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Israel - Russia Relations

The Soviet Union recognized the State of Israel upon its declaration of independence in 1948. The Six Day War led to the severing of diplomatic and trade relations between the two countries, which were resumed 25 years later, in 1991, with the dissolution of the USSR. After the resumption of relations, the two countries signed agreements in many fields, including trade and health. Reciprocal visits by senior leaders included the 2012 visit to Israel by President Putin.

The position of an arbiter gives Russia both political leverage in the region and international prestige and for this reason, it would very much like to preserve the status quo of Israeli-Iranian tensions without open conflict.

Over a million Russian-speakers are in Israel as a human bridge between the two countries. The contributions are so immense: in government, as is evident, in every field of life. The presence of Jews from the former Soviet Union, Russian speakers, has changed Israel in ways that are profound and have helped secure Israel's future.

Russia and Israel have strong economic and cultural ties, given the significant population of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union. In 2019, Russian-Israeli trade reached $5bn, bringing Israel into the cohort of Russia’s main trade partners in the region.

Russia needs close coordination with Israel, which plays a significant role in determining security and political arrangements in the Levant (especially through its alliance with the US), to secure its positions in Syria. The stability of a Russian-backed regime in Damascus is contingent on Israel’s cooperation.

While not trusting Russian intentions toward Iran and Syria, the Israelis do see some utility in top-level Russian expressions of commitment to the security and well-being of Israel and especially the roughly two million Israelis who either emigrated from the former Soviet Union or were born in Israel to Soviet emigrant parents.

PM Netanyahu’s remarked at Russia Day celebration in Jerusalem, 14 June 2018, "We never forget the sacrifice of the Russian people and the Red Army in the defeat of the Nazi monster. We know that this was a decisive point in history, and we believe that it should be honored, as we honor it in the great monument that was erected in Netanya, in Israel, to commemorate this courage and the truth. We also know that 400,000, maybe more, Jews fought in the Russian army, in the Red Army.... This is why this year we decided to make Victory Day a national holiday in Israel."

On 23 January 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin travelled to Israel to attend the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp by Soviet forces. This was only his third official trip to the country since he became president in 2001 (he previously visited in 2005 and 2012). Just a week later, on January 30, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu travelled to Moscow to meet the Russian president. This was the fourth trip of the prime minister to Russia over the past year alone. He visited Putin ahead of the Israeli elections in April and September, hoping to boost his electoral chances.

By 2009 stopping the delivery of S-300 surface to air missiles to Iran remained a top Israeli objective and featured prominently in Liberman's discussions. Despite several high-level Israeli interventions, including during the visit to Moscow of former PM Olmert shortly before he left office, the Israeli sense was that the Russians intended to go ahead with delivery of the S-300s. In response to Liberman's comments on the destabilizing effect of the S-300s, the Russian response was that the S-300s are "only destabilizing if you are planning to attack Iran." The Israeli assessment is that fulfilling the contract for the sale of the S-300s is a matter of prestige to Russia. It may also be associated in the Russians' thinking with competition with the U.S. in that the Russians believe the S-300 to be superior to comparable U.S. systems.

Russia has been striking a balancing act between Israel and Iran in the region. By 2015, the Kremlin managed to make Iran and Israel accept the fact that Moscow is not going to choose between them while being equally ready to develop cooperation with both.

This policy has been repeatedly challenged by events surrounding the Syrian civil war, where Israel and Iran have come into direct confrontation. In the spring of 2018, Moscow managed to negotiate an informal agreement between the two countries which largely kept the Iranians and their proxies away from the Syrian-Israeli border in exchange for a halt to Israeli air raids against Iranian positions that did not threaten Israeli security directly.

Since then, the agreement had been violated by both sides repeatedly, but Russia has continued to put pressure on Iran and Israel to de-escalate. The Kremlin has threatened to leave the Iranian forces and proxies without Russian air support and warned Israel that if it continued its aggressive air raids against the Iranians beyond southern Syria, it will supply Damascus with additional air defence systems (S-300, TOR-M1 and etc).

When Russia launched its direct military intervention in Syria in September 2015, Israel welcomed it because it saw it as a way to contain Iran. The two countries reached a mutual understanding not to cross each other’s red lines. While Moscow conceded that Iranian proximity to Israeli borders may be undesirable as it could drag Israel into the Syrian war, Tel Aviv acknowledged the security of the Assad regime was not to be compromised.

On 17 September 2018, an incident involving Israeli F-16 jets resulted in the downing of a Russian reconnaissance plane, killing all 15 of its crew members. The Russian defence ministry accused Israel of being responsible for the tragic incident, saying that the Israeli fighter jets used the Russian aircraft as a shield when the Syrian air defence system started firing at them. It also claimed that Tel Aviv gave a one-minute warning before launching the operation and did not specify that it was going after a target in Latakia province, which is home to Russia’s Hmeimim airbase.

The Israeli government rejected the accusations and even sent a defence delegation to Russia to provide clarification. Its efforts, however, do not seem to have pacified the Russian defence ministry, which on September 24 announced that it was going to deploy a modern S-300 system to Syria. This could curb Israel’s ability to launch air operations in Syria and exacerbate further the already strained Russian-Israeli relations.

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Page last modified: 03-07-2022 15:25:55 ZULU