Netanyahu’s Deal With Putin Goes Wrong

MEMRI.  Hamas Attack Against Israel Benefits Putin’s War In Ukraine
Is Ukraine the winner ?

By Vladislav Davidson, TABLET      OCTOBER 24, 2023

The Hamas massacres in the Israeli south that killed more than 1,400 Israeli civilians and members of the Israeli Defense Forces on October 7th constituted the worst day of violence against Jews since the Holocaust. The terrorist incursion also had the effect of undermining multiple long-standing and delicate balancing acts of regional diplomacy, which rested upon logic, predicates and assumptions that turned out to be delusional. The efficacy and wisdom of the neutrality entente between Moscow and Jerusalem, formerly a pillar of regional security arrangements, suddenly looks a lot less rational or defensible than it did to Israeli leaders before the attack.

Israel’s steadfast commitment to a doctrine of non-intervention in the wars raging in Eastern Europe and the Middle East was a key part of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu’s regional security policy. The original entente reflected the conflict-averse Netanyahu’s desire to keep the Israelis out of the cauldron of the Syrian civil war. Positioning the advancing Iranian forces and their proxies at a remove from Israel’s northern border was a corollary of the deal, which stipulated that the Iranians would be prevented from operating along the Golan Heights, with the Russians acting as a defacto arbitrer of who controlled the territory adjacent to Israel.

Crucially, Moscow allowed the Israeli air force to carry out air strikes against Iranian proxies that operated in Syria, where the IDF would routinely request that Russian missile and air defence systems in Syria be temporarily powered down. The arrangement allowed Israel to stay out of a war in which saw Tehran’s proxies rampaged across Arab lands, but that augmented the power of the ring of Iranian-backed enemies that surrounds Israel. That encirclement further cemented Jerusalem’s military alliance with the Sunni Arab-bloc.

Netanyahu’s arrangement with the Russians allowed the Israeli leader to portray himself as a masterful geopolitical strategist over multiple election cycles. He had always considered his close personal relationship to Russian president Vladimir Putin to be both a political and national asset, grounded in a symbiosis of mutual respect and transactional necessity.

Yet the Netanyahu-Putin relationship had noticeably cooled over the last year-and-a-half before October 7th, for numerous reasons. While Putin genuinely respects – and somewhat fears – Israel, he has continued to balance his relationship with Netanyahu against Moscow’s commitments and alliances within the Arab world as well as with other Muslim allies. Russia’s relationships in the Middle East with powers hostile to Israel represents a direct continuation of the regional position of the Soviet Union; many of the U.S.S.R’s regional terror assets were inherited either directly or indirectly by Iran.

Nevertheless, the Israeli-Russian neutrality pact has constrained Israel from engaging more closely with or arming the Ukrainians against the Russian invasion. In turn, Israel has paid a substantive diplomatic price with numerous allies because of its neutral stance since the start of Russia’s invasion. Many people around the world (including prominent Israelis like the the ex-refusnik leader and former Israeli Cabinet minister Natan Sharansky) have viewed that arrangement as placing Israel on the wrong side of a historical conflagration. The President of Ukraine has repeatedly and fruitlessly deployed his own Jewish background in order to shame Israel into ramping up military assistance.

Yet as the war against Ukraine, which is now well past its 600th day, turned into a disastrous quagmire for Moscow, Putin has turned to his Iranian allies for assistance. While Russia’s alliance with Iran is inherently transactional, it is of ever-growing importance, sanctions have made it difficult for Moscow to procure weapons systems, munitions and microchips. The Russian-Iranian relationship therefore imposes both a new threat to Israel, and a form of commonality – and even solidarity – with Ukraine.

