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Case Analysis 24 July, 2012

Russian-Israeli Cooperation: Putin Pays Netanyahu a Visit

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Russian President Vladimir Putin, accompanied by a high-level delegation of 350 Russian businessmen and officials, was feted upon his arrival in Israel on June 25.[1] It was the second such visit by the Russian president, after his first official visit to the country in 2005 (during his second presidential term). The visit served to bolster a wide-held a perception among analysts of Russian-Israeli relations, particularly those concerned with how the Arab-Israeli conflict impacts Russian-Israeli relations and cooperation between the two sides: the conclusion being that the role of ideology in Russian foreign relations is waning. Instead, the influence of nationalist politics for this great nation-state is increasingly important, thereby giving the large community of Russian émigré Israelis, which is largely made up of the former Soviet professional and technical elite, greater importance. While the community, by-and-large, maintains their Russian culture, they also stand out for their zealously Zionist positions. They have also succeeded in establishing an influential political party to represent their views, Yisrael Beitanu, a party that has won a significant number of seats in the Israeli Knesset and even managed to place one of their numbers, Avigdor Lieberman, in the office of Foreign Minister. In addition to Liebermann, the visit gave Putin the opportunity to meet with Israeli Premier Netanyahu, the State's President Shimon Peres, and Minister of Defense Ehud Barak.[2] Putin also began his sojourn by attending a ceremony at monument for the veterans of the Soviet Red Army.

This latest visit by Putin also fits into a pattern visits exchanged between dignitaries of the two states over the last ten years. In fact, all of the Israeli prime ministers to be in office during this period, including Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu, have been to Moscow, as have Israeli President Shimon Peres, Defense Minister Barak, and Foreign Minister Lieberman.[3] These visits are also part of a general development in Russian-Israeli relations. Being freed from the burden of ideology, these relations are now increasingly based on: the growing importance of Israeli immigrant communities, whose roots lie in Russia or in the Former Soviet Union more generally; the Russian need for sophisticated Israeli technology; and the Israeli need for leverage with the Russians when it comes to questions of Russia's foreign policy planning, particularly on matters related to the Arab-Israeli conflict and Iranian attempts to obtain nuclear technology.


Reasons to Visit

Putin had sent an unofficial letter to the Israeli authorities informing them of his desire to receive an invitation to visit within a short period.[4] Notably, it was to become his fourth foreign visit, coming only two months after his election: the earlier destinations were France, Germany, and China. While no single reason can be given as an explanation for this Russian desire to conduct this visit only shortly after Putin's 2012 election, there are some obvious factors explaining this interest. Russia's interested in expanding Russian-Israeli trade and economic relations, as well as cooperation in sophisticated industries between them. A further explanation is found in the Israeli military-political establishment, where it is believed that Putin's aim in concluding the visit was to give added exposure to Russia's role in the Middle East in general, particularly in the Syrian situation.[5] The Russians, with their ambitions for a prominent regional role in the Middle East, cannot rely on taciturn Arab public opinion, and will, therefore, maintain strong relations with the Israelis to maintain a geostrategic advantage in a changing Middle East.

The Israelis meanwhile have invested great importance in the visit, seeing an opportunity to enhance political, commercial, and economic ties with Russia. In addition, the Israelis sought to arrive at an understanding with the Russian president on two issues it regards as vital: the changing environment in Syria and the Iranian nuclear program. A quote from a high-ranking Israeli official underscores the importance of these two cases for the Israelis: "Russia enjoys a special level of influence when it comes to both the Iranian nuclear program and the Syrian situation. This is why we have invested this visit with so much import. It is an opportunity for us to have an exchange of ideas and an attempt to influence the Russian position on these two issues."[6]

Russia's Need for Sophisticated Technology

While the Israeli government recognizes that its ability to influence the Russian position on these two counts is limited, officials within their foreign ministry believed themselves to be in possession of two important bargaining chips when it comes to dealing with the Russians. The first of these is the sophisticated technology, which the Israelis possess, and the Russians want, particularly that which is related to the production of unmanned drones. A second bargaining chip the Israelis control is their stated willingness to allow the Russian gas companies, like Gazprom, to explore and extract natural gas on the fields offshore from the Palestinian coastline.[7] It is worth pointing out that the Russians have followed the Chinese and Indian examples of building on functional relations with the Israelis, based on a reliance on Israeli-supplied nanotechnology and other sophisticated products. The Israelis, meanwhile, extract political gains from this. It is arguable that the lack of significant criticism of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians on the part of the Russians, Chinese, and Indians, and their recent lack of support for Arab positions, are a reflection of the changes in this foreign policy.

