaders on intelligence regarding Iran’s nuclear program, briefing them on Israeli plans to attack Iran, and discussing a Mossad connection with the hijacking of M/V Arctic Sea, the Russian-crewed ship seized under bizarre circumstances in July.
We can confidently dismiss the theories that Israel’s prime minister went to Russia as an intelligence briefer or as the envoy in a hijacking matter, functions his subordinates exist to perform. Netanyahu himself going to Russia, clandestinely and without the fanfare of a protocol-intensive state visit, means high-level horse trading. The obvious subjects would be the interrelated ones of the S-300 sale, President Obama’s deadline to Iran, and the prospect of tightened UN sanctions. Israel and Russia can make commitments (or issue threats) on, respectively, an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, and Russia’s role in both arms and nuclear sales to Iran and in approving UN sanctions. That Netanyahu visited Moscow personally suggests a desire on Israel’s part to come away with a firm commitment.
What is little remarked on in all the speculation, both inside Israel and abroad, is the sea change in Israel’s orientation to Russia, evident in the frequency and character of these visits. Attributing the emerging Moscow-Jerusalem connection to the Russian heritage of many immigrants is a facile analysis that takes too narrow a view. This factor is a lubricant of policy, not an explanation. Netanyahu is far less likely to be guided by sentiment than by pragmatic calculation, and the calculation he appears to be operating from is that Israel’s security is no longer well served by exclusive alignment with the United States and our Middle Eastern policies. In blunter terms, he sees it as necessary to develop a collateral partnership with Russia because the patronage of Obama’s America cannot be relied on to produce security for Israel—starting with applying pressure to Russia itself.
Russia spent the Cold War trying to achieve the same leverage in the Middle East that the U.S. wielded. Moscow’s clients were poor, fractious, and unreliable, unlike Washington’s prize trio of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and pre-1979 Iran. Russia’s longstanding interest in the region, and its importance to Russian security and ambitions, gives Israel something to bargain with beyond trade. In light of the historic Russian-Saudi arms deal concluded this month (capping a several-year period of improving relations), and Russia’s function as Iran’s chief patron for nearly two decades, Moscow’s courtship with Israel has about it the aspect of a thorough client-poaching. Obama, meanwhile, has concentrated on outreach to the autocratic Arab nations that were all Soviet clients in the Cold War years, most of which remain entrenched Russian clients.
Bibi will do what he must to secure Israel’s future. In cultivating a meaningful relationship with Russia, he is acting with pragmatic statesmanship. This should, in turn, illuminate a disquieting reality for Americans. We have the means, and we still have the time, to rebalance this situation in our favor. But our staunchest and most politically sympathetic Middle Eastern ally is spending an unprecedented amount of leadership time in Russia and is looking to Russia for the kind of diplomatic commitments that the special relationship with us used to obviate entirely. The ground under our position in the Middle East is already shifting.