Ukraine and Israel are now both at war with Iran, either openly or by proxy forces that are being directly supplied, trained and commanded by Tehran. This is a fact that Ukrainian military and diplomatic officials have tried to hammer home to their Israeli counterparts over the last 19 months of the Russian invasion. The Iranian-made Shahed suicide drones that Iran first provided to the Russians in the summer of 2022 have been critically important in the drone arms race between the Ukrainians and Russians. These drones have been responsible for the deaths of many Ukrainian civilians in Odessa, Kyiv, and other cities, as well as for the crippling of numerous Ukrainian armored vehicles. The Israeli military has observed the technical capacity of the Iranian drones in the Ukrainian battle zones with great interest. The Russian-Iranian alliance has already destroyed half of all Ukrainian electrical pylons and infrastructure hubs. As a result, Ukrainian athletes now routinely refuse to shake hands with their Iranian competitors while taking part in international sporting events.<

In return for drones and other support, Tehran, which continues clamouring for Russian technical assistance with its nuclear program, was proffered a certain amount of Russian diplomatic support to go with Russian upgrades on their drones. Moscow is also reported to have allowed Iran to build a massive drone factory in Russia. A great deal of discreet cooperation also takes place on the level of bypassing Western sanctions—an art that Tehran has mastered over the past forty years, and which Moscow is now learning.

Last year, Russia also promised to sell Tehran a fleet of modern Russian Su-35 attack fighter jets—a transaction that could have potentially realigned the dynamics of air power in the middle East. However that deal seems to have been halted or scuppered, and the reasons for the deal not taking place have never been publicly explained. Moscow skilfully manages to find a common language between antagonistic Arabs, Iranians and Jews, dealing with each discreetly on their own terms.

Yet because Putin had always been seen as viewing Israeli security concerns with appropriate consideration, his waffling, cagey and diffident response to the Hamas attack took many by surprise. Three days after the assault, Putin proffered his first comments on the war between Israel and Gaza amidst a conversation with the Prime Minister of Iraq. He stated that “it was a clear example of the failure of U.S. policy in the Middle East, in that the Americans had not taken the core interests of the Palestinian people into account (that is working to create an independent Palestinian state).” The statement worked on numerous registers: placating Arab audiences, reassuring the Iranians, restating Russian diplomatic commitments and snubbing the Americans for their lack of skill in executing their chosen policy in the region. In other words, a typical aperçu for the trolling strongman.

It also took the Russian President an entire week-and-a-half to call Netanyahu in order to offer his condolences. Putin reportedly did not even bother to condemn the Hamas assault during the phone call. Ukrainian President Zelensky, meanwhile, was one of the first heads of state to render a call, offering to visit Israel. When that gracious offer of solidarity was declined, Ukrainian media and commentators felt deeply insulted by the rebuff.

Helpfully for Moscow, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has now been relegated to the back pages of the newspapers, sparking arguments within the U.S. Congress about which war to prioritize. Ukrainian elites have privately voiced concern about being isolated in the wake of the attack. Indeed, the Russians have taken the opportunity to embark on a substantial counter-offensive around Avdiivka. It is a counter offensive which is going badly for them, but one which is also succeeding in attriting Ukrainian forces.

While the Russians will doubtless attempt to take full advantage of Hamas’ attack on Israel and have already benefitted greatly from it, that is not apriori evidence of their having had a hand in planning or executing the massacre. The question of who did know about the incipient assault, which surely took months of training and several years of planning, as well as significant outside technical and logistical assistance, remains unanswered.

The technical prowess that would appear to be needed to take down the billion dollar Israeli fence is necessarily either a Russian or Iranian contribution. If the American intelligence services had any early warning of what was about to transpire from active signals intelligence in Lebanon or elsewhere, it seems quite possible that the Russians may have also been offered advance notice by their Iranian allies. Moscow has also not backed Israel in the United Nations over the past weeks. After the Israeli’s destroyed the Damascus and Allepo airports last week, the Russians allowed Iranian military flights – presumably carrying supplies, arms and military advisors – to continue using a Russian military airfield in the north of the country. Yesterday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in Tehran for talks with his Iranian counterpart.

For the past week and a half, some Ukrainian analysts have been attempting to demonstrate the existence of a direct link between the Russians and the Hamas attack. Proof of Russian involvement in the Hamas incursion would doubtless be a world-historical event. Meanwhile, Ukrainians point to the Hamas attack as proof that Netanyahu and the Israelis badly miscalculated in their relationship with Putin, and must now change course.