Israeli sources have claimed that Russia purchased three different models of Israel-manufactured unmanned drones, totaling 15 vehicles, in 2009. In this way, Israel became only the second state after the Second World War to supply Russia with arms, the first being France. It is noteworthy that Russian attempts to reverse-engineer this Israeli technology and produce their own sophisticated drones, code-named the Avionics project, failed. This fact drove the Russian government to propose a Russian-Israeli joint venture, valued at USD 200 million, to begin manufacturing in 2010. According to the terms of the proposed agreement, the Russians would purchase no fewer than 100 such aircraft once produced.[8]

For such an agreement to go through, however, the US Department of Defense would have to agree to it since much of the Israeli technology in question is either American in origin or the result of American-Israeli joint ventures. Certain statements made by Russian officials indicate a belief that such US approval could be forthcoming. On the eve of Putin's visit to Tel Aviv, for example, the Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, Dmitry Rogozin, who is responsible for the Russian military manufacturing portfolio, stated that his country was in negotiations with the Israelis to enhance technological cooperation between the two sides. The aim of these talks, said Rogozin, was to produce a novel type unmanned drone to be put to use by both sides and sold to third countries.[9] There is no room for political convictions or considerations in this kind of setting; all actions are taken on purely pragmatic grounds.

Questions on Iran and Syria

Questions regarding both the Iranian nuclear program and the Syrian uprising have taken up a large part of the Russian-Israeli discussions during the Putin visit. No verifiable claims suggesting that the Israelis were able to influence Russia on these two scores appeared in Israeli media, although one high-ranking Israeli political official provided positive comments on the discussions between Putin and Netanyahu, stating that "Netanyahu and Putin managed to find a common language," adding that discussions on the Iranian matter between the two sides were "... frank, with Putin giving the impression that discussing the Iranian matter [with the Russians] was worthwhile [for the Israelis], and that it was not the case that each simply wanted to re-state its own position".[10]

During the discussions between the two leaders, Netanyahu had requested that Russia remain cohesive with the Group of Six (the five permanent members of the Security Council, including Russia itself, and Germany) when it came to the Iranian matter, and display a firm stance with respect to Iran. Putin and Netanyahu agreed to continue a robust and direct dialogue on matter pertaining to the Iranian nuclear issue.[11] According to a statement made by Netanyahu following his meeting with Putin, "... [they] are in agreement that an Iran armed with nuclear weapons would be a threat not only to Israel but to the entire world".[12] Demanding that the international community should also tighten the sanctions regime placed on Iran, Netanyahu made three indirect demands of the Iranians: that they should stop enriching Uranium; that the enriched Uranium already in the country should be pushed out; and that the underground nuclear facility in Qom should be dismantled.[13] Putin, meanwhile, restricted his comments on Iran to generalities, saying in general that his discussions with Netanyahu were "useful".[14] In the same vein, Putin remarked that "the region in which the Israelis find themselves is considerably important to the international community, and it is within Russia's national interest to safeguard Israel's peace and stability," adding that he was "committed to Israel's safety" and that "the topics discussed by the two side would be treated seriously and appropriately by the Russians".[15]These statements suggest something of a Russian promise to look into Israeli fears about long-term Russian foreign policy planning.

On other topics, particularly such things as the Russian role in defeating Nazi Germany, Putin was much more generous with his words. He was also more willing to talk about the nearly one million Russians who emigrated to become Israeli citizens during a 15-year period in the last century. On the fate of these former Russian citizens who migrated to Israel, Putin said: Russia would not allow their safety to be threatened, and would work to preserve, in particular, cultural ties with this group of people.[16]

In addition to the above, the Russian-Israeli discussions also addressed the ongoing situation in Syria. Here again, no evidence suggesting the Israelis could exert influence on the Russians has been made publicly available. The Israelis, meanwhile, have been moving increasingly close to the Western consensus on Syria, exploiting Arab public sensitivities on the issue and agitating against Iran, in a naked attempt to create a common Arab-Israeli enmity towards Iran. However, the most important issue for the Israelis to discuss in this regard was the issue of Russian arms exports to Syria. Netanyahu demanded, particularly during this time of instability within Syria, that Russian weapons exports to the country should be halted. The Israelis also alleged that there was a risk of unconventional weapons such as biological and chemical munitions, being passed on from the Syrians to Hezbollah and other similar groups.[17] 

Putin, meanwhile, did not veer away from his country's general line on Syria, at least not publicly. While he stated that there was no specific Russian commitment to keeping Bashar al-Assad in power, he also stressed Russia's strategic relations with Syria. Putin affirmed his country's opposition to any Western intervention in Syria, particularly any military intervention aiming to topple the Syrian regime. In Putin's words, "The results of such an action should be thought about before it is taken. Look at what happened to Iraq and Afghanistan ... [Western military intervention in Syria] would not be very wise. Would the Syrian opposition which comes to power after such intervention be to the West's liking or just the opposite? One should think carefully of this."[18]


Putin's Visit: Economic Aspects

Trade and economic ties between the Russians and the Israelis took up much of the discussions Putin and his attendant retinue held with their hosts. The two parties gave particular interest to industries including energy and gas, high-technology, space, tourism, and agriculture. The composition of the 350-strong delegation that accompanied Putin, which was made up largely of businessmen and bureaucrats, reflects the importance the Russians attach to an upgrading of Russian-Israeli relations.

