In a night at the opera, Prime Minister Netanyahu must have explained to Russian President Vladimir Putin that the buildup of Iranian forces in Syria is a definite redline for Israel. Similarly, the Kremlin leader must have emphasized his own existential angst over the expansion of the EU and NATO into the Ukraine. Certainly, Israel’s four-term leader must have iterated to the security-minded Russian leader that Israel’s eastern line of defense needed to be on and above the Jordan River Valley. Bibi might have asked between arias — “Can you imagine Russia with a nine-mile-wide strategic depth”?
In Soviet times, such a question would have been considered absurd, but no longer. Now Russia faces a so-called self-defined defensive alliance (NATO) with designs on approaching Russia’s European border (a short distance to Moscow). Is it any wonder that from a Russian perspective, the demise of the Soviet Union has become a geopolitical disaster? However, in Soviet times, the warm welcome of an Israeli leader to Moscow would have been considered unthinkable. The times appear to have changed. But have they really?
Russia’s security challenges on its Western front now hearken back to the insecure period just prior to WWII. Equally daunting are Israel’s diplomatic challenges regarding its own security. The world (including Russia) seems hell-bent on a complete Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. The idea of “land for peace” without a strong security component is not just an anathema to Israel, it could (if instituted) become national suicide. Yet such a withdrawal appears to be the essential criteria of the Arab Peace Initiative. Couldn’t the same be said for the French-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian Peace Conference, or the new Quartet (US-EU-UN-Russia) document, or a potential US-sponsored Security Council resolution?
Bibi must have explained to Putin his anxiety over any UN Security Council resolution that would de-link Israel’s security requirements from the prospects of a Palestinian state on the West Bank. Such a resolution would be the complete overthrow of the UN Security Council’s Middle East security architecture established in the aftermath of the unsuccessful Arab offensive against a truncated nine-mile-wide Israel in 1967. Netanyahu must have addressed all these security issues with Putin. He certainly must have pointed out the absurdity of allowing the aggressor in war to achieve the status-quo ante without any alteration to the precipitating conditions. If this were the case, would Russia be willing to withdraw from Kaliningrad? Of course, Russia has the diplomatic luxury of a UN Security Council veto. But Israel does not.
Surely the Russian president must have been astonished (outwardly) that Netanyahu was worried that the US under President Obama might initiate (and not veto) such a resolution. But after the Iran nuclear deal, the American retreat from Iraq, the absence of any push-back against Iran in Syria, the demise of Lebanon, the build-up of a vast Iranian-Hezbollah missile arsenal aimed at Israel’s civilian population and the Iranian testing of long-range missiles — whose only purpose could be to deliver nuclear weapons — now, anything is possible. In such times, all of America’s allies in the Middle East are seriously worried about Washington. This is especially true of Israel.
So maybe Putin isn’t so astonished after all. Inwardly perhaps, Putin senses an opening. The US’s inattentiveness to its Middle East allies has given Moscow some leverage throughout the region. Perhaps the shrewd Russian leader might even consider a potential veto of his own. Obama beware. But when it comes to Syria, Israel’s redlines are in direct contradiction to Iran’s. But Russia desperately needs Iran in order to maintain the necessary ground force pressure on Assad’s opposition. Because without Assad, and Iran’s help, Russia has no real position in the Middle East.
So besides dairy equipment and Obama bashing, what else might Israel and Russia concoct for future cooperation in the Middle East? Israel needs to know three things. First, will Iran be allowed to increase its force projection on the ground in Syria? Second, what is Russia’s bottom line on Israel’s West Bank security dimension? And third, under what conditions would Russia accept a Geneva I political solution to the Syrian civil war?
Israel wants Iran out of Syria, period. Accomplishing such a mission will require an unprecedented level of cooperation between the US and Russia. But such cooperation is hardly on the horizon. So, how might the countries of the Middle East begin to form the embryo of a plan to rebalance the security dimension of the entire region, while coaxing Russia and the US to shift their respective foreign policy orientations toward a similar compromise in Europe? There is only one country in the world that straddles both Europe and the Middle East, and that country is Turkey.
Like Israel, Turkey wants Iran out of Syria as well. But isolating Iran from Syria will require US-Russian military cooperation. Turkey will need the diplomatic support of all the Sunni Arab states and Israel to begin to broach such an endeavor. This will require not only an alternative regional peace plan, but also the beginning of a Turkish reorientation away from the NATO alliance system. Such a far-reaching rapprochement must suggest an end to the current dysfunction in Europe as well as a complete understanding on the military future of the Middle East. But unlike the Arab Peace Initiative, a new Turkish-Egyptian-Israeli initiative must include the future of all nuclear programs within the region in conjunction with a definitive answer to the question of a proper Israeli conventional security border.
In order to accomplish such an alternative Middle East peace plan, Russia will need to acknowledge Israel’s legitimate conventional security on the West Bank and understand that the end to an Iranian presence in Syria is in Russia’s own interest. Russia has to be in agreement with the end-game in both Europe and Syria for there to be a successful end to the political chaos in the Middle East. Unless these two regions (Europe and the Middle East) are dramatically altered, the risk of confrontation from all sides, and in both regions, remains high.
Iranian hegemony cannot be the outcome of either a negligent US policy — whose horizon is only as long as the Iran nuclear deal — or a Russian policy which is pro-Shiite, and whose endgame is unclear and without definition. But NATO-EU hegemony in Europe is unacceptable and counterproductive. Israel-Russia relations cannot simply be tactical. Eventually the two nations must encompass a strategic relationship or return to their past diplomatic dormancy. But Israel cannot choose between the US and Russia. Such a choice is an anathema to Israel’s national interest. Instead Israel must work to understand the needs of both countries and help them find a way forward toward peace.
In that regard, it is essential that Turkey and Israel become partners once again. President Putin is not opposed to such an arrangement. In fact, at his meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister, the Russian leader (to everyone’s surprise) advocated for it. Also in recent days, Mr. Putin even suggested that the Russian-Turkish pipeline (South Stream) was not dead and could certainly be resurrected. Hopefully, the idea of a renewed understanding between Turkey, Israel and Russia can lead to a much larger regional project. But time is running very short. Sooner or later, Russia’s support for the Kurds, her support for Iranian expansion, or a renewed US muscular response anywhere within the region (especially the Black Sea) might set off an explosion.
Russia, Turkey and Israel must want something out of their relationship other than mere atmospherics. As the advanced US aircraft carrier (USS Harry S. Truman) steams around the Mediterranean, military messages are being sent across the globe, including to China. These are dangerous times, and all nations’ foreign policy choices must reflect a willingness to compromise within a security structure of peace and prosperity. The same is true regarding revolutionary Iran. Tehran must never again be attacked from the west (like in 1980). In that regard, any new peace structure for the Middle East must necessitate planks of noninterference from powers outside the region. But at the same time, Iran cannot remain a revolutionary state determined to dominate the Middle East. And Russia has nothing to gain by supporting the long-term ambitions of such a revolutionary state.
Peace through hegemony (US policy since the end of the Cold War) has broken down. In these new times, peace and hegemony have once again become opposites. Therefore, it is vital that the US begin the difficult task of re-imagining its long-term strategic relationships with Europe, the Middle East and Asia. But all the nations of the world must also work toward peace. This is especially true given the complicated and devastating tragedy that has become Syria. This multi-dimensional proxy struggle could still trigger World War III. It is not a time for laxity. The horrifying possibility of global escalation is still very real. Hopefully, the components necessary for the prevention of such a nightmare were the essence of the conversation between the Prime Minister of Israel and the President of Russia at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. If so, I pray: “From their lips to G-d’s ear.”