“Netanyahu is guilty of expecting Putin to remain loyal to his deal with him,” the British-Ukrainian analyst Taras Kuzio complained to me. “I have always thought that the official Israeli arguments for why Israel was not aiding Ukraine – that is to avoid angering Putin in Syria – were overplayed and I find it bizarre that Netanyahu did not view the emboldening of Iran by Russia as a potential security threat to Russia. If Iran is to achieve its objective of a nuclear bomb, that would be because of Russian support.”

“Netanyahu is guilty of expecting Putin to remain loyal to his deal with him,” the British-Ukrainian analyst Taras Kuzio complained to me. “I have always thought that the official Israeli arguments for why Israel was not aiding Ukraine – that is to avoid angering Putin in Syria – were overplayed, and I find it bizarre that Netanyahu did not view the emboldening of Iran by Russia as a potential security threat to Russia.”

“If Iran is to achieve its objective of a nuclear bomb,” Kuzio continued, “that would be because of Russian support.”

Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Russian American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.

October 24, 2023 | 3 Comments »

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3 Comments / 3 Comments

  1. @EvRe1
    Another very astute analysis. I was going to add my own critique of Davidzon’s obvious biased and limited commentary, but it seems you have completed this task quite handily, leaving me to only add my compliments to you on having done so with skill.

  2. I find it strange that this article said nothing about the US role in supporting Iran, making it appear that Russia, alone, empowered Iran to take action against Israel.

    Netanyahu in particular knew full well that Russia/Putin were allies with Iran and Syria, and yet knowing that, he was still able to arrange a military deal with Putin that allowed for de-confliction in Syrian air space. This particular deal was both necessary and useful at that time. I do not think Netanyahu was simple minded enough to think of Putin as Israel’s ally. I think Netanyahu was realistic about Putin and made the best of a difficult situation with him, the best arrangement he could for Israel.

    The War in Ukraine is linked to the War in Israel mainly because the US has funded it.

    The US has paid billions of dollars to support the War in Ukraine, and the US had an opportunity for negotiating an end to the war in Ukraine and did not tell the American people about it, and rejected the offer of negotiations.

    Zelenskyy is not someone that comes across to the world as gracious. He may have been gracious in his condolence call with Netanyahu, but he is an international grifter going from country to country to get money for the war in Ukraine, and I imagine that Netanyahu had his hands full with the attack on his country and could not put time in to listen to his needs for funds or weapons or whatever else he wanted from Israel.

    What needs to be underlined is that it was the US that refused to negotiate a peaceful end to the War in Ukraine. It was the US under Obama and Biden that gave billions of dollars to Iran, and gave half a billion dollars to the Palestinians and additional aid to Hamas. The US has underwritten these costs knowing full well the propensity for Iran and Palestinians to use the money for terrorist activities. Now the US government has basically caused the death and destruction of over a thousand innocent Israelis.

    Putin’s involvement in the War in Ukraine: It was the US that had as its aim regime change in Russia. This has been an ongoing aim of the US military industrial complex for many years. But starting in 2014 with the American led coup in Ukraine, the US has stepped up their goal to destroy Putin and Russia.

    I am sure many who hate Putin were happy about this. But the problem is, it was a major miscalculation on the part of the US. Russia was not weak militarily, it is stronger than the US. Putin is not unpopular in his country, he is more popular in Russia than Biden is in the US. Putin has already won the war in Ukraine, it is just that Biden and his administration don’t know how to admit they have lost.

    Everyone knows that Putin is an ally of Iran. That doesn’t change the fact that Obama and Biden have done everything IN THEIR power to make Iran the hegemon of the Middle East. If Russia helped them, it just underlines the perversity of Obama and Biden wanting to empower both Iran AND Russia, at the same time the US DoD has been trying to destroy Russian power.

    I don’t think the world needs a lesson in Putin hating. I think the world needs to wake up to the efforts of the Washington military establishment which appears to be blundering from one miscalculation to another, leaving death and destruction in their wake.