Much of the prepared groundwork for the visit was made up of the 10 Russian-Israeli trade agreements signed between 1994 and 2010.[19] The first of these agreements, in 1994, covered cooperation in science and technology, tourism, culture and education, medicine and biomedical sciences, agricultural and auxiliary industries, and aviation. A second agreement, signed in 1996, covered telecommunications and postal cooperation; this was followed by a 1997 agreement on fighting crime between the two sides. Two further agreements, one to resolve double-taxation issues and the other governing the establishment of reciprocal cultural centers in the two countries, were concluded in 2000, before a 2010 accord on military-security cooperation.[20] 

According to economics-focused The Marker, the discussions during this particular visit focused on the following areas:[21]

1)      Energy cooperation: The state-owned Russian gas company Gazprom stated its intention to make use of recently discovered gas fields lying off of the Palestinian coast. The visiting Russian delegation made clear their intention for Gazprom to establish an Israeli subsidiary, which would carry the responsibility for exploring for the gas, taking it onshore, and moving it to market. The Israelis, for their part, welcomed these suggestions, pointedly stating that any international bidding for such contracts would be open to Gazprom. This would not be the first such foray for Gazprom, which previously won an Israeli tender to extract shale oil in the south of historical Palestine, a project soon to be executed. Cooperation in the fields of energy and gas extraction from the East of the Mediterranean would introduce a novel element into Russian-Israeli relations, which, clearly, will have impact on Arab-Turkish relations and interests in the Mediterranean Basin.

2)      Nanotechnology cooperation: Both parties had previously signed an agreement on cooperation in nanotechnology, with the Russian Rusnano company - the company CEO was a member of the visiting delegation - setting up an Israeli subsidiary for its activities. Rusnano Israel, the company established by Rusnano, works to build links with Israeli partner companies, and often acquires them.

3)      Cooperation in space: Also accompanying Putin was the former head of the Russian Space Agency. With Israeli satellites having already been launched from Russian launching stations, the Russians were keen to expand cooperation in this field, particularly in the acquisition of advanced Israeli technology for the manufacture of miniature satellites and auxiliary systems.

4)      Cooperative Tourism: The Israelis were also keen to promote tourism links between the two countries. Russian tourists, arriving in one of about 80 weekly flights, make up one of the largest groups of visitors to Israel. With 500,000 arriving annually for their holidays, they are second only to Americans, and bring in USD 1 billion to Israel. The Russian-Israeli discussions held the possibility of expanding Russian tourism at the Dead Sea and also to Jerusalem.[22] 


Expanding Russian-Israeli Trade Ties

The volume of Russian-Israeli trade stood at USD 2 billion in 2011, an increase of 25% compared to 2010. During the same period (2010-2011), the value of Israeli exports to Russia increased 17%, to USD 954 million, in comparison to a 34% increase in the value of Russian exports being purchased by Israelis, which during 2011 were valued at USD 1.053 billion. The pattern remained in place for Israeli exports from January to April of 2012, with Israeli exports to Russia reaching USD 384 million, a 3% increase on the same period the previous year. Russian exports purchased by Israelis, meanwhile, dropped 20% of their value in those three months, compared to the same period of 2011, and were valued at USD 227 million.[23]


Evaluating the Visit: Some Conclusions

The issues addressed by Putin and his accompanying delegation fell into two categories: political and economic. Both sides came to the table with the intention of improving the ties between them, with the Russians focusing on improving a combination of economic and technology ties with the Israelis, and the Israelis remaining focused exclusively on trade and economic issues. It should be noted that, when it comes to Russian-Israeli cooperation in the field of high-technology, US positions remain an important consideration.

This latest visit makes it quite clear to those who pay attention that today's Russia is nothing like the previous USSR. There is no room for sentiment in its dealing with affairs relevant to the Arabs, and the country will move only to serve its own interests. In this regard, Russian self-interest trumps whatever may or may not remain of the old Arab-Soviet alliance. It is an alliance that no longer serves any purpose; it is no longer justified, with the Soviet Union itself facing its own collapse.

