Israel should beware ally Russia

September 23, 2014 11:35

According to a report this week on Israel's Channel 2, a Ukrainian delegation recently met Israeli officials to discuss purchasing drones, probably to be used against Russian-backed separatists. Israel's Foreign Ministry blocked the sale, fearing that the deal would upset Russia.

Israel has been working quietly in recent years to develop a solid strategic relationship with Russia. Israel's diplomats pointedly stayed away from the UN General Assembly vote in March which condemned Russia's annexation of Crimea, much to the dismay of the US State Department.

Embarrassingly, Israel's Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has in the past expressed open admiration for Russian president Vladimir Putin (although in fairness, Nigel Farage and Alex Salmond have also done so).

Why is Israel so keen to stay on good terms with a country that has provided support for Iran's nuclear programme and remains a close ally of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad?

Well, for one thing, Russia has been careful not to be overly critical of Israel during its recent war with Hamas in Gaza, and has even expressed some understanding for its actions.

Moscow continues to sell arms to Syria and buy oil from Iran

Moreover, Mr Putin himself has shown support for Jewish religious and cultural institutions in Russia, and has spoken out against antisemitism. Significantly, Russia pulled out of a deal in 2010 to sell Iran a S-300 missile system. Israel will want to ensure that Moscow does not change its mind.

However, there are some indications that Israel's approach towards Moscow may be coming unstuck. Russia continues to sell arms to Syria, and some weapons may have reached Hizbollah. Russia built the Bushehr nuclear reactor in Iran some years ago, and announced plans for the establishment of two additional nuclear reactors in March 2014.

Russia also signed a memorandum with Iran on August 5, allowing Tehran to sell it oil in return for the sale of energy equipment, machinery and food. As one of the P5+1 powers which has been negotiating with Iran over its nuclear programme, Russia's understanding with Iran could seriously undermine the efforts to pressure Tehran into stopping its uranium enrichment work, while enabling Iran to evade the sanctions. For Israel, one of the most forceful advocates for robust sanctions against Iran, this is an unwelcome development.

Mr Putin is giving warnings that he has the means to sabotage Western diplomatic efforts over Iran's nuclear programme, in retaliation for the intensified sanctions imposed on Russia following its recent actions. Iran, for its part, claims that the Supreme Leader Khamenei ordered the Russian oil-for-goods contract because he was unhappy about the West's "unreasonable demands". The memorandum of understanding could put Tehran in a much stronger position as the talks with the P5+1 resume.

In the event that Russia steps up its co-operation with Tehran, Israel may need to rethink its policy towards Moscow.

September 23, 2014 11:35

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