On the political front, there is no publicly available material to suggest that the Israelis succeeded in persuading the Russians of their point of view when it comes to either one of the two important issues up for discussion: the Iranian nuclear program or the Syrian question. The Israelis pressed Putin on the need for Russia to respect the UN Security Council sanctions on Iran, as well as the need to prevent advanced Russian weapons going from Syria to Iran, thus posing the risk of a change in the balance of powers in the Middle East. With this in mind, Israeli technological prowess, particularly in the field of nanotechnology, and its strong ties with the US and the all-powerful Zionist lobby within it, serves as inducements the Israelis can offer prospective partners, such as Russia or the Asian powers. Such an approach has already proved fruitful, as seen in the cases of China and India; in the Chinese case, the Israelis managed to build strong ties with the People's Republic in spite of strong US criticism.

Even when it comes to the case of the Iranian nuclear program, Putin's statement expressing his country's commitment to the safety and security of Israel seems to parrot the stance of US President Obama on Iran, with the caveat that Russia's own shared interests with Iran necessitate a slight difference in approach. The burden now is on the Arabs to find an institutional, political expression that can, at the very least, provide a conceptual framework for what the common Arab interest might be. Only then will it be possible for the Arabs to create meaningful alliances with foreign powers, making use of what they have at their disposal, abandoning the hackneyed platitudes of "shared history" and "friendship between nations".


Possible Outcomes

A number of different possible scenarios for the development of Russian-Israeli relations are possible. Some of the most important facts to keep in mind include:

1)      It is important to keep in mind that, as the Middle East becomes a new stage for Russian-Western competition, Russia will find ways to gradually it improve its relations with the Israelis, in an effort to balance Turkish attempts to have a greater say in the Caucasus.

2)      The Israelis are likely to try and strengthen their ties with the Moscow-Athens-Nicosia axis, particularly as much of the offshore gas fields discovered in the Eastern Mediterranean basin appear to be in disputed waters.

3)      It is likely that Russia will want to heighten cooperation with the Israelis in the realm of military technology, given that the latter are now a major world supplier in the field.

4)      Both Russia and Israel share an enmity towards democratization in the Arab countries and also a fear of "radical groups".

5)      The Russians and the Israelis do indeed have a difference of opinion over Iran, public statements to the contrary notwithstanding, yet it remains very unlikely that Russia will come to Iran's aid in the event of an Israeli attack.

6)      Both sides share a certain perspective on American policies in the Middle East in that they both realize that it is unstable, and that a diversification of alliances with external powers will benefit both the Israelis and the Russians, in the medium to long term.

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[1] Shlomo Cesana, Yori Yalon, Nitzi Yakov, "Iran focus of Russian president's visit to Israel", Israel Hayom, June 26, 2012: http://www.israelhayom.co.il/site/newsletter_article.php?id=18576&newsletter=26.06.2012. The delegation accompanying President Putin included a large number of Russian government ministers, their deputies, as well as high-ranking officials and consultants, as well as a number of businessmen. Importantly, the delegation included a number of émigré Russian-Jewish tycoons. For more information, see also Adi Dovrat, Nati Toker et al, "Putin's visit: Who are the Jewish tycoons accompanying Russia's President?", The Marker, July 1, 2012 (Hebrew):http://www.themarker.com/misc/article-print-page/1.1745242.

[2] Chaim Gridinger, "Putin in Israel: ‘We will do all we can to ensure that the crimes of the Nazis are not repeated,'" Maariv, June 25, 2012, http://www.nrg.co.il/online/1/ART2/380/524.html.

[3] Dov Ben-Meir, Foreign Policy: History, Goals and Mission, Yediot Aharonot Books, Tel Aviv, 2011, p. 44.

 

[4] Barak Ravid, "In Israel, no one is sure how to enlist Putin in the fight against Iran," Haaretz, June 22, 2012,

http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/in-israel-no-one-is-sure-how-to-enlist-putin-in-the-fight-against-iran.premium-1.440505. See also Hebrew original: http://www.haaretz.co.il/misc/article-print-page/1.1737740.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ben-Meir, op. cit., p 448.

[9] Ravid, op. cit. 

[10] Elie Shvidler and Jonathan Lis, "Putin to Netanyahu: We want to cooperate on the Iranian nuclear question and on Iran," Haaretz, June 25, 2012 (Hebrew edition).

[11] Ibid.

 

[12] Eric Bender, "Netanyahu: A peaceful solution is simple; Abu Mazen need to meet," Maariv, June 25, 2012:

http://www.nrg.co.il/online/1/ART2/380/579.html?hp=1&cat=404.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Cesana, Yalon, Yakov, op. cit.

[15] Shvidler and Lis, op. cit.

[16] Bender, op. cit.

[17] Bender, op. cit.

[18] Bender, op. cit.

[19] Ben-Meir, op. cit., pp. 448-450.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ora Koren, "Putin in Israel: Gazprom to establish an Israeli subsidiary," The Marker, June 26, 2012 (Hebrew):

  http://www.themarker.com/misc/article-print-page/1.1740666.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.